Julia Watts was chosen as a featured author for the upcoming LitUp Festival: Arts and Innovation for the Next Generation, an event sponsored by Knox County Public Library. It’s an event for teens with writing workshops, career information, author talks, and other activities. Watts has several published, celebrated works aimed at a teen audience, such as Finding H.F., and Quiver.
Watts, who has participated in Knox County Library programs in the past, was surprised and saddened when the library suddenly uninvited her from the event. The reason? According to the library’s assistant director for marketing Mary Pom Claiborne, the organizing committee discovered that “Some of her work is described as erotica and is inappropriate for teens”. (Knox News, 2019)
So again, Ms. Watts has several lauded YA titles, which was what made her an author choice for the festival, but the fact that she had written risqué material in the past prompted her removal from a library event.
While it wasn’t explicitly expressed in her dis-invitation, Watts questioned if LGBTQ+ themes in her work were a spark for the action taken against her:
They say if it were erotic content of any type that they would have had the same concerns. As somebody who has been uninvited because someone goes, ‘Yikes, that’s gay content,’ that was certainly my first thought.
Julie Watts (WBIR, 2019)
The implication of this cancellation should send a chill down the spine of any writer. Those who write should not have to be boxed into one genre, age group, or format for fear that their body of work will impede their professional progress.
The library did not expect Watts to read from or reference the adult material, but it didn’t want to be perceived as promoting her entire body of work at a festival for young teens, Claiborne said.
Kristi Nelson, Knox News, 2019
The fact that Watts has written erotica (which, she mentions to Knox News, is a subjective term) should not be an issue for the festival, because that wasn’t the focus of her attending the event- her YA books were the focus.
Some of my writings—not my work for YA readers—contain erotic content. Not just erotica, but lesbian erotica…kids might Google me and find out I’d written erotica, and that freaked [the committee] out. If they’d Googled me and found that I’d written Harlequin romances, I don’t think there would have been this same kind of pushback.
Julie Watts (Publisher’s Weekly, 2019)
The committee effectively shunned this author after previously inviting her simply because a teen could hypothetically google her name and find out that she has written books for adults- books with S-E-X-, oh no!
Are libraries the newly appointed Decency Police Force? Does writing erotica make you suddenly unmentionable or a bad role model? No, and no! Libraries are supposed to be places where information flows freely and people are supported, not judged.
Honorably, Knoxville’s poet laureate, Marilyn Kallet, withdrew from the festival in solidarity with Watts.
As writers we need to stand up for one another, and to require being treated with dignity and trust.
Marilyn Kallet (Knox News)
This decision by Knox County Library to cancel Watts’ invitation was a huge misstep. Libraries are not places of censorship, and those who write should not have to hide their works in the shadows or self-censor for fear of being outcast from public events and civil discourse in the library. Authors are multifaceted, complex people who wear many hats and should not be shamed for writing for a variety of audiences.
One thing I’ve learned from this: I shouldn’t take my freedom of expression for granted.
Julia Watts (Publisher’s Weekly)
I hope that this mistake can be learned from so that it does not set a dangerous precedent. Ms. Watts has accepted an apology from the library, and perhaps the dialogue sparked by this occurrence will prompt other libraries to examine their own biases and reaffirm their commitments to intellectual freedom.
A Facebook post went viral recently because a woman came across a book at Costco and was offended by the poems in it- specifically one poem, Brotherly Love:
The post was clearly written to provoke outrage, which it did achieve. The thousands of comments are filled with calls to pull the book, questioning the store for selling it, the authors for writing it, and the publishers for supporting it.
I understand if this poem isn’t appealing to everyone – it’s definitely dark in its humour, and filled with imagined instances of hyperbolic violence. Some kids might find it frightening, but others will surely find it hilarious. In the comments of the post parents are also asserting that kids couldn’t possibly understand the dark humour for what it is and will take the poem literally; to this I say no two kids are the same, and kids in general are smarter than we give them credit for. This book isn’t going to incite mass fratricide, and this outcry is just yet another attempt by adults to remove a unique book that would be enjoyed by certain kids.
Parents are understandably protective of their kids, but what one kid can’t handle might be what another kid clicks with. For some kids, the love of reading can suddenly be sparked with something a little edgy — something shocking, scandalous, gross, ghoulish, or morbid. When a book steps out of the safe and into the daring, that very act alone might garner a kid’s respect and begin a lifelong reading habit. Thinking back to my younger years, the books that were widely popular and always checked out at the school library were rarely “nice” books- they were the kind of books that you pass around at the back of the class and get in trouble for giggling about.
Despite its dark content, there’s no reason to fear this book- if someone doesn’t like it, they don’t have to read it, and can also ensure their kid doesn’t read it. If a parent wants to control what their kid has access to, that’s their choice. However, when people try to prevent others from exercising that choice, that’s where we have a problem.
Fearing that they might decide to pull the book from their stores in a reactionary act of censorship, I wrote this to Costco executives:
I am an educator, library worker, and MLIS student, and as such I wanted to share my thoughts and perspective on the children’s book carried by Costco “No More Poems”. As I’m sure you are aware by now, a parent shared a poem in this book which they found offensive and are warning others not to buy it as well as questioning your company for carrying it, the publishers for approving it, etc. The post has since gone viral on Facebook. I understand that in situations like this the impulse may be to pull the title from your stores, but on the contrary I hope that you keep it available. No book will appeal to the sensitivities of all kids (or all parents) but censorship isn’t the answer. I think the poem is funny and could totally be appreciated by some kids who get the dark humour. Kids are smarter than we give them credit for- this book isn’t advocating actual violence, it’s playing on exaggerated fantasies of a kid annoyed by their brother. I hope you keep the title in your stores- I would buy it, and I’m sure others would too. Those who don’t want it can close it and walk away. Thanks for your time,
This week in Canada we recognize our intellectual freedom in celebrating the 35th annual Freedom to Read Week (Feb 24-March 2).
Freedom to read can never be taken for granted. Even in Canada, a free country by world standards, books and magazines are banned at the border. Schools and libraries are regularly asked to remove books and magazines from their shelves. Free expression on the Internet is under attack. Few of these stories make headlines, but they affect the right of Canadians to decide for themselves what they choose to read. – freedomtoread.ca
The Freedom to Read Website keeps track of submitted challenges here (I’ll be quoting some passages below). A challenge indicates that someone sought to limit public access to the title, whether in a school, a library, or elsewhere. Sometimes a challenge results in removal of the title – banning a book is a clear form of censorship. Yet, even when a challenge is dismissed, the resulting controversy may mean that it is quietly dropped from school projects, curriculum lists, and displays, which is an unseen form of censorship that is harder to track.
On the other hand, often efforts to censor a book “backfire” because people naturally can’t wait to get their hands on the title that someone doesn’t want them to read!
I’ve been keeping tabs on the challenged titles in Canada the past few years, and I thought it would be fun to highlight a few of my favorite or noted titles that have been challenged and why (if the record contains a reason, which it often does not).
So here, in no particular order, are some notable works which, for some reason or another, someone tried to restrict access to in Canada:
The Graveyard Book (Graphic Novel edition) by Neil Gaiman and P. Craig Russell
This title was challenged in Edmonton in 2016 and Ontario in 2015. Complaints included that the illustrations were graphic and violent, and a mother said that they made her son cry.
Spooky ABC by Eve Merriam and Lane Smith
Spooky ABC was challenged in British Columbia. Objections: “The letters D and I poems not very appropriate for kids to read, and quite honestly the whole book was not OK to read to a child of any age. I don’t know if it would be useful to another child. Many other alphabet books [are] available. This one just seemed bad all across the board.”
I don’t know, it looks pretty intriguing to me!
Go the F**k to Sleep by Adam Mansbach
“Offensive language, age inappropriate”- I’m guessing this person didn’t get that this a humour book which is probably more intended for parents than children. There IS an alternate SFW version called Seriously, Just Go to Sleep, but I think it’s missing the magic of the original…
Fun fact! Samuel L. Jackson narrates this book spectacularly in the audio edition.
The Waiting Dog by Andrea and Carolyn Beck
The Waiting Dog was challenged both in 2006 and 2010. Complaints included “revolting, vile”. It’s true! This is a picture book with a warning label on the cover art: “WARNING- do you have the guts to read this book?”
The story *spoiler alert* involves a dog who daydreams about pulling the mailman in through the slot and feasting on his body from top to toes. Its graphic imagery and playful verse are both gratuitously, gruesomely, disturbingly macabre, and while it surely isn’t to every readers taste, I’m certain that some kids as well as adults would gobble it up happily.
The dark humour is played in an exaggerated way- the evil thoughts of the dog contrast so completely with the gentle, wiggly, goofy dogs that I know, so as the violence ramps up it only adds to the hilarity.
I probably never would have stumbled across this book if it hadn’t been challenged, but I am quite fond of it. I actually ordered my own copy on Amazon and the author signed it!
“All Young Adult LGBTQ publications”
It’s alarming to notice a certain trend in the books that have been challenged in Canada in recent years- many of them are LGBTQ+ titles.
In one particular instance in 2016, a mother in Alberta initiated a challenge on all of the LGBTQ book titles that were suggested in the Teen Summer Reading Program pamphlets at St. Albert Library. She found the entire category objectionable, claiming “there is a difference between showing respect for all peoples and using the summer reading program as a place to further LGBTQ propaganda”– she also called LGBTQ+ an unhealthy “lifestyle” contrary to god’s plan and unfit for promotion to youth.
The Teen Librarian did not remove the Queer Lit category from the Summer Reading program, and noted in their response to the patron that it was not a requirement to read from that category to participate in the SRP game. Furthermore, they explained:
“Library patrons have a choice in what they read… The St. Albert Public Library serves all members of the community, regardless of age, race, faith, education level, income, sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnic background, or language spoken. We serve LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning) youth, and the library is a safe space for them to visit. Many of these young people, as part of an invisible minority, have learned to be secretive about their sexual identity or gender identity for fear of rejection from their peers or their own families. They experience isolation and are often victims of bullying. For these youth, a realization that there are library materials available to them which address LGBTQ identities and issues can help them choose to become more resilient and to feel that they have a place in society… having LGBTQ material available in the Young Adult collections and on book displays alongside other materials, not hidden away, helps to create an atmosphere of acceptance”.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
This bestselling and award-winning dystopian novel was challenged in 2008 by a parent who was concerned about its use in a grade 12 classroom in Toronto. Concerns included “profane language, anti-Christian overtones, violence, and sexual degradation“.
Hmm, I wonder how an author is supposed to portray a dystopia without depicting the plentiful ways in which humanity can go wrong?
The school board reviewed the title and decided to keep it in the grade 11 & 12 curriculum.
Harry Potter (Series) by J.K. Rowling
Back around the 2000’s the Harry Potter series was widely challenged in the US and Canada, mainly by christian fundamentalists, on the grounds that the series contained themes of witchcraft. The books were removed from classroom use in some instances, and some orders for removal were rescinded after public outcry.
“In 2002 the Niagra (ON) District School Board turned down a parent’s request for the removal of the books from area schools. The parent said the books contained violence and promoted a religion (Wicca) which is against the law in Ontario schools. She said that she had not read the books.”
These books still face challenges again and again- I see another challenge recorded in Canada in 2010, but I imagine there are probably so many more challenges happening without being submitted to Freedom to Read.
Rupert Grint, who plays Ron Weasley in the movie adaptations of the books, recalls a sobering moment in his childhood when he realized the truly enormous impact of the series:
I saw a picture in a newspaper of a book-burning in America’s Bible Belt. And there was a picture of my face smouldering on top of the pyre because they thought the Harry Potter films were endorsing witchcraft.
The first omnibus, containing volumes 1-3 of this manga series, was challenged in Canada in 2017. No details are listed as to why.
I haven’t read Flowers of Evil yet- it’s on my TBR list- but I am a big fan of Oshimi’s beautiful and haunting vampire series, Happiness.
Jumanji by Chris Van Allsburg
Again, no reason given here as to why it was challenged, but in 2017 someone had an issue with Jumanji. Van Allsburg’s works are unique and whimsical. This strange and imaginative picture book was the inspiration for the film of the same name, which was released back in 1995!
Goosebumps (Series) and Fear Street (Series) by R.L. Stine
Speaking of 1995, that’s the year that R.L. Stine’s books were challenged in Nova Scotia! Take a nostalgic look at those gorgeous covers, would you?
“A parent group in Halifax asked that both these series be withdrawn from schools in the Halifax School Board’s jurisdiction. The books were said to convey violence and a lack of respect for parental authority.”
Why do parents always seem to want to ban the books that their kids are desperate to read? What a great way to kill a potential love of reading! Also, wouldn’t you fight back if you were being attacked by relentless lawn gnomes or killer slime? And maybe learning to not blindly trust authority is also an important lesson in life, but hey, that’s just my opinion…
I am a 90’s kid myself, and recently wrote on my personal blog about my obsession with Goosebumps. It certainly gave me chills a few times, but sometimes a kid needs a good scare!
And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson, Peter Parnell, and Henry Cole
And Tango Makes Three was challenged in Canada 2006 and again in 2009. This book was inspired by two real-life male penguins at the Central Park Zoo. The Calgary Catholic School District banned the book from a school library after a parent complained, on religious grounds, about the theme of “homosexual parenting”.
This book has also been highly controversial in the United States, facing frequent challenges.
Again, these are just a handful of examples of titles that have been challenged in Canada, and many more titles are challenged every year that likely aren’t reported.