Save the Witch! Why Book Banning Sects Are Right to Fear Fantasy

Illustration by Savannah Baronette

In small town America an unlikely hero must overcome his shyness and stand up for what he believes in.

How can he not? His favorite series of young adult fantasy novels is at stake!

MK Reed and Jonathan Hill’s graphic novel Americus may not be speculative fiction itself, but it is about The Chronicles of Apathea Ravenchilde, a high fantasy series featuring a huntress witch and her adventures with magic, dragons, and prophecies. This fictional series has enraged the conservative Christian parents in the small town of Americus, and many self-described concerned parents are calling for the book to be removed from the public library. However, there are many fans of the series in town, including a youth services librarian, the son of the housewife who is leading the charge against the books, and the introverted bookworm Neil, the hero mentioned above.

If the conflict in this story sounds familiar, that’s because it has already happened. Speculative fiction books, fantasy in particular, often are blacklisted or called to be banned on religious or moral grounds. In Canada several speculative books have come under fire: Bridge to Terabithia, Jeremy Thatcher: Dragon Hatcher, The Indian in the Cupboard, The Handmaid’s Tale, the Goosebumps series, and the Harry Potter series have all been considered controversial enough to be banned. Though all these books faced scrutiny, none of them have been banned in Canada.

Our dear Mr. Potter has not been so lucky in other places, though.

A quick search of the Harry Potter novels will tell you that they have been banned from some school libraries. A BBC article from 2000 quotes the head of a religiously-supported school was concerned that reading stories about good witches and wizards would be a source of confusion to the school’s students. After all, witches, dragons, and demons are presented as both real and dangerous in the Bible. Treating these subjects as fantasy fiction is seen as contradictory to these teachings.

How can readers of speculative fiction argue against such allegations? Those who call for the ban of Harry Potter and other fantasy books on religious grounds are arguing about what is and isn’t real.

Fortunately for Canadian Harry Potter fans, the Canadian charge against the Harry Potter books was filed by adults, a parent, and a school principal who had not read the literature they were so opposed to. In Americus none of the anti-Apathea protesters have actually read any of The Chronicles of Apathea novels. This lack of exposure to the offending text weakens both the real and fictional arguments significantly.

Interestingly, most pro-ban arguments hinge on what the respective groups accept as reality. Anti-Harry Potter groups argue that witchcraft is real and necessarily evil. Harry Potter fans argue that witches and wizards are purely fictional and therefore harmless elements in a work of literature. But being speculative texts, both Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Apathea ask: what if witches and magic were real? It is the delicious question of “what if?”—the fuel of speculative fiction—that makes fantasy books seem so threatening to those in favour of banning the books.  After all, it isn’t much of a leap from “what if witches were real?” to “what if witches were good?”

In the eyes of Mrs. Burns, leader of the anti-Apathea protest group, reading books containing magic leads to the tolerance of witches—and then who knows what other heathen group will be tolerated? “Do we want them to grow up to be pagans or feminists?” she asks a fellow Christian housewife, after writing an opinion piece in the town paper about the Apathea books. This is an interesting sentiment. In many ways she is right to worry about the latter; I know many feminists who can name spec fic books as their earliest exposure to feminist ideas and characters, the Girl with a Sword aside.

Just as interesting is the way that Mrs. Burns lumps witches in with all of the other groups that she despises: atheists, liberal thinkers, and queer people. Her biggest fear is that her son will align himself with these groups because he has read the Apathea books.

Speculative fiction does tend to focus on the Other, our relation to the Other, and the ways in which different groups learn tolerance towards one another. In fantasy, unlikely friendships are forged between dwarf and elf, wizard and house elf, or huntress witch and smart aleck talking wolf. In science fiction we meet all manner of beings: humans, part humans, robots, cyborgs, alien races. No matter the realm or galaxy, these diverse groups must live together peacefully, just as we must in the Real World. Tolerance for groups who don’t share our views is thoroughly explored in speculative fiction.

Take a moment to reflect on the fears of those who wish to ban spec fic. Consider the way that they ring true when we consider some of our favourite spec fic books. It has to be said that those who wish to ban young adult spec fic books are right to fear them. Reading speculative fiction, whether you’re young or old, can challenge your imagination and the way you see the world. Books like Harry Potter or The Chronicles of Apathea Ravenchilde  can change you. That is why they are empowering and why we will always defend them.

Find out more about Americus here.

-contributed by Miranda Whittaker


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