Freedom to Read Week 2023
Written by Groundwood Books Publisher, Karen Li
Many of us have heard of the recent surge in book challenges across the US. These challenges, which might have historically come from a concerned parent to a school librarian, have morphed over the past three years into a weapon wielded by Conservative organizations seeking to control the country’s cultural narrative.
Organized and well-funded, these groups have formed a startlingly effective network with influence over municipal and state politics, resulting in a spate of legislation that has removed kids’ books from shelves; stifled curricula relating to race, gender, and sexuality; cut library budgets; and—most chilling—held librarians criminally liable for distributing materials considered “harmful to minors.”
Could it happen here? Are we sleeping on a wave that will soon crash upon our shores?
To a certain extent, we’ve already been drawn in. Children’s books published by Canadian publishing houses, written by Canadian authors and illustrated by Canadian artists are regularly challenged south of the border.
Three Groundwood titles were among those targeted by Texas state representative Matt Krause in 2021: Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress by Christine Baldacchino and Isabelle Malenfant, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell, and This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki.
In Duval County, Florida, A Family Is a Family Is a Family by Sara O’Leary and Qin Leng was pulled for review, one title among 176 others in a collection of “Essential Voices” that had been curated to represent a diversity of cultural and gender identities.
No specific reason was cited for the removal of these books from Duval County schools. As PEN America notes, the district’s decision wasn’t prompted by a single parental complaint—evidence that these cultural wars are no longer about the content of any individual book, but rather about who controls access to books in general.
As book publishers, we often let our acquisitions speak for our values. At Groundwood, we’re proud to see how our books have helped to move the needle toward more inclusive representation. When our titles end up on lists of challenged books, we claim that we’re in good company, that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, that high-profile challenges actually increase sales.
But that kind of bravado misses the bigger picture: For every banned book, there are an exponential number of young readers who miss out on an opportunity to see themselves, their concerns, their interests, and their questions reflected in the very literature that is meant for them. The challenging of books in public schools and libraries is particularly insidious, as it tends to disproportionately limit access to books by and for racialized and marginalized youth who may not be able to simply buy a copy for themselves.
It's a reminder to children’s book publishers that schools and libraries are not just the largest market for our business, but they are also the defenders of our values. We make the books, but teachers and librarians are the ones carrying them on the frontlines. So beyond publishing content that we feel is worth defending, how else can we help our allies south of the border? And what can we do to help stem the rising number of books challenged at home?
These are questions that we have been asking ourselves and others as we mark this year’s Freedom to Read Week. We will continue to advocate, educate ourselves, and share resources with the associations to which we belong. We also exhibit at all the major librarian, educator, and bookseller conferences across North America—so if you think there are specific ways that we can support or initiatives that we should be a part of, please stop by; we’re listening.