Children’s Literature and the Censorship Conversation: Dialogues on Challenged Books
It’s a topic of discussion that has increasingly been at the forefront of the publishing industry and beyond. Authors, educators, and children’s literature experts gathered at Bank Street College in New York City on April 16 for a half-day of panel talks on censorship, called “Who Are You to Say? Children’s Literature and the Censorship Conversation.”
Children’s book scholar Leonard S. Marcus, who moderated the first panel, began with an introduction to the history of censorship in America. Marcus discussed how the roots of censorship of children’s literature runs roughly parallel to the time when “stories about children as they are took their place beside stories about children as they ought to be,” for example, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, which featured rebellious and free-thinking characters. Colorful dime novels, featuring light action stories, became of particular interest to children in the late 19th century. Affordable and accessible to children, dime novels came to be seen as a threat to the authority of “parents and moralists, who saw their control over young people’s reading matter slipping away,” Marcus said.
Marcus addressed how, while calls for censorship are frequently attempts to quell the tide of social change and can be traced to ideologies of the religious right, the matter is not always so clear-cut. For instance, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time was both rejected by prospective publishers for being “too Christian” and criticized after publication by religious fundamentalists for not being Christian enough.
Joining Marcus for the first panel, titled “Developing Challenged Children’s Books: Authors and Their Editors,” were Susan Kuklin, Hilary Van Dusen, Robie H. Harris, Justin Richardson, David Gale, and Peter Parnell. The speakers discussed how a book comes to be challenged, the common reasons behind such challenges, and their impact.
Richardson and Parnell’s And Tango Makes Three continues to top lists as one of the most challenged books in America. The authors reflected on the first challenge to the book. In Missouri in 2006, a parent complained to a librarian about the story of two male penguins raising a chick and, while the librarian did not outright remove the book from the library, she relocated it to the nonfiction section shelves, where children did not tend to browse. At that time, a local newspaper writer learned of the complaint and printed the story in the local paper, which was then picked up by the Associated Press. Richardson and Parnell found out about the challenge through a Google alert.
Harris noted the relative ease with which any individual can enter a library and, “for reasons that may have nothing to do with reality,” object to the content of a particular book. It is then librarians who bear the burden of “defending their professional judgment,” and the ones who often suffer the most, Harris believes, are children. In 2007, a patron at the Lewiston Public Library in Maine checked out a copy of Harris’s It’s Perfectly Normal, deeming the book about sexual development and puberty obscene. She didn’t return it, instead sending a check to cover its expense. The librarians sent the check back, explaining, “We’re not booksellers.” The library was eventually cleared of obscenity charges.
To Harris, the woman should have been asked to serve her community in some manner to compensate for the time and resources it took to address her challenge to It’s Perfectly Normal – “not at the library, though,” she added.
While challenges to books can often result in increased sales, the authors and editors on the panel agreed that it’s certainly not the expectation or the intent of the author that a book will be deemed objectionable. Gale, who edited And Tango Makes Three, said he “wasn’t expecting controversy.” While he saw that the story could potentially speak to children of gay parents, “first and foremost, it’s a great picture book,” he said.
Harris added that labeling a book as “controversial” can dramatically change a reader’s view of it, even though its author’s intent was merely to create a book that was meaningful to children and to “have a conversation with kids.”
Kuklin’s motivations for writing Beyond Magenta, which shares the stories of transgender teenagers, came about because she was aware that “kids are getting hurt; some are getting murdered, and no one has a voice.” She added that, as an author whose work has been challenged, “It’s a very odd feeling, coming from the inside out.” Meanwhile, for Van Dusen, publishing Beyond Magenta was a no-brainer. To her, “it was a groundbreaking proposal,” a book that needed to be published.
Sometimes, the act of censorship is subtler than, say, a library patron or a group of parents at a school angrily calling for a book’s removal. Harris has periodically been asked not to “mention those books on sex” at school presentations. In those cases, she elects not to attend. Echoing Maurice Sendak’s sentiments, she said: “I’m never going to start lying to kids.” Censorship doesn’t always happen after a book is published or even after it’s written: once an author begins to fear that a book’s content might be deemed objectionable, that author might begin to, whether consciously or unconsciously, self-censor his or her material. “I know that if I write something that is challenged, it’s the librarians who have to deal with it,” said Kuklin, while Harris spoke to self-censorship as being perhaps the most “chilling effect” resulting from challenges to books in schools and libraries.
Next up were authors and book reviewers emily m. danforth, Shelly Diaz, Coe Booth, and Meg Medina, for a discussion titled “Why Are Young Adult Books Challenged?” The talk was moderated by author David K. Shipler.
Shipler kicked off the discussion by speaking about the motivations that he sees behind the censoring of books and the true costs of censorship, particularly when teachers feel they must “justify their book choices behind the scene. As if to add insult to injury, often the individuals who call for a book’s removal have never even read the book and, in fact, sometimes refuse to do so. Primarily, Shipler sees parents objecting to books their children are reading in school, because “they fear a loss of control over parenting and feel alienated from public schools. Sexual content, whether explicit or not, is often the source of censor’s objections, as is homosexuality. Other content that frequently meets with objection includes “religious irreverence” and “challenging authority.” Shipler noted, however, that “books with violent themes aren’t the ones that tend to get challenged.”
The panelists weighed in about their own experiences with censorship, elaborating on those incidences of “soft censorship” that they have encountered throughout their careers. Medina has been asked to not mention the title of her book, Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, which she describes as being about “bullying, Latin identity, and how to self-define in the face of violence” at school events. Both Medina and Booth (Tyrell) have witnessed their books being categorized in such a way that they are rendered less accessible to kids – for example, by being placed in the “urban section” of a library or store. Booth has also encountered messages from schools and libraries along the lines of “we only have two ethnic kids in our school,” so your book isn’t really for us, and Medina is sometimes invited to speak with only groups of Latino kids.
Growing up in what she calls a “very conservative household,” Diaz recalled having to hide her copy of Harry Potter when she was a kid. And yet, she said she recognizes that censorship often “occurs from a place of love,” sometimes stemming from “fear of the unknown, fear that their child is growing up.” However, she also sees that many of the books that are being censored today feature diverse subjects and she believes those who are censoring them “are uncomfortable with those who are unlike themselves,” which she feels can amount to an attempt at “erasure” of entire groups of people and their stories. danforth’s YA novel The Miseducation of Cameron Post was removed from a summer reading list in Delaware and the reason cited was “profanity.” However, when danforth obtained a copy of the original complaint letter, it described the book as a “road map to teenage homosexuality.”
Sense and Sensitivity
Librarians and book critics next took the stage; their talk was titled “Context and Controversy: Banned, Censored, and Contested Books for Young People.” The panelists were Kiera Parrott, reviews director, School Library Journal; Cheryl Willis Hudson, Just Us Books; Allie Jane Bruce, Children’s Library, Bank Street College of Education; Fatima Shaik, Children’s/Young Adult Books Committee, PEN American Center; and Andy Laties, manager of the Bank Street Bookstore. Author Elizabeth Levy moderated.
The group spoke at length about different forms of censorship. Soft censorship, Parrott noted, can creep into book reviews, in terms of what a reviewer or reviews editor might choose to highlight or omit when discussing a book’s content: “I try to be thoughtful about the decisions we make,” Parrott said. Hudson, who makes very specific choices about what kinds of books to publish at Just Us Books, wonders if these choices could be considered a type of censorship. From its inception, Hudson determined that Just Us Books would not publish folktales, animal tales, or books about slavery. Instead, the publishing house focuses on “contemporary children living contemporary lives.” In regards to censoring content, however, Hudson suggested that having the sensitivity to recognize that a book might not be the right one for a context, is not the same as denying readers access. There’s a difference between “censors” and “sensors.” In fact, “publishers need to have more sensors on,” she suggested.
Shaik noted how, in light of the controversy surrounding picture books like A Birthday Cake for George Washington and A Fine Dessert, “we are all a little confused about what is good sense and what is being sensitive.” Suggesting that race itself is a “social construction” that partially rests upon “racial icons and stereotypes,” Shaik said that there is a choice to be made between “building on racist stereotypes or “breaking them down and offering new definitions.”
Bruce believes that outcry over censorship can also have its own chilling impact. Objecting to the content of a book, if that objection is automatically labeled as censorship, can have the effect of shutting down a critically important conversation. In other words, calling a book a racist book is not necessarily an act of censorship. Nor is making thoughtful choices about which books are right for which kids.
A Fine Dessert and A Birthday Cake for George Washington served as touchstones for thinking about depictions of race. For Parrott, she admitted that she was initially uncertain how she felt about the “smiling slaves” in A Fine Dessert, and it was only after there was an outcry that she truly understood how inappropriate the images were. Hudson also noted the power of images, particularly for children. Because A Fine Dessert is “a beautiful book,” she calls the decision to depict the slaves as smiling and contented was “an unfortunate choice for me. That a beautiful book might be the first that a child sees in reference to slavery… and everyone is just having a great time.” It’s also an instance of a children’s book simply “not presenting the facts,” she said, through its use of untrue, stereotyped imagery.
Regardless of its content, the panelists expressed mixed feelings about the actual removal of A Cake for George Washington from publication by Scholastic. Was this an act of censorship? For Hudson, the decision to withdraw the book was an internal decision made at the discretion of the publisher and ultimately a fair one: “They made a good decision,” she said. For Shaik, she felt the decision was censorial in that, as a reader, “I should be able to see it and make up my mind,” she said.
Though perhaps not appropriate in a classroom of young readers, A Birthday Cake for George Washington may find a home within another context: as an audience member shared, the New York Public Library has a copy housed in its Research Library.
The Costs of Free Speech
During the final talk of the day, Joan Bertin, director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, touched on the greater implications of individual book challenges, stating that “book censorship as a cultural phenomenon is emblematic of a much broader conversation.” Throughout her life and career, she has come to see the First Amendment and its principals as “the best advocate and best protection” for free exchange of ideas and the control of untapped power.
She noted recent examples of highly publicized censorship, including the controversy over the Advanced Placement U.S. History curriculum guidelines; school boards in several states have made claims that the guidelines aren’t patriotic enough and promote left-wing agendas such as “civil disorder.” Bertin sees this sort of controversy as being “significant and indicative of an underlying conflict of identity” within our society, which she feels is also evident within the current political climate. She added: “Civil disorder is a feature of American history.”
Calling herself an “advocate for the rights of authors and artist to express themselves,” Bertin added her two cents to the debate about the removal of A Birthday Cake for George Washington: “I believe there was a terrible mistake made in pulling the book… because it denied the right to have a conversation,” she said. She added that, should anyone in the audience want a PDF copy of the book for educational purposes, she has it available. Defending freedom of speech can be a “heavy burden.” Yet, without it, there is no promise of growth. Bertin reinforced how organizations like the National Coalition and PEN are unwavering in their commitment to protect the rights of children, teachers, and librarians, to choose, read, and share books, without fear.“ Literature is not safe, nor should it be,” Bertin said. “It unsettles us and yet allows us to explore dangerous ideas in a safe way,” she said.