YA Fiction and Censorship

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Despite the firestorm (1, 2) over the WSJ article about YA fiction, I did agree with this paragraph by Meghan Cox Gurdon, which she talks about the process of guiding what young people read:

“In the book trade, this is known as ‘banning.’ In the parenting trade, however, we call this ‘judgment’ or ‘taste.’ It is a dereliction of duty not to make distinctions in every other aspect of a young person’s life between more and less desirable options. Yet let a gatekeeper object to a book and the industry pulls up its petticoats and shrieks ‘censorship!'”

Censorship is a word that has sprawled over its boundaries in Kudzu-like fashion to places it doesn’t belong. Examples:

  • “Self-Censorship.” This is a terrible mashup. There is no such thing. Instead of bastardizing the idea of the censor, you might adapt language like “prudence” or “selectivity.”
  • “Parental Censorship.” There is no such thing. That’s just called parenting. Parents have a responsibility to try to guide their child’s development, which includes limiting access to some content in books.

The word censorship should be reserved for places it truly belongs, such as acts by the government or by government intermediaries (public schools) to forbid all access to a certain work. It’s not censorship, however, if the government knocks a controversial book off the required reading list for a school and yet keeps that book in the school’s library. That’s curating. That’s using literary judgment (even though it’s occasionally a skewed judgment).

Anyone from a repressive country would recognize the loose way we fling around “censorship” and laugh. As if losing the ability to discuss a work in English class truly qualifies as censorship. As if students couldn’t go to the library or read it on a Kindle or find it online. By using the word censorship so broadly, its power is neutered.

End note: To see me reacting against censors, read my apologia against censorship back in 2009.

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  1. I don’t think I’ve ever disagreed with you before, but I really don’t think parents should limit the books their children read. A parent who “curates” pretty quickly becomes a parent who’s a pain in the neck to a child, who then decides just to stop reading. It turns out that children are pretty good at figuring out when they don’t want to read something because it’s too much for them. In the end, part of growing as a reader involves having unlimited access to books. And that’s one place where good parenting involves stepping out of the way.

  2. Should parents limit an eight-year-olds’ access to R rated movies? Or rated-for-adult video games? Or Parental Advisory music?
    If so, why not books too? Why should the medium of books be treated differently?
    I suspect it’s because parents are so desperate for their children to read they don’t want to get in the way of that interest, even if that means exposing their children to subject matter they aren’t ready for.
    Just because children are occasionally talented at figuring at what subject matter is beyond them doesn’t mean parents should step back and let children do all the decision-making.
    As far as curator-as-pain-in-the-neck, I think it’s a mistake to view a curator just in a negative sense, as someone who limits access to work. The act of curator is a positive one, providing a wealth of options that might dovetail perfectly with a child’s interest. For instance, my parents fed me Robinson Crusoe and 20,000 Leagues under the Sea and Lord of the Rings and Encyclopedia Brown and Where the Red Fern Grows, and I think those were the perfect books for me. They didn’t blockade me, they channeled me, and the directions they pointed me in were enjoyable ones.

  3. I usually keep an eye on what my 10 year old reads because there are certain things I don’t want my 10 year old exposed to.
    I did catch her once reading a particular book that was geared more towards the teens than the preteens, and I actually checked it out at a bookstore to see what it was all about.
    Fortunately she didn’t like it, but that didn’t mean I was thrilled about her decision making skills. She shouldn’t have been reading it in the first place.

  4. As I was writing my comment, I thought about this very thing, the question of which kinds of experiences a parent limits a child from participating in and which they don’t. Like you, I do think a parent has a responsibility to limit access to movies that’re too much for a child. But I think books and movies are different — a child is a captive audience to the visual experience, which can be overwhelming in a way a book isn’t. The reading experience is about filling in the blanks from your own experience. “The machine guns slaughtered the soldiers as they struggled to land on the beach” is a lot different from the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan. Also, if the description of the slaughtered soldiers makes a kid uncomfortable, then generally a kid won’t keep reading. I asked one of my kids if this was true, and he told me that he didn’t like “those cutter books.” So he doesn’t read them.
    This is, obviously, purely anecdotal and I say it only to illustrate that it is not always the case that a parent needs to limit a child’s reading — in my own experience, as a child, and as a parent, a child does just fine on his own.
    You make an excellent point about the value of curating. Maybe the reason I feel comfortable having my kids roam the library and the bookstore is that someone’s already done some curating there — and made some choices to exclude the truly inappropriate (porn comes to mind) and to shelve things where a person looking for something they’re interested in would know to look. Like your parents, I do give my kids books all the time. I listen to what they say they like and I try to remember what other books are like the ones they enjoy. Children want to know what you think, as long as you’re not crazy judgmental or punishing. What I try not to do is take books away from them once they’ve found them and have decided they want to read them.
    I’d rather talk to them about what they’re reading and see if I can figure out why it’s interesting to them.
    I don’t give my kids free reign to read because I’m desperate to have them read — I do it because I don’t want them to equate books with broccoli, the thing your mom’s in charge of figuring out how to get you to eat. Children have very little freedom. I’m good with letting them have most of it in the library or in a bookstore.

  5. @Lily That was a great response.
    I think it’s a good point that the visceral images of film provides specificity in a way that fiction does not. Of course, writing that is actually written well wouldn’t be a phrase like “the machine guns slaughtered the soldiers . . .” because it would be more tactile and sensual and specific. However, I still think you have a point. But I wonder whether there are other ways that fiction could be more dangerous than movies. Writing is better than film to enter inside the head of a character, to really hear his or her thoughts, and those thoughts might communicate ideas or sensibilities that could be far more seismic in a child’s life than graphic depiction of images.
    In an ideal world, I would love to personally know my librarian and be able to trust her to curate the books for my children, and you’re right, I don’t want my children thinking of books as broccoli. You’ve brought up some good points for consideration and I’ll file them away for further reflection.

  6. Thanks.
    While I don’t read YA as a rule but know about the popular titles out there (like “The Diary of A Wimpy Kid” and “Captain Underpants”), I still try to keep tabs on what my daughter reads. Which is why sometimes when I happen to notice my daughter reading a book, I’ll either ask her about it and/or read the jacket blurb to get a basic idea/understanding of it.

  7. Thanks for curating such an interesting discussion! There’s a book I really like about children and reading, by the way. It’s called The Rights of the Reader. Its author, Daniel Pennac, is compassionate and wise on this subject. I recommend it highly to anyone who’s interested in children and reading.
    PS: I knew you’d notice that bad sentence about the soldiers being slaughtered. But I hate books with violence in them, don’t read them, and couldn’t bring myself to reproduce even one sentence from this type of work. My three boys on the other hand… sheesh. xo