Freedom to Read Week – What Does Free Expression Really Mean?

Is propaganda alive? Are we free to read, speak and think what we want? Should there be checks and balances, safeguards against alternative facts and twisted ideas?

Here is an example of quashed freedoms from the back pages of history. In May 1933, in most university towns across Germany, nationalist students marched in torchlight parades and threw pillaged books – many by Jewish writers – into bonfires. In Berlin, some 40,000 people participated.  They were led by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, who addressed the crowd with a carefully crafted speech: “No to decadence and moral corruption. Yes to decency and morality in family and state….And thus you do well in this midnight hour to commit to the flames the evil.”

In that act and others by the Hitler’s Nazi, two arms of propaganda worked together.  One, the manipulation of facts and images. The other, the stifling of free speech. The first advanced Hitler’s twisted ideas; the second ensured that those ideas went unchallenged.

Most democratic countries have laws that protect freedom of expression. Most, too, have laws that prohibit the purposeful skewing of facts, particularly when these denigrate groups and encourage hatred. Admittedly, it can be a slippery slope keeping a balance between the two.

In Canada, February 26 – March 4 is Freedom to Read Week. It’s a time to reflect on the power of words and the freedom of expression that we cherish. The Freedom to Read website lists activities being held around the country in libraries, schools, and public spaces. Also on the website is a list of ‘challenged’ books – books that have been questioned for their content and ideas. Each challenge sought to limit public access. Some challenges were upheld, others rejected. In any case, the list reminds us of the delicate dance between censorship and free expression.

Many children’s books are on the list and I recognized a number of titles. I was often surprised by the objections raised by adult readers and sometimes entire interest groups. Material I might have unquestioningly supported was offensive to others.

Here is a small sample of children’s books that have been challenged in the past decade or two. To fully appreciate the depth and swath of the list as well as the decisions reached by the review committee, I would invite you to visit the website yourself.

Who is Francis Rain? by Margaret Buffie
Novel about a 15 year old girl’s summer on an isolated island with many secrets. Challenged by a school for the use of the words “hell” and “bastard”. 1990

A Little Piece of Ground by Elizabeth Laird
Novel about a 12-year-old Palestinian boy living in an Israeli-occupied area. Challenged by a Canadian bookseller as “a racist, inflammatory, and a totally one-sided piece of propaganda.” 2003

The Waiting Dog by Carolyn Beck and Andrea Beck
Children’s book about a dog anxiously waiting for the mail to be delivered to his home. Challenged by an Ontario parent who objected to depictions of violence and said the work was not age inappropriate. 2006

No Place for Me by Barthe DeClements
Young adult novel about a young girl dealing with her parents’ divorce. Challenged by a parent who said the book promoted the Wicca religion. 1995

The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
Popular children’s book series. Objection from a Newfoundland parent for its depiction of wizardry and magic. 2000

Asha’s Mums by Rosamund Elwin and Michele Paulse
A children’s story book that depicts same-sex parents. Challenged by school trustees for its questionable family values. 1997

Maxine’s Tree by Diane Leger
Children’s book which tells the story of a girl who tries to protect a tree in B.C.’s rainforest. Challenged by an official of the woodworker’s trade union in B.C. for its anti-logging viewpoint. 1992

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