Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

(R)age Appropriate

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Freedom to Read Week window at Type Books. Created by artist Kalpna Patel.

On a cold and slushy night in early February, I was at a party. You don’t need to have been there to know it: the standard issue house party of 2012/13 at which a room full of white people dances to hip-hop while looking conspicuously like a room full of white people dancing to hop-hop. As we bounced, with varying degrees of coordination, in a growing puddle of liquor spills, “Shoop” by Salt n’ Pepa burst forth from the speakers. And then a strange and shocking thing happened. I discovered that I knew all the words.

Shocking fact 1: It’s amazing what your brain files away, perfectly intact, until it is called upon, decades later.

Shocking fact 2: “Shoop” was a hit when I was 13, meaning I was also 13 when I taught myself this party-trick-in-waiting.

Shocking fact 3: “Shoop,” it dawned on me as its lyrics tumbled unexpectedly out of my mouth 20 years after I learned them, is a song about things 13-year-olds probably shouldn’t be getting up to.

Several weeks later, my skills of coordination were being put to use, not on the dance floor, but working for the Book and Periodical Council to publicize Freedom to Read Week in Canada. A celebration of the intellectual freedoms guaranteed us under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Freedom to Read Week includes readings, talks and panel discussions across the country that highlight issues connected to free speech and censorship. Libraries, schools and bookstores put together displays of books that have been challenged, many of them in Canadian schools and libraries.

Where a book has been challenged in a school, the complaint leveled against it invariably has to do with age appropriateness. Books including Meg Cabot’s Princess on the Brink and Peter Mayle’s What’s Happening to Me? and hugely popular series from Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials to Harry Potter have come under fire for being, allegedly, inappropriate for younger readers. At the upper end of the school-age scale, books including Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Timothy Findley’s The Wars have also drawn complaints when taught to Grade 12s — students in many cases old enough to have the vote — for being too R rated for school.

Books for young readers formed the focus of many discussions over the course of Freedom to Read Week. At a packed event at The Garrison on February 28, Groundwood Books publisher Patsy Aldana was presented with The Writers’ Union of Canada’s annual Freedom to Read Award, in recognition of her “courageous work” in publishing books for young readers including Deborah Ellis’s Three Wishes and Anne Laurel Carter’s The Shepherd’s Granddaughter publicly defending them against challengers (both faced calls for removal from school libraries).

At the same event, author and children’s librarian Ken Setterington, having blown up any preconceived notions of stuffy bun-wearing librarians the audience might previously have held, shared a selection of eyebrow-raising stories about censorship (occasionally at the expense of the same bun-wearing librarians). Among them were a story from his own childhood of having a book confiscated at summer camp for being too adult, and about an instance when librarians had refused free copies of his own picture book for children, Mom and Mum Are Getting Married, on the grounds that the subject matter was, you guessed it, age inappropriate.

“Age inappropriate” accusations tend to assume that a younger reader — whether “young” 4 or “young” 17 — will be hurt, troubled, confused or even emotionally scarred by exposure to subject matter for which they are not yet “ready.” But ready for what, exactly? Exposure to information provides us with the cognitive tools to question, to research and to form our opinions. At a time when the quickest way to find out what you think about something is to ask Google for the top page of links to what everyone else thinks, these are tools which may grow rusty from lack of use. Books presenting all sides of the story should be available to us as and when we are ready to tackle them.

And if we’re truly not ready yet? Older, wiser, fuddy-duddier me knows that 13-year-old “Shoop”-rapping me had no idea what it was all about. I understood the bits I understood and remained blissfully ignorant about the rest. Innocence itself can be a great buffer. It doesn’t need to be protected from all possible blows.

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Freedom to Read Week ran from February 24 to March 2 across Canada and in 2014 will celebrate its 30th anniversary. Find out more at freedomtoread.ca or visit the Facebook page to see photo galleries of this year’s challenged book displays and events.

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Open Book got involved in Freedom to Read Week too. See here for links to our Book Crossings, which we posted throughout the week.


Becky Toyne is a publishing consultant specializing in manuscript development and book promotion. She is a regular books columnist for CBC Radio One and Open Book: Toronto, and a freelance publicist for many of the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s literary award and fundraising programs. One or two days a week Becky works as a bookseller at Toronto indie Type. You can follow her on Twitter: @MsRebeccs


You can find past columns by Becky Toyne in the Open Book Archives.

Image: Freedom to Read Week window display at Type Books on Queen Street. Created by artist Kalpna Patel.

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