Would you censor a child's reading?

Image of child reading by Tim Pierce on Wikimedia Commons
Category: Parents

Are you offended by the idea of a talking spider? Probably not, so it might surprise you to know that Charlotte’s Web recently found itself ditched from libraries in Kansas for that very reason. The idea that animals could talk was seen to put them on an equal footing with humans, an idea which over-zealous librarians weren’t too keen on.

Challenging preconceptions

More Than This by Patrick Ness
It’s hard to anticipate this kind of backlash. But there are plenty of predictable cases – Huckleberry Finn, The Catcher in The Rye and more recently Junk by Melvin Burgess. There are still books that handle subjects that cause discomfort, such as More Than This by Patrick Ness. To mark our upcoming Authors Live event with Patrick, aimed at 12-14 year olds, it seems fitting to talk about where we would draw a line in recommending fiction to children from this specific age group.

Mental illness is talked about widely in society now, and there are still some unhealthy preconceptions to challenge, so I can’t see any reasonable objection to books dealing with this subject. Mental illness is at the heart of many a compelling narrative: read the synopsis for Jay Asher’s 13 Reasons Why and tell me you’re not intrigued. But what about something more potentially distressing? Do you risk upsetting your young child with a book like Ned Vizzini’s It’s a Kind of a Funny Story, narrated by a clinically depressed teen? Or the graphic descriptions of self-harm in Joanna Kendrick’s Red Tears?

Let's talk about sex

What about sex and relationships? Well, there are many facets to this discussion. As many of us know, Forever by Judy Blume was one of the most notable teen books to explore sex in a full and frank way, although you can look back as far as Sunset Song for some even-handed treatment of the subject. But would you be comfortable recommending a book featuring sexual assault, such as Jenny Downham's You Against Me? Where do you draw the line – would graphic description be your limit?

For writers, issues only have value insofar as they can give birth to unique and special stories

And how do you feel about bad language? You can be sure that even young teens hear it often, so does a book about teens ring true if effing and blinding is substituted for heck and shoot (I recently read a book which actually contained the line, “What the f-bomb?”)? Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy achieves the seemingly impossible by making the word ‘effing’ ring true as part of the character’s voice, but this wouldn’t work in the majority of books, particularly those written in the third person. Jacqueline Wilson’s publisher recently succumbed to pressure and removed bad language from My Sister Jodie: the word in question was felt by the publisher to be acceptable for readers 10 plus, and Wilson herself has signed a petition against publishing age guidance on books. But nonetheless, society spoke and was heard.

Telling stories

Is age the predominant factor? Is 12 too young to expose a child to books about the subjects above? Or maybe it’s the way a book handles its subject, rather than the presence of the subject itself? Maybe an unhappy or loose ending to books like this makes people uncomfortable: the idea that a book’s characters are unable to or refuse to overcome prejudices, or that the victims of horrible crimes don’t always get the justice they deserve. But this is life, no?

I think that for writers, issues only have value insofar as they can give birth to unique and special stories. They conceive a character with an intriguing conflict and concentrate on exploring that character: the issue brings unique challenges, but the main concern of the writer is to draw us in to people, not subjects. Unique situations throw up compelling challenges for characters, and contribute to great stories. So do we want to deprive children of such stories? Are our concerns logical, or simply knee-jerk outrage?

Teen author Keith Gray makes an impassioned case for allowing children unconstrained access to books in this video.

What do you think about censorship and whether certain content is not appropriate in books for children or younger readers? Add your thoughts in the comments below

Chris Leslie

Chris Leslie is Scottish Book Trust's Schools Resource Developer. 

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