Freedom to Read Week is an annual event that encourages Canadians to think about and reaffirm their commitment to intellectual freedom, which is guaranteed them under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This year is the 30th anniversary and there are more than 50 events taking place across Canada.
49th Shelf spoke to author and children's librarian Ken Setterington about his own experiences with censorship, and the broader issues behind the Freedom to Read campaign.
49th Shelf: As an author and a children’s librarian, can you explain your own connections to the issues surrounding Freedom to Read Week and why these issues are important to you?
Ken Setterington: As someone who cares about children I have long been a supporter of Freedom to Read Week. Quite simply I know the pleasures and rewards that children and youth discover through reading. Reading makes children think and imagine—and as a children’s librarian I know that is something that I want. We want children to see their own world reflected in the books that they are reading as well as to have their understanding opened to the challenges and experiences of others. Literature has the power to expand the universe for children.
I worked as a children’s librarian for decades and I answered scores of complaints about books in the children’s and teen collections. There were concerns raised by parents about books that contained sex, sexual preference, violence, and racism. In each case I discussed with the parents that the library housed books that reflected all points of view and that the library selected books that were age-appropriate for children and teens. If there were issues that the parent didn’t want to have their own child exposed to, then they could tell their child not to borrow the book. They could stop their child from borrowing the book, but not the children of others.
My experiences as a children’s librarian certainly had an effect on me when I wrote Mom and Mum are Getting Married. I was very much aware that my book would be considered controversial by some parents and that is why I made sure that the title let the reader know immediately what the book was about. I knew that there were children with same sex parents who wanted their own lives reflected in the books being read by their children. A children’s book reviewer I know (one who never reviewed the book) told me how delighted her grandson had been when he discovered the book, quite simply because his mom and momma were getting married and he wanted the ceremony to be just like the one in the book. Of course there are other grandmothers who might have been appalled by the story, but they don’t have the right to stop others from reading it.
When I wrote my most recent book, Branded by the Pink Triangle, which was aimed at a teen audience, I was aware of the difficulty that some teachers and librarians would have dealing with a book that so openly discusses sexual preference. I was careful not to be too detailed in either the sexual content or the brutality that the men faced because of their sexual preference. I was also aware that because homosexuality had long been hidden, little had been written about the persecution of these men and that there was a major reason to write the book.
Finally whenever I am reviewing a book aimed at children I think about the children who might be reading it. Is there a child who would care? If I can imagine a child or teen that would enjoy or need the book then I truly believe that there is a reason for the book. Children and teens have always faced difficult issues ranging from sex and sexual preference to racism and violence and I do believe that when handled carefully by a writer these issues can bring comfort to the reader or a greater understanding of the topic or simply create more empathic readers.
49th Shelf: Why do you think attempts at book-banning persist when these attempts are so often at odds with their own purposes, bringing attention to books the banners would like to see erased from the record? (For example, I only ever read Maurice Sendak’s Outside Over There because it was included on a list of challenged works, and I am attracted to trouble-making…)
KS: I too am surprised when I see that people are attempting to ban books. Quite simply it brings attention to books that might otherwise be overlooked. Those that attempt to ban books are most often trying desperately to shield children and teens from ideas that conflict with their own. The attempts at banning books can be damaging though. Boards of education can decide to not support a title, or restrict access to a book. Book banning may increase sales, but it also takes a great deal of effort to fight the banning of books. Those that support the banning of books are well advised to remember what happened in Germany when the Nazis were in power. The bonfires of banned books lead to even greater horrors. That is why Freedom to Week is so important.
49th Shelf: With censorship and kids, the issues aren’t always straightforward. I come at this from a liberal perspective, celebrating books like your own Mom and Mum Are Getting Married, and yet lists of challenged children’s books often include books that I myself am uncomfortable with—depictions of Native people in Mog and the Granny by Judith Kerr, for example. How do you advise parents and educators walk this delicate line?
KS: The issues aren’t always straightforward. I think that there are books that everyone will be uncomfortable with on some level. Some books published in earlier times have stereotypic racial images and ideas that really don’t have a place in our children’s lives today. Or if they are to be used they need to have a great deal of discussion surrounding them.. My favourite example comes from Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. His poem, "Foreign Children," ends with:
You have curious things to eat,
I am fed on proper meat;
You must dwell beyond the foam,
But I am safe and live at home,
Little Indian, Sioux or Crow,
Little frosty Eskimo,
Little Turk or Japanee,
O! Don’t you wish that you were me?
My question is what library doesn’t have A Child’s Garden of Verses? When we have materials like that we have to be able to support discussion about the issues raised in the material. Whether it is a discussion of families with same sex parents or depictions of race from generations past we need to engage children in discussions. Books aren’t simply an end product. They may be the final result of an author and publishers work, but they are the jumping off point for discussions with readers. Even when a book is blatantly racist (which I would hope is taken off the shelves in children’s sections of libraries and used in historical collections of children’s literature), the book can be used to discuss how things have changed and, in many cases, changed dramatically for the better.
49th Shelf: What are some challenged books that have been important to you as an educator and as a reader?
KS: As an educator the book that challenged me the most was The Travels of Babar. While rushing to answer the call to stop censorship, I was taken aback by the racist images and text in this once popular picture book. I can’t say that I was even aware of it until I was working on an exchange with the Miami Public Library. It was a book that the Miami library staff had taken out of circulation and they asked me why the book was still relevant to children in our society today. I wasn’t able to quickly answer that. Saying that Travels of Babar is a good story is not a strong enough answer. Also saying that I support Freedom to Read is not enough. The portrayal of the Africans as savages could possibly be hurtful to young readers today. I believe that the book needs to be retained in the library, but not on the open shelves for children.
Another title that was brought to my attention when working as the children’s coordinator at the Scarborough Public Library was Chinese Handcuffs by Chris Crutcher. The book is a hard hitting teen novel that deals with many tough topics including gang rape and violence. The book had been published by a well respected children’s publishing house and had been purchased for the children’s collection. The book’s intended audience was not children but teens and hence the book was moved into the teen’s collection where it should have been from the beginning.
Those are the two titles that I remember actually believing that they belonged in the library, but in a different part of the collection from that which they originally had been purchased for. All the other titles that I defended were ones that belonged right where they were as part of the circulating collection.
As a reader I can only say that I read widely, my choices are varied and I don’t want someone else making decisions for me on what I can read. I find it interesting to read books that make it to the challenged lists, but I mostly find the lists sad. I find it sad that there are people who are trying to control what I read. I find it immensely sad and frightening that there are people who try to stop readers from finding Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird, or knowing Lyra in The Golden Compass or enjoying The Adventures of Huck Finn. I consider myself so much richer knowing those characters and feel sorry for those who haven’t met them yet. I abhor those that try to control reading, and I do celebrate those that fight for freedom to read.
49th Shelf: How does Freedom to Read Week work to empower young readers?
KS: More than anything it brings to the attention of Canadians that there are people and groups that are trying to censor what we read. It makes us aware of just how lucky we are that we can read what we want. AND it makes young readers discuss with others the books that have been challenged in the past. We need to keep talking about our rights and the freedoms that we have when it comes to reading.
Ken Setterington is a librarian, storyteller, author and reviewer. He was named the first Children and Youth Advocate for Library Services for the Toronto Public Library. He has been an active storyteller and published retellings of The Snow Queen and The Wild Swans. In 2003, with co-author Deidre Baker, he wrote A Guide to Canadian Children’s Books. He lives with his partner in Toronto.
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