Children's Books and Censorship At Issue

At Issue

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

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.