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.
- 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”. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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? [↩]