Elise Gravel knew her book Pink, Blue, and You! was going to be challenged in the U.S. as soon as it was published.
The Montreal-based illustrator assumed that her book about gender stereotypes, published in 2022 by Anne Schwartz Books (Penguin Random House), would come under fire, not least because of legislation passed last year in Florida that forbids instruction on gender orientation and sexuality for some of the state’s youngest students. But the fact that it has is still dismaying. The book was challenged by a number of parents in Dayton, Washington, last year but remains on the shelf.
“It’s not only my book; it’s every book that’s being challenged right now in some states,” Gravel says. “I would like freedom for teachers, for kids, and for parents; repression is very scary for me because as a tool it is used to silence and erase some people from society.”
Although it can be tempting to point to instances like this as a problem south of the border, and much less of a concern in Canada, the Book and Periodical Council organizes the annual Freedom to Read Week to encourage book people of all sorts to think and talk about the intellectual freedoms afforded to us under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, even if we aren’t seeing the same overt anti-education and anti-personhood sentiments displayed so prominently in Canada.
This year Freedom to Read Week runs from February 19 to 25.
“Those conversations do still make their way here,” says Michelle Arbuckle, co-chair of the BPC’s Freedom of Expression committee, which organizes the annual event. “I think it’s important every year to flex that muscle and have that conversation to talk about the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, what we experience here, and the state of reading in this country.”
Each year during Freedom to Read Week, the committee releases the results of its annual survey of books that have faced challenges at public libraries across Canada. The reasons for the challenges can vary widely – Arbuckle remembers a previous challenge over a book that made clear the Easter Bunny wasn’t real because the parent didn’t want the book to ruin the magic of the holiday for their child – but titles that typically face challenges are books aimed at children and young adults.
“What’s important in that conversation is … to talk about why is it that more of these books about gender, sexuality, Indigenous experiences, and Black experiences are the books that are getting people’s backs up,” she says. “Why are those the books that parents are having trouble with or questioning, and what does that say about us as Canadians?”
It’s also important to consider the freedom to read material that may be widely considered offensive or distasteful, even if thinking about that can be unpleasant or distasteful.
“I heard a library director say recently, ‘Read the thing you want to argue against,'” Arbuckle says. “We need to recognize that you don’t get rid of problematic views by censoring them. And if we’re book people and we’re thinking about books that build young people up, educate them, and make them fully participating members of society, you can’t do that without a broad exposure to books, you can’t do that without a broad exposure to different types of authors and different perspectives in the world.”