Dracula Is a Pain in the Neck and So Is “Self-censorship”
My brother’s favorite game was “strangle.” As I remember the rules, he would pretend to strangle me, and I, so happy to get my older brother’s attention, waited till the last minute to call for help and get him in trouble. It was my favorite game. When I began to write children’s books, it was natural that I would draw on the love/hate bonds between siblings. The feelings are still strong, but after reading Mary Ann Hoberman’s piece I realized I have never written the game strangle into my books. And I wonder why. Do I think it would be too much for the kids, or too much for the adults who stand as the gate keepers to those who buy books? Or is writing better when it transforms a specific memory into something broader?
So many of my books, Frankenstein Moved in on the 4th Floor, followed by Dracula is a Pain in the Neck, The Night of the Living Gerbil, and The Vampire State Building, etc, are versions of my brothers game of strangle. Siblings try to scare each other “close to death” and pull back. There is no supernatural in any of these books. And yet these are the ones that most often get me “disinvited” after I have been invited to a school. Someone, usually from the PTO, asks “would I mind not mentioning those ones.” Usually the “disinvite” comes from the title, not even the content. I would perhaps be prouder if a closer reading of my content raised objections. I agree with Bob: being disinvited to speak is not exactly a burning issue of censorship. Disinvited sounds much more like something that happens with a grade school birthday party when someone gets mad and says “You can’t come.” Oddly though, it still hurts.
Betty Miles, the wonderful writer, helped me because it had happened to her. I learned to say that a school district certainly doesn’t have to buy any books they don’t like, but if the kids are at the appropriate grade level, I have to stand behind all my books. I wrote them. I can’t orphan them. I try to explain to kids the ways that my strong feelings from childhood spill into my adult life and still fuel my writing. At nearly seventy and sixty-five, my brother and I can still push each others buttons, but without those buttons and emotions my story would be empty, and I encourage children to write about their strongest feelings. I tell them that my greatest fear, far scarier than vampires, is the one that I somehow haven’t been honest, and haven’t given it my all.
I keep in my office a wonderful cartoon that Art Spieglman and Maurice Sendak did together for The New Yorker. Spieglman says “when parents give Maus my book about Auschwitz to their little kids, I think it’s a child abuse. I wanna protect my kids.” Sendak replies, “Art—you can’t protect kids…they know everything….in reality, childhood is deep and rich. It’s vital mysterious and profound. I remember my own childhood vividly. I knew terrible things….but I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew…it would scare them.”