Young Adult Books and Censorship Analysis

At Issue

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Before the invention of movable type in the fifteenth century, books for children were lesson books in Latin for the upper class. These early texts set the tone for children’s literature as works that should present models of moral instruction.

Historical Antecedents

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

The expanded use of movable type resulted in increased literacy. As the middle class became concerned with educating their children, distinctions were made between literature for adults and literature for children. In colonial America, the Puritans assumed that the moral redemption of their children was a parental obligation. Books for children, then, were religious and highly moralistic.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, some books began to bridge the gap between literature for adults and literature for children. Daniel Defoe’s The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) are two. In 1744 John Newbery began to publish books specifically intended for children, many of which were deliberately written for enjoyment. The preachy Little Goody Two-Shoes (1765) may be cited as the first short juvenile novel.

During the nineteenth century, children were viewed as winsome innocents lacking adult hypocrisy. Children’s classics such as Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1867) and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) were widely read and contrasted with the popular domestic novel. Written primarily for older girls and women, domestic novels promoted acceptable social values and traditional morality. Boys and men read dime novels, adventure novels that contained rugged male protagonists in unrealistic adventures. These books were suspiciously regarded by the clergy, teachers, and many parents. As the nineteenth century closed, distinctions had been made between classics and nonclassics and between boys’ books and girls’ books. Furthermore, many works for young people had been attacked by adults.

Trends in the Twentieth Century

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

The concept of adolescence as a separate stage of life had evolved during the nineteenth century and was defined by G. Stanley Hall in 1905. Literature for young adults thus began to reflect this life period more definitively. Books of the early twentieth century included Booth Tarkington’s Penrod (1914), which deals with the comical adventures of a twelve-year-old male protagonist. Eleanor Porter’s Pollyanna (1913) portrays an early adolescent female coping with growing up.

During the 1930’s, the term “junior books” came into use. Publishers soon formed junior book divisions and for the next three decades, authors such as Henry Gregor Felsen, James Summers, and John Tunis were popular with boys, and Janet Lambert and Maureen Daly were read by girls. During this period, the characteristics of the young adult novel were established: about 200 pages in length, immediate reader entry into the novel, realistic dialogue, and adolescent characters in relevant settings and situations.

During the 1960’s, adult books such as The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and Lord of the Flies (1954) became popular reading for adolescents. At the same time literature written for adolescents began to reflect changing mores of society and new conflicts for the young adult. S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (1967) deals with the problems of gangs. Paul Zindel’s The Pigman (1968) portrays a male and female protagonist. African American characters are important in works such as Nat Hentoff’s Jazz Country (1965) and Robert Lipsyte’s The Contender (1967).

As books for adolescents became more realistic about many adolescents’ lives, they became more controversial. Robert Cormier’s...

(The entire section is 724 words.)

Who Challenges Young Adult Books

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Since the 1960’s, groups from the religious right have attacked public schools in general and language arts departments in particular. These conservative Protestants believe in the absolute authority of the Bible and salvation through belief in Christ. Christian news shows charge educators with diluting academics, condoning homosexuality, and generally opposing Christian principles. The term “secular humanism” is used to confront texts that are viewed as opposing God, Christianity, and patriotism. New Age religion, it is alleged, teaches that humans must save themselves and reject theism.

Fantasy books are particularly susceptible to the secular humanism charge because of witches, fairies, and other chimerical characters. Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia (1977), for example, has been challenged on the basis of containing New Age religion and inappropriate use of God’s name. Roald Dahl’s The Witches (1983), popular with upper elementary and middle school children, has been accused of teaching witchcraft and Satanism.

Radicals and feminist activists have also challenged young adult books, showing that censorship comes from the Left as well as the religious right. In LaGrange, Kentucky, a challenge to The Witches came from members of the Wiccan religion, who maintained that witches in the book were negatively depicted. A parent in Louisville, Kentucky, challenged Judy Blume’s Blubber (1974) because of characters who speak racial slurs. Challenges regarding racism and sexism present complex questions since people disagree about what constitutes racism or sexism and its influence on the reader. Recurrent battles concerning Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) are examples.

Defenders of Young Adult Books

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Until the 1969 Supreme Court decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, students were viewed as having no rights. Justice Abe Fortas affirmed the constitutional right of students and teachers in the context of the school. The case of Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico in the early 1970’s declared that First Amendment rights had been violated by removal of several young adult books from the school library. During the 1980’s, however, the Supreme Court seemed to curtail the rights of the student reader. In the 1988 Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier decision, the Court supported the final authority of school administrators, including building principals, to make curricular decisions necessary for the mission of the particular school.

Language arts teachers deal with challenges to young adult books by developing rationales for teaching particular works. In addition, teachers focus on district support of academic freedom and communicate with members of the community about the literature program. Formal policies are also implemented to handle challenges and are followed when such challenges are presented. National professional organizations such as the American Library Association, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the International Reading Association have all taken a strong position against censorship. Rationales for works taught in English and language arts are available through Support for the Learning and Teaching of English (SLATE) and the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). Rationales are also available for frequently challenged young adult books.


(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Lee Burress’ Battle of the Books: Literary Censorship in the Public Schools, 1950-1985 (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1989) surveys censorship situations and discusses secular humanism. William Gribbin’s “Religious Conservatives and Public Schools: Understanding the Religious Right,” in English Journal (84, no. 5, 1995), defines the term “religious Right” and identifies its membership. Edward B. Jenkinson, Censors in the Classroom: The Mind Benders (Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1979), discusses the problems of censorship in materials for young people, including important challenges of the 1970’s. Henry Reichman’s Censorship and Selection: Issues and Answers for Schools (Chicago: American Library Association, 1988) includes major court cases related to censorship. Controversial issues such as obscene language and sexuality in young people’s literature are dealt with. John S. Simmons, ed., Censorship: A Threat to Reading, Learning, and Thinking (Newark, Del.: International Reading Association, 1994), surveys several dimensions of the problems of censorship of school texts. Julian Thompson’s “Defending YA Literature against the Pharisees and Censors: Is It Worth the Trouble?” in ALAN Review (18, no. 2 Winter, 1991) defends the author’s own writing and all young adult novels considered controversial.