I read banned books, and so should you!

Wednesday, 18 May 2011
This piece was also published on rabble.ca. It appeared on Not My Typewriter on February 26.

I was probably ten the first time I read The Agony of Alice, a book for young adults written in 1985 by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. Alice McKinley, Naylor’s protagonist, was slightly older than me. She was in sixth grade, fumbling through adolescence without a female role model, wearing two shirts to hide her breasts because she didn’t know how to buy a bra, and agonizing over her yet-to-come first kiss.

Unlike Alice, I had female role models, but like many girls my age, I chose to catch my first glimpses of sex and puberty between the covers of weathered paperbacks, including those of Phyllis Reynolds Naylor and Judy Blume. I can’t imagine growing up without these books, which satisfied my adolescent curiosities and helped to foster my love of reading.

Unfortunately, if some had their way, books that depict curiosity about sexuality, like The Agony of Alice and others in Naylor’s Alice series, would be kept out of reach of children and adolescents. In 2000, a complaint was issued to the Toronto Public Library urging staff to deny access to Outrageously Alice, one of Naylor’s later books where Alice learns about sex.

Outrageously Alice is only one of more than 100 titles on the Challenged Books and Magazines List available at www.freedomtoread.ca, which was updated this month in time for Freedom to Read Week, which took place across Canada between February 20 and 26.

Freedom to Read Week is an annual event organized by the Freedom of Expression Committee of the Book and Periodical Council, which encourages Canadians to think about intellectual freedom and remember that the freedom to read should never be taken for granted. To celebrate reading and to create awareness of censorship issues, events were held across the country, including an evening with Amy Goodman in Edmonton and a discussion on censorship, advocacy journalism and the gay press in Toronto.

Over the last year, a number of high-profile debates over censorship have made headlines in the mainstream media, the most notable example probably being posthumous editing of both Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But the truth is, we only hear about the censorship that makes headlines. There are hundreds of other examples each year where books are challenged and sometimes removed from classrooms, bookstores and libraries. Among the most-challenged books are those that depict female sexuality or same-sex relationships.

My own bookshelf holds many of these challenged titles, such as Lives of Girls and Women, Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Handmaid’s Tale – to name only a few. These, and many others, are copies I purchased after eagerly digesting them in high-school classrooms or my city’s local library. As part of Freedom to Read Week, I can’t help but imagine what my life would be like if these titles had been pulled from the shelves of my library and restricted in my classrooms. These are titles that opened my eyes to injustices – racism, classism, sexism – and urged me to cultivate my own world view. They helped nudge me toward an interest and eventual involvement in progressive politics, and to dig deeper and learn more.

For these reasons, and many more, it is so important to me to read challenged books – not just during Freedom to Read Week, but all year long – and to continue spreading the word about censorship, in hopes that future generations will have the same access to books that thankfully I was not denied.

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