Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Freedom to Read Week with Leah Bobet

It's pretty easy to say why the freedom to read is important to writers: We want to tell the stories that are close to our hearts, and of course, we want to be read! But as well as writing fiction, I'm a bookseller: I've worked at Bakka-Phoenix Books, Canada's oldest independent science fiction bookstore, on and off since I was a student. And when Amy graciously asked me to contribute a post for Freedom to Read Week, what came to mind first wasn't any experience I've had writing. It was the woman who came into my store on a Saturday morning, a few months back, with a very specific request.

She needed, she told me, a book for a 13-year-old reader who was "vague about gender". She wanted me to recommend something that was positive about being LGBT, or non-traditional gender roles – but it had to be subtle enough, in terms of the cover art and copy, that the reader's parents wouldn't catch on.

I think I winced, and said, "So it's like that."

It was like that.

We got to work.

That morning was one of the hardest I've ever spent working as a bookseller. It wasn't just because of the challenge in finding the right book for this reader – smart, well-written, at the right reading level, with a positive LGBT role model that's not discussed in the cover copy – but because I knew how important it was to get this one right. Recommending books to people is frequently a fun game, because they're reading to relax, for entertainment. This time, someone would be reading to know that who they are was right and good, in a situation where they might not have heard that too much. They were reading to find out that they were not alone.

I found her a book, eventually. It was pretty hard. That's not a good thing.

In a sense, the freedom to read is the freedom to be. When nobody tells your stories, it's hard to know that the world's not a party full of Normal People and then there's you, locked out. When you grow up in a neighbourhood where people are one colour, one religion, one economic class, it's important to pick up, young, that there are other ways of living. A book is still one of the safest, cheapest ways out there to learn that.

And we need to learn that: so people of all ages can see some of the world and decide who they want to be. So we can not just think critically, but realize that you can disagree with certain things.

I learned that what you want and what you're talented at aren't necessarily the same thing, and why that's okay, long before I washed out of my first professional choir and had to face that I would never be a career musician. I learned that gay people are just people, with loves and ideas and problems, before the first friend ever came out to me. I understood something of how wonderful my city could be years before I started to explore it.

I read those things in books. That was a good thing in my life.

I am glad nobody took those books away.

Back to my customer, and the kid she was looking out for, and that book.

It was too hard to find that book, and that wasn't good. I say that book; I found one. Most books about LGBT characters who are brave and have good adventures are Stories With Morals About Being LGBT. Most adventurous fantasy books don't have a wide and diverse cast of characters. I don't know where on earth I'd send that reader next, if she loved that book and wanted more.

There is no sense in having the freedom to read, in celebrating it, if as authors – and readers – we don't step up to the plate.

So here is my challenge to you this year:

We celebrate Freedom to Read Week, as readers, for a book's ability to show us we're not alone, to open our minds, and to take us to different perspectives. As writers, we should take it as a challenge: to write books that show someone they're not alone; that open minds; that take people to perspectives and places they've never seen before. As writers, we should be brave with our words.

As readers, we should read with curiosity and courage. We should seek out voices, situations, ideas that aren't already comfortable as old shoes.

In 2013, let's all stretch ourselves, and truly celebrate the freedom to read – by using it.

Find Leah:
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