Censorship

There’s a wonderful article over at School Library Journal by Debra Lau Whelan, which says in public what many YA writers talk about amongst themselves all the time. Namely how pervasive censorship is in our field and not just in the obvious book-challenge way:

    Self-censorship. It’s a dirty secret that no one in the profession wants to talk about or admit practicing. Yet everyone knows some librarians bypass good books—those with literary merit or that fill a need in their collections. The reasons range from a book’s sexual content and gay themes to its language and violence—and it happens in more public and K–12 libraries than you think.

Self-censorship happens all along the way as a YA book wends its way into print. It starts with the author thinking long and hard about content that might set of censors. The article quotes David Levithan who

    says he intentionally wrote Boy Meets Boy as clean as possible so that if the book were ever challenged, the only logical reason would be because it features “happy gay characters in love.”

Then there’s our editors asking us to change content for various reasons such as the hope that the book will then be picked up by the Scholastic book club. I was asked not to use any swear words in Magic or Madness, which I did, not realising that “shit” is considered by some in the US to be a very bad swear word. To this Australian it’s pretty much invisible. I was asked to take it out, which I did, but crankily.1 Scholastic did not pick up the book and after that my editors were less fussed about the occasional use of the word “shit”.2

I have heard of writers being asked by editors whether certain characters really need to be gay/black/foul-mouthed/religious. As well as many other editorial changes I consider to be outside an editor’s remit. The good news is that in all those cases the writer stood by what they thought was right for their books and their editors were fine with it. Ah, the power of STET.

Then there’s national chains deciding to not take on a book. Mostly they do this for purely commercial considerations: because previous books by that author have not sold well. But I have heard of instances where books are not ordered by the chains because of “content”.3 Books can be killed stone-cold dead that way.

Then there’s the librarians not ordering the books for fear of parental complaints. As Lau Whelan points out that fear is real:

    There have been enough cases of librarians losing their jobs or facing the threat of losing employment while defending the freedom to read that ALA has created the LeRoy C. Merritt Humanitarian Fund to help pay for fees and expenses associated with these First Amendment clashes, says Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy director of ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom. Although information about these grants is confidential, dozens have been awarded since the fund was created in 1970.

    During this time of severe budget cuts and job losses, media specialists are choosing their battles carefully. “Each librarian has had to reflect on his or her own situation to determine if they can afford to speak up for their beliefs,” says Vicki Palmquist, cofounder of the Children’s Literature Network, an organization that connects authors, educators, publishers, and others in the world of kid lit. “They may be sole income earners, parents, [or someone] dependent on medical insurance.”

Several friends have had their books banned. In none of those cases did it lead to increased sales of the books. As they helped the local librarians to battle the challenge to their books they dealt with a tonne of hate mail and in one case death threats. It’s stressful and awful and goes on and on and on. And it’s even worse for the librarian who’s fighting the good fight because they live in that community. They are seeing the people who want to ban that particular book almost every day. Talk about stress. Not to mention that, yes, sometimes they lose their jobs over it.

I have said many times that you can write about whatever you want to write about in YA. That’s absolutely true. But there are consequences. Writing a book where teenagers really talk the way so many of them talk, where they have sex, take drugs, fall in love with someone who’s the same sex as them etc. etc. means that it will be labelled as a 14+ book. I’ve even seen 15+ used as a label in the US. That label means that several of the big discount/supermarket chains probably won’t stock it. Not unless it gets made into a movie. It also means there are many school libraries that won’t order it. You’re reducing your books chances of success by including “content”.

The shame of it is that most teenagers and children are really good at deciding what to read. If a book is too much for them the vast majority simply put it down. Also, like John Green, I believe that many teenagers can totally cope with content their parents may think is too much for them. I’ve seen it again and again. That kids who attend a school whose library will not shelve Looking for Alaska or Tyrell because of “content” are happily letting their kids read King Lear.

I met many teens on tour last year who loved Octavian Nothing. I met two rabid Margo Lanagan fans. Both are writers adults routinely dismiss as being too much for teens. I think something that gets frequently lost in all these debates about what YA books should or shouldn’t be about is that teens aren’t all exactly the same. Just like adults, really. No YA book works for every single teen. Nor should it.

I have had many teens write and thank me for the very content that adults have objected to. I’m sorry that I’ve offended those adults but I’m thrilled that my books have been important to those teens. They’re who I write for.

  1. And not very successfully: the word appears four times in Magic or Madness. Three times in reference to the actual substance. As in bat shit and dog shit. And then Jay Tee says that Reason doesn’t know “jack about shit”. []
  2. And despite one negative review of the trilogy by an adult which claimed the books are full of swearing, “shit” remains the strongest swear word in the series. It’s used three times in Magic Lessons and ten times in Magic’s Child. Not exactly a swear fest. Especially as many of those occurrences are referring to the actual substance as produced by bats. []
  3. Don’t you find that hilarious? “Content” being used to mean stuff that might shock some people? It leads to bizarre sentences where people praise books for having no content. Er, excuse me? []

22 comments

  1. Brent on #

    I didn’t consider how much librarians are on the forefront of the battle for free speech but I should have. Thank you to all the librarians of my past and present that have stocked books with “content.”

    The rise of the nanny states will make literature boring and remove its ability to inspire. Fight back! If the handful of “concerned parents” get shouted down by a multitude of “concerned readers” the librarians might feel safer.

  2. deborahb on #

    ‘Post-content’ is what I’ve heard it called for Hollywood films. I think it means a film that won’t offend or bother anyone (ie. a wide sell).

  3. Q on #

    It’s so true–teens don’t read books with content they can’t handle or don’t want to. I have put down books before that I decided weren’t working for me because they were too graphic or too foul, but there are some books that I loved that I didn’t expect to because of the content (i.e. Speak, which is one of the best books I’ve ever read).

  4. Julia Rios on #

    I was taught never to say shit. The fact that it was referring to the substance would not have swayed the adults who taught me this. They talked about bat guano and dog poop when such references were necessary. On the other hand, no one cared if we said bloody until one of my friends had a British grandmother visiting…

  5. caitlin on #

    Tobin Anderson is a genius! I got to lunch with him last fall. I wish Octavian was around when I was a teen.

  6. Adele on #

    I am in a weird position at the moment as I am receiving many review copies for my blog. I requested them, telling the publishers I would review some of them, as would the kids in my class. (The plan being this is a year long project of a class blog where the students review books and post their writing for an actual audience.)
    We have no library essentially and it seemed like a great idea to expose the kids to new lit that they wouldn’t normally have the funds or inclination to read. My school is of a particularly religious persuasion and as such doesn’t want anything with PDA, sex, homosexuality, swearing, violence, etc As such I have to read every book I have received to ascertain its appropriateness for the school’s values. (I have received around 40-50 this fortnight). I find this hysterical when I know for a fact that all of my students watch films and tv shows way beyond the classification they should as well as R-rated video games with no complaints from their parents.
    My disappointment is that many of these kids aren’t reading the full scope of literature out there in the world and I feel like I am doing them a disserve.

  7. Adele on #

    I apologise for the copious typo’s. I promise I teach my students better than that!

  8. Mary Elizabeth S. on #

    I think there is a certain water-off-a-duck’s-back attitude that develops when a kid is allowed to read widely. If you read everything, then coming across things you aren’t ready for is going to be commonplace. You learn to absorb, reject, or otherwise process it and move on, no harm done.

    Here’s an example. In sixth grade, I read a book series that contained sex, violence, disturbing deaths, and religiously questionable material. I knew what that stuff was. It’s not like I couldn’t recognize a sex scene, even one portrayed mostly through suggestion. But do you know what I got out of that book? The same thing I got out of a zillion other books; a good read. I read about adventures, secret meetings, love, impossible creatures, myths meshed with science, and any number of other cool things. That’s what I remember. The other stuff just faded away. I only remember it now because I’ve since re-read the book.

    Kids who aren’t allowed to read widely, however, can’t do this. They don’t have the right oils on their feathers, so to speak. If they come across something they aren’t ready for, they are much, much more likely to have an issue with it.

    Sadly, I’ve met adults who have the same problem. They can’t see the story for the words, and don’t know how to process things they aren’t comfortable or familiar with. People like that are missing out. On reading, AND on life, because they’re often just as close-minded toward their world as they are toward their reading material.

    ~Mary

  9. Anonymouse on #

    It’s insidious and sometimes they don’t even bother to ask you to do it. My editor went through my manuscript between last revision and copyedit and cut out every indication that one character in my novel was gay.

    It was a custom job, very surgical, striking out one or two words in places. Only because I read very closely on copyedits, did I realize she had done it.

    When I called her on it, she claimed it was cut because it was unclear. So yeah, I stetted the gay back into my book.

    Then I got the nicenasty notes about my blog content- I should stop talking about “politics” because it “makes schools and libraries uncomfortable when they’re looking to book you.” A long and detailed discussion about what was and was not political revealed it was the gay to which they objected.

    Amusingly enough, saidsame editor didn’t see any irony in- a few months later- sending me loads of Banned Books Week/Freedom to Read pr crap from the company to put on my blog.

  10. Lauren on #

    Thanks so much for this post, Justine. I confess that, before being published, I was of the opinion that censorship = instant publicity and book sales. Then my book was rejected by a major chain for “content.” In my case, the objectionable content, weirdly enough, was menstruation. To add insult to injury I only discovered this when I showed up on the pub date at said book chain to see my book on the shelves only to learn that it was not being stocked. I was so heartbroken, I actually started crying in the store. The poor sales staff didn’t know what to do. At any rate, I can attest to the fact that there is no up-side whatsoever to being rejected for content. All it means is that no one will ever see my book in this major chain.

  11. angharad on #

    This is a tricky issue for me because I don’t care enough about a lot of the books that fall into this category. As a kid, I FLED from books by Judy Blume. So I look at a lot of these books and frankly, no love rises. I have to ask myself what would I do if this were something like Magic or Madness? I know I’d take it to the mat to keep that in my local library and I tell myself that I should do the same for other books that don’t suit my own taste. That is why having a selection policy is so important. Still, it’s ten times harder to step up when you know you’re going to take a hit for a book you don’t even like.

    I had this problem with The Higher Power of Lucky. I thought it was lame. I wouldn’t have complained if it wasn’t purchased– it sucked, why bother? But then there was the word “scrotum” and I had to question whether the book was being rejected for the wrong reasons. I found myself filled with resentment that I was defending the book because I felt the use of the word was manipulative, but had no choice other than to allow myself to be manipulated. Freedom to read is Freedom to read, even if I think your choice of reading material is lame and you should go read Beverly Cleary instead.

  12. Adrienne Vrettos on #

    Oh gosh, at this very second I am staring at the F-word in my WIP and wondering, “Do I really need it? Am I in love with it? Or is it just a little crush? Is this F-word worth keeping the book off shelves in libraries and bookstores? Is it more important to keep this F-word than to have kids have access to this book?”
    For my first book, the one I wrote without thinking it would ever, ever get published, the answer to all those questions was YES! Of COURSE I need to keep the F-word! My standard line was “For the characters in the book, the power over their words was the only power they had in their lives,” so they dropped the F bomb whenever they could.
    But this new book, the answer is…maybe? Maybe not? I HATE this self-censorship. It makes my stomach feel like it’s full of snakes. Having to decide between kids actually being able to get their hands on your book and your first instinct as a writer when it comes to dialogue is the pits.

  13. Lesley on #

    Thanks for this post, Justine.

    I haven’t thought much about public librarians and the choices the make or why they make them. I know my school librarian deals with these censorship issues because she is employed by the school system. I hadn’t thought about the public librarians dealing with this though. I’ll remember that in the future, and when I go there later today, I’ll praise them for making such great selections. We have five branches in our system, and I’ve never not been able to find something I’m interested in. As a middle/high school English teacher and aspiring YA author, I read a ton of YA selections, and I have always been able to check out what I wanted.

    I wanted to comment too on this issue of censorship with teachers. Like I said above, I have taught middle and high school English, and some don’t realize this, but teachers deal with the censorship issue as well. There is a huge misconception among some people that English teachers only want kids to read the classics, and that simply isn’t true. First of all, there isn’t anything wrong with the classics. Many of them, like Shakespeare for example, have been around for hundreds and hundreds of years. There is a reason for that. In addition though, I agree with John Green. Kids CAN handle content and they CAN handle complex writing styles, including ones that seem archaic to kids.

    So yes, I do believe in teaching the classics, but I also HAVE to teach the classics. There are state standards that teachers must follow, and there are state reading lists that are “recommended” for us to follow. These guidelines and standards differ by state, but we don’t simply choose whatever we want our students to read. Number one, we aren’t allowed to, and number two, it isn’t always practical when you are trying to articulate curriculum across a district.

    Aside from all of that though, do we have some choice in the matter? Yes. Are we aloud to bring in other things like literature circles, novels to read aloud, novels for reading workshops? Yes, and when that happens, many of us are out there selecting great young adult authors and novels with “content.”

    I’m only saying this because teachers don’t get enough support from readers and kids sometimes. Like the librarians you mentioned in the post, teachers often receive quite a bit of flack from community members and parents for the choices they make in the classroom.

    Back in the day when the Harry Potter series wasn’t complete, and when people still thought it was going to cause a bunch of kids to run off and not believe in God while they were casting spells, I was reading it in the classroom and getting yelled at by parents. I was lucky because my administration supported me. Since then, I’ve read novels by Megan McCafferty and Chris Crutcher aloud, knowing that I’m going to have to talk about content, but also have to read it aloud to kids while using language that in normal situations I would deem inappropriate in the classroom. I’ve had some objections from parents, and it always frustrates me. If only the parents understood that while I read, that room is silent. Imagine an entire room of 17 year-olds sitting, watching me as I read. You can hear a pin drop. Literally. Why? Because they get these characters. They get their stories and they understand their deep content. And after that, we talk, write, and make connections about our real lives, yet it feels safe to the kids because they aren’t talking about themselves, they’re talking about a character.

    It’s really amazing, and I know I’ve gained the respect of my students by showing them material that is not only good but can resonate with them. Parents often feel uncomfortable about the subject matter or language, but it is real. It is happening. So I respect young adult writers who paint such a vivid, authentic experience for readers of all ages. As teenagers, they can connect with and understand these characters who make sense to them because it seems so real. And as teachers and adult, it helps us to remember and then understand teenagers, their lives, and their emotions.

    Currently, I’m teaching part-time in an elementary school, and I hope to get back in a high school classroom next fall. Since I’ve had this position while my children are young, I’ve read so much more young adult literature and can’t wait to bring more of it into my classroom, but I also know there will be challenges. I will still try though, and I hope my administrators will continue to support me as they did in the past. I thank the authors like you who write these stories, and I thank the publishers who aren’t afraid to publish them and keep them “real” for the kids. It truly does make a difference for them. :)

  14. Justine on #

    Wow. I’m not quite sure what to see about these comments. Well, thank you is a start, right? THANK YOU!

    Adele: That is a weird position and sounds incredibly frustrating. I do often wonder why the censorship of books is much more prevalent than of TV and movies. I begin to suspect that’ it’s simply because it’s easier.

    Anonymouse: Bloody hell. That’s just awful. The notes you were getting about your blog they were from your publisher? Uneblieveable. Yay you for putting your book back how it was meant to be. I think a lot of debut novelists are often unaware that they have the power of STET.

    Lauren: So much of this censorship is so random. I would never have predicted that menstruation would be the problem your book faced. Out on tour last year I heard all sorts of tales of books being pulled from shelves or returned for the flimsiest reasons. “Protagonist had bad attitude/was disrespectful to parents” being the one that really floored me. Think how many YA books would never exist if that was a criterion?

    Angharad: I used to hate problem books. I’m just not a realism kind of a girl. I found them preachy and annoying and was convinced that no kid ever would like them. School visits have taught me how wrong I was. Where time after time I’d come across some student—or be told about them by the school librarian—who was going through hell at home. The librarian/teacher would put a copy of a book that covered the same territory in their hand and suddenly the student’s got a way to talk about what’s been happening to them. Or the kid will find the book on their own and shyly want to talk about that book with the trusted teacher/librarian as a safer way of discussing their own life. And that’s just one example of the power of those books.

    Adrienne: Yeah. Triple yeah. And it really strikes me as so absurd. Show me one fourteen year old who’s never heard those words before (who wasn’t homeschooled in a yurt). I really find the language objections the nuttiest of all.

    Lesley: Thank you so much for your comment. Absolutely teachers are right up there on the front lines too. I can think of at least two cases where they’ve lost jobs over books they recommended to students. More power to you for putting fab recent YA into their hands.

  15. rockinlibrarian on #

    “That kids who attend a school whose library will not shelve Looking for Alaska or Tyrell because of “content” are happily letting their kids read King Lear. “

    This reminds me of something that recently happened to my brother-in-law’s high-school-aged brother. He and some of his friends had been assigned to retell-via-video MacBeth as a modern-day story. They ended up getting in trouble for turning in something the teacher deemed “inappropriate for school” because it involved toy guns and depictions of (though not graphic by any means!) violence! They got their parents behind them to challenge the ruling– and the principal agreed with them– because it was, of course, a completely accurate modern-day retelling of MacBeth!

    Also, I WAS one of those kids/teens who set aside material that made me feel uncomfortable. I came back to some of the same books years later and laughed at the relative tameness of what had once made me uncomfortable, but anyway, yeah, I was perfectly capable of sorting out what I was and wasn’t ready for on my own.

  16. Lesley on #

    Justine,
    In regards to language…

    We had a parent of a fifth grader object to Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson the other day. Seriously. Bridge to Terabithia. I’ve already taken up enough space on this blog today, so I won’t get back on my podium and talk about the merits of that wonderful book right now.

    But, the parent objected because of the language. She was frustrated because her child was exposed to the word damn. I asked her if her son rode the school bus and told her that I was certain he’s heard worse than damn while riding the bus to school every day. She didn’t like that observation, but she agreed and dropped the subject.

    I also had a parent object to The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver because of a reference to a penis and a statue that resembled one. Mind you, this parent was upset because her son had to read this book and was exposed to this reference. My department chair at the time actually said, “Well, he HAS a penis, correct? I’m assuming this isn’t the first time he’s been exposed to what one looks like.” The parent was angry, the administration supported our choice to use the novel, and to placate the parent and keep our names out of the paper, we chose to provide an alternate choice for the student. Again, because this mother was upset that her 17 year-old son had to read one sentence about a penis.

    Honestly, how do parents forget this stuff? How do they forget what it was like growing up? I am a parent now, and I admit that it is hard when my 8 year-old asks me stuff, and it kills me that I have to explain stuff to her when I don’t feel ready. The thing is, sometimes SHE is ready. It’s me that isn’t. I think that is the problem I’ve seen with parents before.

  17. Karen Bass on #

    I read this whole thread with vast amounts of interest because I just finished a YA first draft that has violence and language. I will be facing a lot of self-censorship issues when I start revising.

    I’m also a librarian and try to put a wide variety of books on the teen shelves. I’m always amazed I don’t get more challenges (I’ve had one in 12 years). I suspect that the vast majority of parents pay no attention to what their children are reading. Maybe this is the Canadian way.

  18. sylvia_rachel on #

    My mom came to visit us last week, and she and I were talking about (almost) this exact thing: when I was in maybe Grade 5 or 6, a friend’s mother confiscated her copy of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole because of its “inappropriate” content. I can’t remember, or maybe I never knew, whether it was language or “sex” (in scare quotes because the acts in question are things like Adrian getting to touch Pandora’s breast through her sweater) or adultery (Adrian’s mum and Mr Lucas next door) or something else altogether, but anyway the friend’s mum’s reaction struck me as absurd.

    Twenty-odd years on, it still seems absurd — I can promise that this particular friend knew plenty of naughty words and had a better handle on the mechanics of sex than poor old Adrian — but now it also strikes me as pathetic, and a bit sinister. What are these parents afraid of? And who do they think they’re kidding? And how are Romeo and Juliet (teen sex! defiance of parental units! street fighting! suicide!) and Tess of the D’Urbervilles (seduction! adultery! murder!) OK but a contemporary YA book addressing the same themes is not? (Though my high school English classes also read The Kiss of the Spider Woman and The Handmaid’s Tale, inter alia, and I can’t remember that anyone’s parents objected, so possibly my experience is not typical.)

    If, as a parent, you want to raise readers, you can’t tell your kids what they can and can’t read, at home or at school or anywhere else (and you certainly have no right to tell other people’s kids what they can and can’t read, as one is doing when one works to keep a book off the shelves of a library or bookshop). My kid, who is six, is currently enamoured of Teen Titans comic books. Are there other things I would rather she were reading? Sure. But she’ll get there.

    I remember years ago reading that someone somewhere had objected to the Harry Potter books on the grounds that the protags’ total lack of respect for authority would be a bad influence on kids. To which, like you, I say, Whaa? What would be left for kids to read if there were no books in which the young protagonist doesn’t do as s/he is told? And also: Are we raising people, here, or are we raising little robots? And also: Part of the point of books is to allow us as readers to have experiences that in real life we probably wouldn’t have.

  19. Sandy D. on #

    Coming here from the discussion at Wendy’s blog: http://sixboxesofbooks.blogspot.com/2009/02/age-appropriateness-again.html

    You all seem to be discussing teens – I’m most concerned with my 7 y.o. reading age-appropriate stuff, frankly. I’d rather have her learn about sex from “It’s So Amazing” as opposed to “The Happy Hooker” or some of the other stuff I read at a very young age (boy that dates me, doesn’t it).

    Anyway, I have to argue for *some* censorship for really young kids who read above their age levels. I assume that’s the reason for having the Teen or YA section? I’m fine with my 12 y.o. reading anything in there, but the 7 y.o. – not yet. And my 12 y.o. doesn’t get to play M video games, even if every other kid in his class plays Halo and Grand Theft Auto. Is this censorship, or just part of parenting?

  20. Justine on #

    Sandy D: We are discussing teens as that’s who I write for. Everything here only applies to twelve year olds and up.

    What you do with your own kids is, as you say, not censorship it’s how you parent. What we’re talking about is not one parent saying what their kids can or can’t read or play. But when a publisher/book club buyer/bookshop buyer/editor/teacher/librarian/parent tries to stop many kids from reading one particular book. That’s censorship.

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