________________ CM . . . . Volume IV Number 13 . . . . February 27, 1998

Freedom to Read Week

By Dave Jenkinson
Editor CM magazine

Once again it is "Freedom to Read Week," this year February 22 - March 1. Censors, of course, are with us every day of the year, but this week long "celebration" places their actions clearly before the nation, and individuals are confronted, albeit temporarily, with some of the shocking realities of the censors' successes. What follows are some of my observations about censorship in schools.


There are three major creatures or food groups in the school materials food chain. At the top, (or is it the bottom?), are the creators, the authors and illustrators who write and illustrate the books which do or do not make their way into the nation's schools. Next in the chain are the gatekeepers, the publishers and their editors, who make judgements about what is critically and/or economically fit to be published. Finally, at the bottom [or is it the top?], are the thousands of direct and indirect consumers who are found in [and around] the schools: the school board members, administrators, teachers, students, parents of students, and school-taxpayers. There are actually another couple of creatures wedged into the food chain between the publisher and the consumer, and they are the book distributors, that is, the jobbers, and the book reviewers.

      Observation # 1. Most of the challenges to materials and the resulting censorship which occurs in schools are unknown to the larger public and, in many cases, are not even reported within the school itself. On the basis of research I have conducted on censorship in Manitoba's schools, I can say with great certainly that the extent of challenges to materials in schools is not widely known amongst the general populace. If asked, "Is censorship a problem in Canadian schools?" most members of the public would likely reply in the negative. Since less than five percent of the materials which are challenged in schools ever become the subject of a news item in the local media, the general public likely thinks that schools are oases of intellectual freedom. The hard data, however, does not support such an idealistic image. For instance, in 1982-84, about one in five of Manitoba's school libraries had received a challenge to a material; by 1991-93, that rate had risen to nearly one in three schools. I also think that people would be even more upset if they knew that somewhere between one in three or just one in five of the materials challenged in school libraries ends up back on open shelves; the rest are removed, restricted or altered [i.e. have pages removed or words obliterated].

      As a corollary to this observation, let me add that a great many of the challenged materials never receive due process, that is, there is no consistent, fair process by which the challenge is considered and the validity of the complaints adjudicated. Instead, the complaint occurs, and the item is removed, often at the insistence or orders of someone in authority who doesn't want to deal with the hassle or who simply wants to placate the complaining party.

      Observation #2. A great deal of invisible censorship occurs during the selection process. As the American library educator Lester Asheim explained some 40 years ago, selection is a positive process or experience. As a selector, I look at reasons why I should add a material to my collection. Censorship, on the other hand, is negative in its focus. As a censor, I would enter the selection process with a checklist of taboos - sex, profanity, negative images of women, the presence of witchcraft, whatever. These taboos may be my own, that is, based on my own value structure, or they may be my perceptions of what I believe the local community will not accept. If I can ascertain that a material contains one or more of these taboos, no matter how fine the quality of the rest of the content, I will not select the material. Censorship during selection applies equally to materials which will be placed in school libraries for recreational reading and to those items which will be used in classrooms in the form of direct instructional materials.

      By the way, some selection censors expect reviewers to join them in the hunt. Any CM reviewer who deliberately or unwittingly uses a term such as "explicit" or "earthy" when describing a book's language will have definitely alerted some potential purchaser to stop reading the review and to pass on to the next item.

      Observation #3. The reasons for challenges to materials are always changing. The most significant change in the last decade is that challenges to items are now not just coming from the political or ideological right but also from the left. The two principal concerns or reasons for challenge, at the moment, are witchcraft/ the occult and violence, with the latter being seen either as scary [my child read X and had nightmares] or a promoting violent behaviour [if my child reads Christopher Pike or R.L. Stine books, s/he will emulate those behaviours and become a mass murderer].

      Observation #4. The climate of censorship which seemingly permeates the public school system is causing publishers to take the "potential for censorship" into account when making publishing decisions concerning manuscripts for juveniles. "Banned in Boston" may sell adult books, but the hint of a challenge to a juvenile book hurts sales and causes many of those who already have purchased a book to take the book off the shelves, either temporarily or permanently. Some authors, like Judy Blume, who "offend" repeatedly can be blacklisted by purchasers who by-pass their future books. Certainly textbook publishers are the most sensitive to any scent of potential censorship problems, and they are closely followed by book club publishers whose continued presence in our schools is at our pleasure and who, therefore, don't wish to offend us and risk being expelled. The public school structure "expects" book clubs to screen their books before offering them to us. And that leaves the trade publishers. From my author and illustrator contacts, I am hearing more stories about trade publishers who are saying, "We love your manuscript. It's great, but..." And the "but" means that it contains some content which could possibly be offensive to someone.

      I guess what concerns me most is that authors' and illustrators' freedom to create is being curtailed, and they are going to find themselves, if they don't already, looking over their own shoulders and trying to censor themselves in order to increase the chances of getting a contract for the manuscript or approval for the set of illustrations on which they are working. The terrible irony, of course, is that no matter how much authors and illustrators engage in self-censorship during the now less-than- creative process, someone will still be able to find fault with their products.

      If you do not already know about the annual "Freedom to Read Week" kit produced by the Book and Periodical Council, write to them at 35 Spadina Road, Toronto, ON M5R 2S9 or call (416) 975-9366 or FAX (416) 975-1839. In addition to a bright and glossy poster, the kit contains a booklet of information and ideas for raising awareness concerning censorship in this nation.

To comment on this article, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright © 1998 the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.

Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364