Censorship—for most writers it’s a word that immediately raises a red flag. It brings up visions of totalitarian states abroad and right-wing cabals at home. What first-amendment-loving, ACLU-supporting scribe could possibly say anything in support of such a loathsome practice? And yet . . .
As soon as the PEN Children’s/Young Adult Book Authors Committee began its discussion of the topic recently, it turned out that it wasn’t such a slam-dunk issue after all. All sorts of nuances smudged the black and white divide. And a few other issues that didn’t exactly fit into censorship per se turned up as well. For instance, what about self-censorship? And more particularly self-censorship, not to placate the moral majority, but because certain subjects are inappropriate for young readers.
After a lifetime of writing poetry and picture books, I recently wrote my first children’s novel. Not young adult, not even junior high school age, but aimed at the same audience that in my day fell in love with Heidi and Mary Poppins. Based in large part on my own early life and times, it tries to re-create what it was like for a nine-year old growing up in Connecticut during the Depression. And in the beginning I thought I would simply dive back into my memory bag and pretty much tell my own story Like most childhoods, mine was a mixed-bag. My mother was responsible and caring, but also rigid and critical. My father was playful and fun-loving, but also short-tempered and sometimes violent, not with my mother or younger brother but only with me. Today his “spankings” would undoubtedly be considered child-abuse, but back then they were accepted as part of the spare the rod/spoil the child method of child-rearing.
And as a result of those beatings, arbitrary and uncontrollable, I lived in fear of my father well into my adult years.
But at the same time I adored him. His stories and songs enchanted me; he could enter into a child’s world of make-believe like no other adult I have ever known. So from my own experience I understand that a child can live in perpetual terror of a parent, while simultaneously loving that same parent who takes her to the circus and the zoo, creates a magical Christmas, and shows off her accomplishments with pride.
And yet when I began to write my novel, despite my early plan, I was unable to give my first-person protagonist, nine-year-old Allie, that kind of father. Even though nine-year-old Mary Ann, and presumably many other little girls, had and have fathers like that, I saw no way to admit that kind of man as the protagonist’s father in a story for nine-year olds. I asked myself why? After all it had “really happened.”
By bringing a character like my father into the novel, I would have skewed the story, turning it into something far too dark for the readers I envisioned. This kind of character would have required a degree of complexity that I don’t think young children could quite fathom. Instead I deflected the “bad” father onto another family (but even this father’s negative qualities did not include physical violence) and gave Allie a “good enough” father and mother.
And yet . . . there are children out there that are being beaten by parents who also feed them and clothe them and take them to the circus and the zoo and read to them and honestly do love them. And the children love them back, while at the same time hating and fearing them. Would a novel for third-graders that acknowledged this state of affairs be feasible? Would it perhaps even be helpful? Possibly. But it isn’t the one I allowed myself to write.