When I logged on to the tinterweb on Sunday morning I noticed on my online newspaper rounds that the Telegraph had posted a piece about "offensive" children's books withdrawn by libraries. I find censorship of children's books incredibly interesting, so clicked right away. I even tried to write my dissertation about it, although I have since discovered that my conclusions were, probably as with most undergrads, pretty well trod ground!
The Telegraph points out books which have been removed from UK children's libraries after complaints. This information is more regularly available in the US, with the American Libraries Association publishing a list of most challenged books every year. Each year I am amazed by the appearance of books which are, to me, quite obviously opposing the points that the complainers seem to be offended by. For example To Kill a Mockingbird is repeatedly listed, under the criticism of being racist. In this and many similar cases I suppose the question is whether the complaint is the misled belief that the content actually is racist, or if parents oppose the depiction of a realistic historical scene of racism as suitable reading material. I am not sure which is worse. The first situation supposes an entire nation of complainers who are incapable of interpreting the basic point of a great work of fiction, but the second supposes that any politically charged situation is not suitable material for literature. What will be left if we remove anything that may cause offense?
When writing my dissertation I discovered several amusing organisations such as PABBIS - Parents Against Bad Books in School. Not only does the generic "bad" make me laugh (are they going to start calling for poorly reviewed titles to be removed??) but their site conveniently lists all the books they are opposed to and pulls out the particularly nasty quotes. If you ask me, they've pretty much created their own literary porn site!
The titles picked out by The Telegraph include one or two that I find impossible to comprehend their offensiveness. This leads me to suspect that perhaps the UK is not so free of the narrow minded views that have been banning books in the US as I had thought. For example the Horrible Histories books were pulled out for trivialising violence. Well, duh. History is pretty violent and gory and yet it's part of all our blood, bones and brains so we need to learn about it. As a child I couldn't stand history but loved, LOVED these books. I had every one I could get my hands on. To this day, any historical fact I know is probably remembered from Terry Deary's ligtht hearted and humourous tales. Removing these books seems once again to stem from a desire to censor political and emotional situations from literature.
Other complaints really bordered on the faintly ridiculous - Horrid Henry encourages bad manners - really? HE'S CALLED HORRID HENRY. Of course he has bad manners! The Big Ugly Monster and Little Stone Rabbit makes ugly children feel their lives are not worth living - this might be the conclusion a very young child may reach alone, but surely any adult can see the deeper message is to treat everyone nicely because everyone needs a friend? I believe this is the real issue at hand - parents not talking through issues they come across in books with their children.
I may not be a parent myself so I can't claim to be the most accurate judge, but I hope that when I do have a child of my own I will sit down with them when they're reading picture books and if they are distressed by anything, I will talk it through with them and help them see the deeper meaning. Of course you want to protect your children from unnecessary woe but how much better is it for them to learn about something a bit tricky through a book with a parent before they come across it in real life?
I used to work in the brilliant Norwich Millennium Library and we did have some books that we were unsure if they should be left in with the other picture books. For example The Island by Australian author Armin Greder moved into our "picture books for older readers" section before it eventually moved into the graphic novel section. A distressing parable of racism it was quite clearly not for three year olds, but was a compelling and beautiful book - a tricky one to define the target audience for. This book shows that there are of course some books that need to be given out with more guidance - but this is why librarians are so important! So they can appropriately shelve materials, provide warnings where necessary. But also parents should act as a filter and judge for their own children.
If we start casting about for things to find offense in we could go on forever. I despair at the narrow beliefs and sanitisation of children's books. One of the things I adore about picture books particularly is that they really can be about anything now - that's what makes them so interesting and enriching. There is so much to be learnt from them that we should heartily resist limiting their subject matter so narrowly.