by Robert Bittner
We are living through an unprecedented time of book challenges, attempted bans and censorship in North America. In the fall of 2021, many politicians, scholars, educators and parents began contesting the inclusion of books that discuss gender and sexuality, anti-racism and anything that may cause “discomfort” in classrooms and libraries. In Texas, for example, one politician created a list of more than 850 titles that he believes are questionable and should be removed from libraries and classrooms.
While it is true that attitudes toward censorship and book challenges are sometimes seen as less of an issue in Canada, there are many people in the world of Canadian literature—and children’s and teen literature in particular—who are affected by the actions and attitudes not only of intolerant individuals in this country but also of our neighbours to the south.
One such person is Robin Stevenson, author of more than 25 books for kids and teens and the 2022 champion of free expression. She has received many challenges throughout her career. Both her fiction and nonfiction works have been the target of complaints, particularly because of her focus on topics that some adults believe are unsuitable for younger readers, such as the history of Pride, queer characters, and the inclusion of historical gay and trans figures in her book Kid Activists (2019).
As a free speech advocate and activist, Stevenson was grateful to be named a champion of free expression. “It’s a huge honour and I am really thrilled. It’s an issue I care a lot about,” she said. “South of the border, we are seeing an alarming increase in organized efforts to restrict kids’ access to books. And, as always, it is primarily books by LGBTQ+ and BIPOC writers that are being targeted in these challenges.”
While Stevenson is Canadian, some of the more high-profile challenges to her work have been in the United States. Even so, she notes that “we need to be vigilant here in Canada to make sure we are supporting diverse books, boosting the voices of marginalized writers and ensuring kids have access to the books they need and want. I think it’s important to do this all the time, not just when challenges arise!”
Stevenson often writes about topics that can be seen as divisive by parents, educators and librarians, so individual and small-scale challenges are nothing new to her. But the widespread and organized backlash against her work, and the work of so many other LGBTQ+ authors, began more recently, after Pride: Celebrating Diversity and Community was published in 2016.
“I was participating in the Canadian Children’s Book Centre (CCBC) Book Week tour, visiting schools in Quebec, when a teacher emailed me shortly before my school presentation to ask me not to talk about my newest book,” she said. “They said their grade 5–6 students hadn’t learned about LGBTQ+ identities yet and somewhat ironically added they wanted me to focus on issues more relevant to their students, such as bullying.”
“Luckily, the folks at the CCBC had an excellent policy in place for dealing with challenges, and together we drafted an email explaining exactly why the subject matter of the book was not just appropriate for their students but essential for addressing bullying and encouraging a supportive, respectful and safe climate,” she said. “In the end, the school decided to have me visit and the students were great—enthusiastic and curious, as they always are.”
Reflecting on this and other challenges, Stevenson notes that the foundation of attempts to censor her work is most often intolerance of gender and sexual diversity.
“People generally don’t want to admit that they’re homophobic or transphobic, so they will talk around it,” she said. “One U.S. school recently said they were concerned that my book Kid Activists (2019) would introduce ‘new ideas’ to their students—which in my mind is exactly what books should do! It took a lot of pushing by journalists—and some FOI requests—before they admitted that the concerns were about LGBTQ+ content.”
To Stevenson, however, concerns about the inclusion of “LGBTQ+ content” are personal and do affect her approach to writing.
“I’m an adult who has been out as queer for decades, and I have lots of privilege, safety and support. Still, it’s upsetting when my books are challenged, and it’s personal because the message is essentially that people don’t want their kids to learn that people like me, and families like mine, exist,” she said. “I don’t want fears about challenges to affect my writing. And in the end, I think pushback just makes me more determined to write the books I want to write and the books I believe kids need.”
Challenges to books about LGBTQ+ people and history affect more than just Stevenson, though. “These challenges send such a harmful, hurtful message to kids,” she said. “When books are challenged because of LGBTQ+ content, queer kids are being told that who they are is not okay—that their identities, families, feelings, relationships are bad, sick, perverse and generally so wrong that they can’t be talked about or even acknowledged. That’s a horrible thing to do to a kid.”
Stevenson has some words for those who continue to try to remove books from the hands of young readers: “People who challenge or try to ban books are wildly underestimating children. Kids and teens are people—not the property of adults—and they are generally far more capable and thoughtful than they are given credit for.”
When books by LGBTQ+ authors and about LGBTQ+ people are continually challenged, pulled from shelves, and compared to pornography or materials used for grooming children, the incidents can become very tiring and discouraging, not only to authors but also to parents, educators and librarians who are fighting for the freedom to read. But Stevenson notes: “I think it is really important for people to know that while those who challenge books are very vocal, they do not speak for the majority. It is really important not to censor ourselves—as writers, as librarians and as educators—out of fear of these challenges.”
One way that librarians and educators in Canada bring awareness to book challenges and attempts to censor literature is Freedom to Read Week. Reflecting on what freedom to read means to her, Stevenson writes: “Freedom to read means freedom to learn. It means freedom to find answers to your questions. It means freedom to discover that there are many people like you in the world, that you aren’t weird or wrong or alone, that your fears and desires and hopes are shared by others.”
She adds: “It means freedom to find out that different people hold different views, have different experiences, emphasize different values. Freedom to read means you get to live in a bigger, more complex, more interesting world. It means that you are free to explore your own thoughts and beliefs and choices, in your own way, at your own pace. Every kid deserves that.”
Of course, freedom means that people may challenge literature and ideas, and they will continue to do so. But to prevent or respond to these challenges, Stevenson has some advice.
“Speak up, every time, if you are able to safely do so. Don’t let these challenges go uncontested: when people or institutions make decisions based on bigotry, [they] should never be followed by silence. And if the book that was challenged is about marginalized identities, as is so often the case, speaking up also lets the kids who share those identities know that there are people on their side.”
Though I have known Robin Stevenson for some time, I consider it a privilege every time I speak with her, to hear and consider what wisdom she has to convey. With this sentiment in mind, I believe it makes sense to leave the final words of this interview to our 2022 champion of free expression.
“I write because I believe books matter and words matter, and they matter precisely because they are powerful, and they have consequences. So, while I speak up against censorship, I will also speak up when people use arguments about freedom of expression to justify spreading misinformation, to vilify marginalized groups, or to perpetuate discrimination or hatred. I’ll use my own words to speak up and explain exactly why their words are harmful. Supporting freedom of expression, for me, does not mean ignoring the very real harm that results from hateful rhetoric. We all get to choose whose voices we boost, which ideas we elevate, and which words we provide space for.”
Robert Bittner is an educator and literary consultant who works with LGBTQ2S+ literature for young people.
Robin Stevenson photo by Stephanie Hull