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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 291

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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

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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 century writers, parents, teachers, and publishers were all of one mind about what children needed: moral, consciously didactic tales meant to instill proper social behavior and religious belief.

Didacticism declined and more entertainment values appeared in children’s books in the last half of the nineteenth century, following the publication of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). A distinction remained, however, between “serious” children’s books, which experienced few external censorship pressures, and “trash literature” such as the dime novels, mostly western and detective stories, that had succeeded chapbooks as cheap reading for youth, especially in the United States.

Antipornography crusader Anthony Comstock waged a public campaign in the 1880’s against dime novels, claiming that they lured young readers into delinquency and crime. He succeeded in getting state laws passed to limit children’s access to such works. Following Comstock’s arguments, and out of a conviction that cheap literature corrupted children’s reading tastes, many librarians also banned dime novels from the early children’s collections. Such works as Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), which superficially resembled the dime novels in some respects, were also banished from some children’s libraries.

In the early twentieth century, librarians continued to ban certain kinds of “low” reading, notably series books, pulp magazines, and comic books—the descendants of the dime novels. These cheap forms drew censors’ attentions. In the late 1940’s, Frederic Wertham attacked comic books as fostering juvenile delinquency and doing little to develop children’s reading. Although his main target was lurid detective and horror comics, he also found implicit homoeroticism in some superhero comics, which he claimed promoted homosexuality. Under threat of external censorship, the comics industry established a voluntary code of ethics, banning graphic crime and horror stories. Voluntary enforcement of the code reduced comic- book violence and diminished criticism.

The Late Twentieth Century

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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 character; furthermore, she learns over the course of the book that her prejudice is misdirected and her antisocial behavior is most injurious to herself. Opponents have taken selected elements out of context; the book as a whole does not condone the disputed behavior and in the eyes of many readers presents a strong moral tale that would be unrealistic and unbelievable were the offensive language purged.

A second defense of challenged books questions the adult challengers’ implicit belief that child readers are innocent of knowledge of the particular social ills, sexual impulses, or violent experiences that the books depict. Supporters of the literature argue that children are in fact more complex and less naturally innocent than the censorious arguments suggest, and that realistic children’s fiction simply lays bare in print the emotions and experiences that many children already have.

Two other categories of children’s books have also been the targets of censorship in contemporary society: fantasy and school textbooks. Objections to textbooks tend to follow lines similar to those for realistic fiction: inappropriately sexual or social content in literature anthologies, or negative portrayals of minority groups. Additional concerns have also been raised, however, about the relationship between what is taught in textbooks and religious beliefs, and about the portrayal of American history.

Conservative parents and educators sometimes object to textbooks that contain writings hostile to their religious beliefs or supportive of other religious beliefs—in particular, the inclusion of non-Western folkloric material that they see as satanic or anti-Christian. On the other hand, liberal parents and educators may oppose old-fashioned textbooks that adopt an inherently Christian viewpoint without acknowledging it as such, or that fail to include other cultural groups within their scope.

Fantasy, whether in the form of traditional folklore or in modern dress as fantasy novels, has been viewed with suspicion since Locke’s time. While some observers celebrate the role of fantasy in unlocking the imagination, others argue that fantasy undermines children’s developing understanding of the world as it is. In the late twentieth century, fairy tales and fantasy have also been the subject of censorship attempts because they may depict witches and other supernatural creatures that some associate with satanic beliefs and antireligious values.

The upsurge in censorship of children’s books during the 1970’s came from conservative parents, often based on religious beliefs that were offended by many of the issues raised by the new realism. Censorship efforts also came from the Left. Concern had already been raised about books such as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which disturbed some black readers and liberal parents by its depiction of black slaves, and in particular for its use of the word “nigger.” As educators became sensitive to cultural representations of minorities, thanks in part to the activities of the Council on Interracial Books for Children, however, more books that appeared to present racial and religious minorities and women in negative ways became targets as well. The defense against left-wing censorship attempts has been similar to that for censorship from the Right: to argue for the essential realism of the writing and to oppose taking isolated language or scenes out of context.

Book challenges are successful in about 40 percent of all cases—too many for those who oppose censorship of children’s books, too few for those who bring the challenges. To ensure victory, would-be censors in the 1990’s began to employ a new strategy: silent removal of offending materials from library shelves, by checking out or removing books and not returning them. This effectively prevents children and anyone else from having access to the material and, in an era of declining budgets, such silently censored books may not be replaced.


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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.