You Can’t Say That: Who Should Censor Our Children’s Reading? by Leonard S. Marcus
As a historian and critic, I realized long ago that books for young readers are not as innocent as they seem. How could they be? In every generation, the stories we tell our children and teens lay bareour collective hopes and dreams–and fears–for the future. No wonder titles published for young readers always dominate the American Library Association’s annual list of the ten most frequently banned or challenged titles.
In these polarized times, challenges from the Right most often target books that describe sexual activity, question religious beliefs, incorporate violent or scary plot points or “crude” language, or explore racial or gender identity or non-traditional family scenarios. Challenges from the Left tend to focus on instances of perceived cultural misappropriation. You may have heard of some of the routinely targeted titles: Heather Has Two Mommies, Captain Underpants, The Hate U Give, and Huckleberry Finn.
Attempts to censor young people’s literature are hardly new. Anthony Comstock’s New York Society for the Prevention of Vice, founded in 1873, fought successfully to limit access to the sensational teen adventure stories called dime novels. In the 1950s, Senate hearings into psychiatrist Fredric Wertham’s claims that horror comics like Tales from the Crypt promoted juvenile delinquency prompted publishers to impose a self-censoring Comics Code. During the Reagan years, Phyllis Schlafly’s conservative interest group, the Eagle Forum, distributed a pamphlet entitled “How to Rid Your Schools and Libraries of Judy Blume Books.” The robust sales of Blume’s irreverent novels did not to suffer any–and may have gotten a bounce–from the publicity. But the dissemination of out-of-context Blume quotes as ammunition for objectors who rarely bothered to read the books did little to advance a thoughtful discussion about the role of literature in young people’s lives. Instead, it helped set the table for today’s uncivil atmosphere, in which objectors, now with Twitter locked and loaded, seem increasingly to prefer a rant to a conversation. And so, as recently occurred, we get a swarm of ideologues disingenuously crying “Censorship” when a publisher acts responsibly to shed a handful of decades-old Dr. Seuss books containing racial and ethnic stereotypes that many in our culture no longer find acceptable.
From a series of recent interviews with more than a dozen frequently challenged writers for young people, I learned that the damage done by would-be censors can take many forms, including some that are fiendishly hard to pinpoint. Surprisingly–as Judy Blume’s case demonstrates–the harm done often has little directly to do with sales. Robie Harris, author of the perennially challenged young readers’ guide to human sexuality It’s Perfectly Normal, notes that because most challenges occur at the local level, when a parent files a complaint with a library or school, it is often the frontline defenders and their communities, not the author, who pay the biggest price. Harris knows librarians who have been taunted, ostracized, and even forced from their jobs. Does such intimidation also lead to greater caution in subsequent book purchasing decisions and down the line in publishers’ acquisitions, too? Clearly it might, thereby narrowing the range of books available to young readers.
Newbery Medalist Meg Medina speaks about the “soft censorship” of, for example, a school principal requiring students to request special permission to borrow a book he finds objectionable, thereby raising an inhibiting barrier without banning the book outright. The esteemed novelist Katherine Paterson, whose Bridge to Terabithia and The Great Gilly Hopkins have each withstood numerous objections, observes that while book challengers may believe they are acting out of a desire to protect their own children, the larger societal question is whether they or anyone else should have the right to make such choices on behalf of other people’s children as well. Paterson argues that given the inherently subjective nature of the reading experience, it is presumptuous for anyone to “think they can decide for another reader what might be damaging for them.” To clinch her argument, she points to the presence in our midst of a group of censors with a track record far more impressive than that of any of the book banners who periodically make headlines: “I think most children,” Paterson says, “would stop reading if they realized [a book] was . . . hurting them or if it was something they didn’t want to understand.”
What a novel thought: to trust our children to know what they as readers need.
Leonard S. Marcus is one of the world’s leading writers about children’s books and the people who create them. He is the award-winning author of more than twenty-five books, including Show Me a Story! Why Picture Books Matter; Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom; The Wand in the Word: Conversations with Writers of Fantasy; Funny Business: Conversations with Writers of Comedy; and Comics Confidential: Thirteen Graphic Novelists Talk Story, Craft, and Life Outside the Box. His essays, interviews, and reviews appear in the New York Times Book Review and Horn Book magazine. A founding trustee of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, he teaches at New York University and the School of Visual Arts and lectures about his work across the world. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.