Feb. 23, 2005 - Issue #488: Alternative Oscars 2005
Firemen not allowed
Banned Book Café a fitting occasion to examine censorship battles in
schools and libraries
In the classic novel Fahrenheit 451, Guy Montag is a firemen. But in Ray Bradbury’s fictional world of the future, firemen don’t put out fires; they start them using books as their material of combustion. In the story, books are illegal and whenever some are found, Montag and his fellow operatives are sent out to burn them. Written first as a short story in 1951 and expanded into a novel in 1953, Fahrenheit 451 (the title refers to the temperature at which paper burns), is the classic anti-censorship novel, and not just in the sci-fi world. Bradbury’s most popular novel still resonates today as anti-intellectualism once again reels its ugly head.
According to the February 2005 Challenged Books Update list for Alberta, more than 10 books have been challenged by folks in schools and libraries throughout Alberta. The books on this list range from classic children’s books such as Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, and the Curious George series to young adult titles written by J.K. Rowling and Martyn Godfrey to great novels like Lord of the Flies, The Diviners, The Wars and Huckleberry Finn.
In one of the most publicized challenges, in 1994, Alberta MLA Victor Doerksen called for schools to ban the classic John Steinbeck novel Of Mice and Men. Doerksen, who still sits in the Legislature with the ironic title of Minister of Innovation and Science, called for the ban because, he argued, the language was too profane for high school students. Doerksen also noted that he had not even read the book before calling for its ban in Alberta schools. The event created an uproar and Steinbeck is still taught in Alberta schools.
But in many cases, when a book is challengeed in a community, that book may be removed from a school or library, never to return. Such was the case for Lyle Weis, an Alberta educator and author, when someone challenged his young adult mystery novel No Problem, We’ll Fix It. Apparently, they regarded Weis’s depiction of a functional single-parent family as a criticism of two-parent families.
“One person had pressured the library and the school, and both institutions, being located in a small town, had reacted in fear,” Weis says via e-mail. (Weis is in Florida on vacation.) “When I got word of the banning, I was shocked, stunned, hurt, indignant, smug in my own moral superiority. I couldn’t believe that I, liberal-minded artist that I was, was the focus of such narrow-minded and repressive community response. Suddenly, I was in the league of storied individuals and saw myself in the pages of Fahrenheit 451 and other classics of artistic independence.”
To remind Edmontonians that books are regularly challenged and banned from Alberta schools and libraries, the Book Publishers Association of Alberta, the Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers (CANSCAIP), the Edmonton Public Library (EPL), the Greater Edmonton Library Association (GELA), the Library Association of Alberta (LAA) and the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Alberta are sponsoring a Banned Book Café on February 24 at the Stanley A. Milner Library. The event starts at 7 p.m. and features readings from banned books by members of the EPL’s Teen Advisory Board.
Every month this group of teen volunteers meets to discuss how the EPL can meet the needs of Edmonton youth in their selection of books, CDs and other library materials. Tanisha Ayotte is a member of that board and will be the MC for Thursday night’s event. A Grade 8 student with a great love of reading and books, Ayotte doesn’t like it when her reading choices are limited by higher powers. “There’s certain books in my school library that I’m not allowed to check out because I’m not in high school yet,” she says with indignation. “They’re not considered appropriate for someone my age. In fact, there’s an entire shelf in my school library that I’m not allowed to read because I’m not in high school. I don’t necessarily believe that kids should be told what they can or cannot read as long as their parents are okay with it.”
Ayotte believes that sometimes institutions like schools or libraries don’t give kids enough credit and should allow, with good parental supervision and awareness, kids the chance to read the books they want to read. The Banned Book Café is one of many events set for Freedom to Read Week (February 20-26), and Ayotte will be reading a selection from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban; J.K. Rowling’s hugely popular series of fantasy novels is regularly challenged in Alberta schools and libraries for its depiction of magic. A few schools won’t even stock its library shelves with any of the Harry Potter books because it promotes witchcraft.
But even though his book was bounced from a small-town library and school, Weis believes that sometimes we take Freedom to Read a little too far. It’s not always a black and white issue in his view; there’s plenty of grey involved. “I’ve come to realize that the Freedom to Read has been used by some people to justify child pornography,” he says, “and above all else, I believe that the rights of children should be protected. So do I believe in censorship? No. But I believe in informed decisions regarding children and their rights. Too often, our commercialized society believes that anything is to be permitted, especially if it means that there is a profit to be made.
“I visit a great many schools in the province,” he continues, “and am amazed what parents allow/encourage their children to see on television. Books are no longer the issue: the screen is. TV, with WWF wrestling, movies with horror flicks that have no vision other than making a quick titillating buck, are poured over our children with no questions asked. Was my book unfairly judged? Yes, no doubt. Do I understand the fears and desires of parents who want to protect their children from the cesspool of commercialized amorality flowing from TV and film? Yes, again. So where does this leave us as artists? I don’t know, for sure. But we have to stop reacting like sheep, saying we object to censorship at all costs. It simply ain’t the brave or right thing to do.” V
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