Children's Books and Censorship Analysis

At Issue

What children read affects their perceptions of the world and helps to form the attitudes that will govern their behavior as adults. This basic concept helps explain why educators, parents, and society at large have concerned themselves with the content of children’s books. Whenever books for children present ideas and material that a group of adults, or even a single parent or teacher, thinks is inappropriate, the possibility of censorship arises.

The very concept of children’s literature itself implies a kind of censorship. The first children’s books were adaptations of adult literature and oral traditions that originally addressed a wide range of ages. Children were reared on such works as the Bible, which is full of violence. Books that were published specifically for children might be abridged to eliminate scatological material or other content deemed inappropriate for younger readers, as happened to children’s editions of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), originally published as a political satire for adults.

Once books began to be written specifically for children, self- censorship prevented most writers from including anything that adults thought would be offensive to the young. Insofar as a book is directed specifically at children, some degree of censorship has, in such a process, already occurred before the book is printed.

Censorship of adult books is typically directed against graphic sex, ideas offensive to a dominant religion, or political thought opposed to existing authorities. Potential censors have claimed to find all three categories in children’s literature, but few children’s books deal with politics in a way likely to trigger government censorship or are sufficiently explicit to be found legally obscene. Nevertheless, children’s books have experienced some form of censorship since they first began to appear.

Early Children’s Books

The few books written for children before 1700 were intended to provide moral instruction, not entertainment. Children’s literature emerged during the eighteenth century, heavily influenced by the English philosopher John Locke, who argued that children’s reading should entertain as it taught. But Locke’s thinking also contained the seeds of censorship. Locke argued that children should be isolated from superstition, which bred fear and other dangerous habits of thinking; instead, they should read only about what was provably true.

For most of the subsequent history of children’s books, a tension between entertainment and instructional values has operated to shape the stories offered to children. John Newbery, considered the first children’s publisher and Locke’s disciple, avoided heavy-handed didacticism but also eliminated material that would trouble young minds. Locke’s injunction against teaching of false information was used to suppress chapbooks, inexpensive publications filled with fairy tales and adventure stories and sold by traveling peddlers. Newbery appropriated fairy tales for his books, altering them to make them more “wholesome” and often didactic. Other followers of Locke, however, specifically warned against letting children read fairy tales.

While chapbooks and fairy tales caused some concern, few “serious” children’s books drew the attention of would-be censors before the 1860’s. Early nineteenth...

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The Late Twentieth Century

Prior to the 1960’s, most censorship affected cheaper “nonliterary” types of children’s reading. Social change in that turbulent decade, however, led writers to break former taboos on the depiction of sexual, racial, and violent themes in mainstream children’s books. In the late 1960’s and 1970’s, realistic children’s fiction began to reflect larger social problems and the emerging realization among adults that older children, at least, were trying to work out the meaning of their newly emergent sexual impulses.

Books such as Judy Blume’s Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret (1970), which deals with a sixth-grade girl’s anxieties about menstruation and breast development, or Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (1974), about peer pressure and intimidation in a boys’ high school, present a different image of childhood than does previous children’s literature. To many adults, such books violate the social myth of childhood innocence, an active force in Western culture since the eighteenth century, and censorship attempts reflected a defense of this social idea.

Defenders of realism in children’s books have argued that the books offered young readers a gritty realism that addressed their innermost fears and concerns. Opponents saw the books themselves as creating those fears and concerns. The realistic children’s books were controversial enough when they appeared on publishers’ lists; they became the focus for censorship wars when they were purchased by libraries for children’s and young adult collections, or assigned by middle school and high school teachers for classroom reading. Concerned parents and others complained that the sexual and violent content of some children’s books were disturbing to their children.

Many of Judy Blume’s books have been attacked for their frank presentation of adolescent sexuality. Also frequently opposed are books that cast doubt on adult authority, as Cormier’s The Chocolate War does, or that depict children using foul language, as does the central character of Katherine Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins (1978). Paterson’s response to complaints about her character’s language illustrates a chief argument against children’s book censorship. She points out that Gilly engages in a number of antisocial behaviors, so that her language is appropriate to her...

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(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

In Suitable for Children?: Controversies in Children’s Literature (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976) Nicholas Tucker compiles historical documents and modern scholarship about children’s book censorship. Mark I. West’s Children, Culture, and Controversy (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1988) provides a historical overview connecting censorship of children’s reading to concepts of childhood innocence. Lee Burress’ Battle of the Books: Literary Censorship in the Public Schools, 1950-1985 (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1989) identifies factors contributing to increased censorship since 1950. James Moffat’s Storm in the Mountains: A Case Study of Censorship, Conflict, and Consciousness (Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988) presents a wide spectrum of viewpoints via a detailed examination of the 1974 textbook controversy in Kanawha County, West Virginia. Henry Reichman, in Censorship and Selection: Issues and Answers for Schools (Chicago: American Library Association, 1988), outlines the major arguments about and causes of children’s book censorship. In addition, recent censorship activities are frequently discussed in professional library and education journals such as School Library Journal and The New Advocate.