This post originally appeared as part of the Hamilton Arts Council's LivingArts series.
I can't remember exactly how old I was the first time I read To Kill a Mockingbird, but I know for sure I was older than 13, but younger than 18. I was a high-school student, and Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was mandatory reading. The book offered a stark contrast to my life in the suburbs in the late 90s, and I devoured it in just a few days.
To Kill a Mockingbird isn't a perfect book, and there are many others that could better teach high-school students about racial segregation. However, it's a book worthy of praise, and one that I could read over and over again. Not everyone shares this opinion. To Kill a Mockingbird has been challenged in schools and libraries repeatedly for five decades.
Freedom to Read Week is just around the corner, taking place this year between February 22-28. The annual event "encourages Canadians to think about and reaffirm their commitment to intellectual freedom, which is guaranteed them under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms."
Attempts to censor books in schools and public libraries happen today, and sometimes, right in our own backyard. In 1993, the principal of a Hamilton school removed To Kill a Mockingbird from a grade 10 reading list after a parent complained. In 2006, a parent challenged a title in the Burlington Public Library's collection, calling The Waiting Dog, a picture book for kids in grade 3 and up, "vile" and "revolting. In 2007, the Halton Catholic District School Board "ignored the recommendations of its review committee and voted to ban [a trilogy by Philip Pullman] from school." In 2013, a formal complaint was lodged against the Toronto Public Library by a patron who felt Hop on Pop, a classic by Dr. Seuss, "encourages children to use violence against their fathers."
At least book burnings are a thing of the past, right?
In 2012, Hamilton-based author Lawrence Hill was the recipient of the Writers' Union of Canada's Freedom to Read Award. At the time, Greg Hollingshead, Chair of the Union, said "We felt that he deserved this honour on the basis of his reasoned and eloquent response to the threat to burn his novel The Book of Negroes." Hollingshead is referring to a public burning of the book's cover, which took place in Amsterdam in June 2011 by a group that opposed the book's title.
"Burning books is designed to intimidate people. It underestimates the intelligence of readers, stifles dialogue and insults those who cherish the freedom to read and write," wrote Hill in The Toronto Star. "The leaders of the Spanish Inquisition burned books, Nazis burned books."
Artists, no matter the medium we work in, take on many roles. We push boundaries, share original thought, and cultivate ideas in interesting ways. We'd live in a boring world if writers only wrote books to please everyone.
The arts offer teachable moments, and instead of keeping books away from youth, we should do the opposite, encouraging dialogue about them. This Freedom to Read Week, I'm going to reread To Kill a Mockingbird or one of the many other books that have been challenged in Canada or around the world. I hope you do, too.