Censorship in Children's Literature

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Censorship in Children's Literature


Suppressing, altering, or boycotting works of juvenile or young adult literature due to their content or their appropriateness for intended readers.


The issue of censorship as it relates to children's literature continues to provoke debate between opposing factions who each believe they have the best interest of children at heart. Deeply rooted in personal convictions, censorship is a perennial cultural flash-point, particularly when it involves children, whose own voice in the debate is muted at best. "Their ignorance and lack of preconceptions," argues Julia Briggs, "leave children peculiarly vulnerable to outside influences. The claim that they need protection can be extended to justify the exercise of censorship on a variety of grounds." With legions of adults seeking to speak on their children's behalf, fierce arguments arise between opponents of censorship who wish to defend the free speech clause of the First Amendment and those who pursue censorship in order to ban media potentially ill-suited for a juvenile audience. Between 1990 and 2000, the American Library Association (ALA) reported 6,364 challenges to various books in libraries and public schools in the United States. Likewise, in Canada, one third of all schools reported attempts to censor certain materials within a four-year span in the early 1990s. Although censorship is often defined as an overt effort to completely ban books and is regularly associated with the political right, neither assumption accurately reflects the nuance of the ongoing debate. Professor of Library Science and censorship scholar Judith Saltman asserts, "advocates of censorship of children's literature on the left of the political spectrum are becoming uneasy bedfellows with the traditional advocates of censorship, those on the right. The new realism in children's fiction has prompted a call from some for a return to conservative values and limitations on content, and book banning in schools and libraries is threatening to become epidemic."

As practiced, censorship can take many forms. In addition to outright prohibition of objectionable books, various interest groups have at times insisted that certain books be moved into sections of the library that are inaccessible to children, such as behind the librarian's counter or into adult sections where juveniles need parental permission to enter. Less overt censorial practices can also have a dramatic effect on the types of materials that are published in the first place. Examples of these practices, as noted by anti-censorship organizations and authors alike, include self-censure, editorial censorship, and market pressures. Self-censure occurs when an author questions their own work, altering it to accommodate the belief that certain aspects of their texts will face resistance from publishers or readers. Many authors have written about this internal struggle, including Judy Blume, one of the most censored contemporary writers for children. Blume wrote, "What effect does this climate [of censorship] have on a writer? Chilling. It's easy to become discouraged, to second-guess everything you write." Authors occasionally come under pressure from their editors and publishers to alter text or omit potentially objectionable passages for fear of negatively affecting their sales or attracting criticism from sensitive readers. Concern by editors and writers ultimately stems from market pressures, such as when book-sellers refuse to stock objectionable books or when children's advocacy groups organize a boycott of offending publishers, writers, or bookstores. These forms of self-censure have long been the norm in children's literature. According to Mark I. West, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, "[children's] authors automatically assumed that they could not refer to sexuality, mention certain bodily functions, graphically describe violent acts, portray adults in a negative light, use swear words, criticize authority figures or address controversial social issues."

Literary censorship is not a recent phenomenon, however. In the late fourteenth century, the popular Wycliffe Bibles, among the very first translations of the Bible into English, were banned for fear they misrepresented the word of God as expressed in the Latin texts authorized by the Catholic Church. The seventeenth century saw the labeling of Galileo Galilei as a heretic, and his works—principally his doctrine of astronomy, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632)—censured and banned for contrasting the facts as determined by the Gospels. Jonathan Swift is often thought to be among the first victims of deliberate censorship by forces outside of organized religion. Certain passages were excised from published editions of Gulliver's Travels (1726), including a scene where Gulliver urinates on a fire in the Lilliputian palace. In the context of children's literature, among the first scholars to recommend different standards of acceptability for children's works was English philosopher John Locke, who argued that goblins, ghosts, and other related folk myths had no place in a child's regular repertoire of stories. Social theorist Jean-Jacques Rousseau took this level of argument one step further, arguing in Émile: Or, On Education (1762) that children under twelve should be denied books entirely, suggesting they would be better served learning through the direct experience of life, or "unvarnished truth" as he called it.

By the Victorian Age, children's literature blossomed into a fully independent genre with a greater degree of variety and freedom, although this era saw the first coordinated efforts to ban or alter juvenile works. Penny dreadfuls—a term describing inexpensive series of macabre and violent books targeted primarily at young boys—featured dangerous criminals, serial killers, and mythic monsters of history as their protagonists, including such figures as Spring-Heeled Jack, Dick Turpin, Jack Sheppard, and Sweeney Todd. Concerned with the effects that these stories might have on developing minds, prominent English politicians and religious figures sought to have them banned. Their efforts were largely unsuccessful, though by the turn of the century, these novelty books had generally faded in popularity in England due to changing fads and overproduction. However, within a few years, penny dreadfuls and dime novels began to reach the United States, attracting a similar level of conservative backlash from such notable opponents as Anthony Comstock and Dr. Frederic Wertham. Comstock was the leader of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and author of Traps for the Young (1883), an impassioned treatise calling for the elimination of dime novels on the grounds that children needed to be protected from the negative influence of such publications. Arguing that "lewd" books had a direct link to perceived increases in juvenile misconduct, he sought an outright ban on their sales. Wertham, Comstock's philosophical heir, likewise alleged in his book Seduction of the Innocent (1954) that the influence of popular lowbrow pulp novels and comic books had triggered a rise in teen delinquency and homosexuality. Wertham's grandstanding led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority, an institutionalized form of self-censure created by the comic book industry to reduce public concerns about their content as well as preemptively avoiding even stricter guidelines from Congress. Based on these and several other successful campaigns, many found censorship to be an effective tool for restricting the circulation of books thought to be undesirable, and challenges to individual books began to witness a dramatic increase in the United States beginning in the mid-twentieth century.

Early challenges of this nature were made to books like Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), where language and nudity were highlighted as concerns, and J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (1951), which was seen as inspiring insolence in teenagers. Before long, classic works of literature such as Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (1847), Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage (1895), John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men (1937), and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) were all the subjects of various challenges nationwide. However, the cultural liberalism and youth rebellions of the late 1960s and 1970s led to increased resistance to direct attempts at literary censorship. Mark I. West notes, "As Americans became more accepting of sexuality and less confident in the infallibility of authority figures, a number of authors and editors questioned the legitimacy of the taboos that had encumbered children's literature for so long. This development resulted in the emergence of a new breed of children's books." This "new breed" of juvenile works emphasized realism, placing characters in true-life situations without regard for the heightened sense of propriety that formerly limited the narrative potential of children's literature. Among this new generation of stories were frank depictions of adolescence containing graphically accurate characterizations of troubled teenagers, such as Judy Blume's Deenie (1973), Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War (1974), Lois Duncan's Killing Mr. Griffin (1978), and Alice Childress' A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich (1982). Today, the battle lines are regularly redrawn between supporters and opponents of censorship, often on a book-by-book, school-district-by-school-district basis. While some of the tactics and bases for challenges have evolved over the last twenty-five years—with restrictions on books containing homosexual themes or characters having seen perhaps the greatest number of new challenges—many of the same arguments for and against censorship remain as they were in earlier eras.

There are a myriad of reasons why books have been deemed objectionable by certain readers, from the offbeat—such as the removal of Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1901) and The Tale of Benjamin Bunny (1904) from London classrooms in the 1980s for relying too much on "middle class" rabbits—to the surprising—as shown by the 1983 decision by the Alabama State Textbook Committee to recommend the elimination of Anne Frank's Het Achterhuis (1947; The Diary of a Young Girl) from schools because it was "a real downer" and included references to teen sexuality. But, generally, several consistent underlying reasons have been recognized as providing the inspiration for the majority of children's literature censorship challenges. Sexual conduct, such as promiscuity, homosexuality, or even frank examinations of the physical act, is one of the most frequently given reasons for removing a book from a library or school. Books portraying homosexuality as normal or mundane are commonly questioned; examples of some of the most disputed works are Lesléa Newman's Heather Has Two Mommies (1989), Michael Willhoite's picture book Daddy's Roommate (1990), and Francesca Lia Block's Weetzie Bat (1989). A North Carolina challenge of Daddy's Roommate argued that the book "promotes a dangerous and ungodly lifestyle from which children must be protected." Nonfiction titles have also attracted the same sort of censor scrutiny received by fictional narratives: Robie H. Harris's educational text It's Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health (1994) was recognized by the ALA as the most challenged book of 2005 for its inclusion of homosexuality, nudity, sexual content, and sex education issues among its many points of discussion.

Another widely debated topic is the issue of racial portrayals. Questions of presentation, inclusion, and reliance on racial stereotypes in works of children's literature have been the focus of heated confrontations across the United States. Among the most challenged books in this category are Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, The Story of Little Black Sambo (1899) by Helen Bannerman, and The Story of Doctor Dolittle, Being the History of His Peculiar Life at Home and Astonishing Adventures in Foreign Parts (1920) by Hugh Lofting, each accused of reinforcing racial clichés of African Americans. Likewise, Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie (1935) has come under fire for dehumanizing the Native American characters that appear in the text. Censors also challenge violent content in works targeted at children or young adults and are quick to correlate such representations of violence with increases in violent deaths among teens over the last twenty years. Authors seeking to draw attention to the problem of violence through literature—such as Walter Dean Myers, who is annually among the ALA's most challenged young adult authors—regularly see their works characterized as glamorizing violence due to their realistic and sometimes sympathetic portrayals of adolescent criminals and gang members. For comparable reasons, the subversion of religious dogma or the introduction of non-Western religious ideas in children's works has angered many American censors, as when Max J. Herzberg's Myths and Their Meaning (1928) was questioned at Colorado's Woodland Park High School "because," according to the challenge, "the stories about mythological figures like Zeus and Apollo threaten Western civilization's foundations." Roald Dahl's The Witches (1983) offers a unique case study of the diversity of inspirations for censorship challenges. It was attacked by both religious conservatives, who disliked the presence of magic in a children's story, and by liberal feminists, who worried that Dahl's tale offered an overly negative image of women and witches. Alternately, the same book was challenged in Tennessee in 2000 for providing a too "positive" depiction of witches.

Such contrary attacks on the same book illustrate how almost any literary work has the potential to offend someone. Raymond Briggs' innocuous 1973 Greenaway Medal-winning picture book Father Christmas was the subject of a series of challenges protesting its moral message due to an illustration late in the book where Briggs shows Saint Nicholas drinking alcohol. Likewise, Maurice Sendak's picture book In the Night Kitchen (1970) is regularly labeled as indecent by some censors for its nude depiction of its child protagonist. Bad language, inclusion of bodily functions, poor morality, and insolence towards adults are all frequently identified as reasons for censoring or altering offending children's works, and the list of potential crimes grows every year, a fact that Judy Blume laments: "There is no predicting the censor. No telling what will be seen as controversial tomorrow." The end result, she worries, is "the loss to young people. If no one speaks out for them, if they don't speak out for themselves, all they'll get for their reading will be the most bland books available. And instead of finding the information they need at the library, instead of finding the novels that illuminate life, they will find only those materials to which nobody could possibly object."

However pervasive the censor's attacks on children's literature, these challenges remain the exception. As Anne Scott MacLeod argues, "adult attitudes toward children's reading have undergone some major changes during the turbulent years just past. The wide (though not universal) acceptance of a greatly broadened content in children's books seems to stem from the conviction that children should learn as soon as possible the realities of the world they live in—even the hardest and most unsavory realities." Most writers who have been the subject of attempted censorship challenges welcome this hope that literature can indeed affect change when given the chance. There is a widespread belief among critics and scholars alike that censorship limits a child's potential for intellectual growth, and that when enacted, censorship offers only a poor and flawed protection from exposing young readers to some of the world's more morally ambiguous social issues. For Judith Saltman, the potential for literature to help children grow explains a need to tolerate variety in the subject matter of children's literature: "Tolerance is essential in our society, particularly tolerance in recognizing the right of others, especially minors, to make their own decisions about what they will read and their right to have access to a wide range of informational and recreational reading materials to accommodate the diverse interests and needs of youth."


Harry Allard
The Stupids Step Out [illustrations by James Marshall] (picture book) 1974
Yûsuf al-Qa'îd and Yûsuf 'Abdelkî
Rabâb Gives Up Drawing (comic strip) 1980
Maya Angelou
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (autobiography) 1970
Francesca Lia Block
Weetzie Bat (young adult novel) 1989
Witch Baby (young adult novel) 1991
The Rose and the Beast: Fairy Tales Retold (young adult fairy tales) 2000
Judy Blume
Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret (young adult novel) 1970
Then Again, Maybe I Won't (young adult novel) 1971
Deenie (young adult novel) 1973
Blubber (young adult novel) 1974
Forever (young adult novel) 1975
Alice Childress
A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich (young adult novel) 1972
James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier
My Brother Sam Is Dead (young adult novel) 1974
Robert Cormier
The Chocolate War (young adult novel) 1974
I Am the Cheese (young adult novel) 1977
Beatrice Culleton
In Search of April Raintree (young adult novel) 1983
Roald Dahl
James and the Giant Peach [illustrations by Nancy Ekholm Burkert] (juvenile fiction) 1961
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory [illustrations by Joseph Schindelman] (juvenile fiction) 1964
Danny the Champion of the World [illustrations by Jill Bennett] (juvenile fiction) 1975
The Twits [illustrations by Quentin Blake] (juvenile fiction) 1980
George's Marvelous Medicine [illustrations by Quentin Blake] (juvenile fiction) 1981
The Witches [illustrations by Quentin Blake] (juvenile fiction) 1983
Matilda [illustrations by Quentin Blake] (juvenile fiction) 1988
Lois Duncan
Killing Mr. Griffin (young adult novel) 1978
Nancy Garden
Annie on My Mind (young adult novel) 1982
Robie H. Harris
It's Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health [illustrations by Michael Emberley] (young adult nonfiction) 1994
It's So Amazing! A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families [illustrations by Michael Em-berley] (young adult nonfiction) 1999
Isabelle Holland
The Man without a Face (young adult novel) 1972
Norma Klein
Mom, the Wolf Man, and Me (young adult novel) 1972
It's Not What You Expect (young adult novel) 1973
Naomi in the Middle [illustrations by Leigh Grant] (juvenile fiction) 1974
It's Okay If You Don't Love Me (young adult novel)1997
Lois Lowry
The Giver (young adult novel) 1993
Walter Dean Myers
Fallen Angels (young adult novel) 1988
Monster [illustrations by Christopher Myers] (young adult novel) 1999
Shooter (young adult novel) 2004
Lesléa Newman
Heather Has Two Mommies [illustrations by Diana Souza] (picture book) 1989
Katherine Paterson
The Bridge to Terabithia [illustrations by Donna Diamond] (young adult novel) 1977
The Great Gilly Hopkins (young adult novel) 1978
Felix Pirani
Abigail at the Beach [illustrations by Christine Roche] (picture book) 1988
J. K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (young adult novel) 1997; published in the United States as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, 1998
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (young adult novel) 1998
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (young adult novel) 1999
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (young adult novel) 2000
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (young adult novel) 2003
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (young adult novel) 2005
J. D. Salinger
The Catcher in the Rye (novel) 1951
Maurice Sendak
Where the Wild Things Are (picture book) 1963
In the Night Kitchen (picture book) 1970
Outside over There (picture book) 1981
Jonathan Swift
Gulliver's Travels (novel) 1726
Mark Twain
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (young adult novel) 1876
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (young adult novel) 1884
Johnny Valentine
The Duke Who Outlawed Jelly Beans and Other Stories [illustrations by Lynette Schmidt] (picture book) 1991
One Dad, Two Dads, Brown Dad, Blue Dads [illustrations by Melody Sarecky] (picture book) 1992
Michael Wilhoite
Daddy's Roommate (picture book) 1990
Daddy's Wedding (picture book) 1996
Paul Zindel
The Pigman (young adult novel) 1968
My Darling, My Hamburger (young adult novel) 1969


Hamida Bosmajian (essay date June 1987)

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Mark I. West (essay date 1992)

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Mark I. West (essay date 1996)

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Peter Hunt (essay date June 1997)

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Judith Saltman (essay date January-February 1998)

SOURCE: Saltman, Judith. "Censoring the Imagination: Challenges to Children's Books." Emergency Librarian 25, no. 3 (January-February 1998): 8-12.

[In the following essay, Saltman examines the nature of various censorship challenges against children's works in Canada and the United States, noting the differing patterns inspiring the challenges within the two countries.]

Pressures to ban or censor books for children and young people are on the increase in schools and libraries across North America. Writing in 1996, Judith Krug, Director of the American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom, states:

Challenges to library and curricular materials are nothing new. Indeed, the ALA office for intellectual freedom has received reports of more than 3,500 such attempts in the last five years.

Censorship challenges are also on the rise in Canada. David Jenkinson has twice surveyed the province of Manitoba's public schools' responses to challenges of children's books. He comments:

The first time around [in 1982 to 1984], I found out that a quarter of the schools had a challenge…. This time [1991 to 1993], I had a third. So it's increasing.

                              (Abercrombie, p. 34)

This is not, however, a new phenomenon. Which books should children read? Are there any books that children should be prohibited from reading? Should they read only the best books, or a mixture of quality, popular and pulp literature; only books of high literary merit or those of social, moral and spiritual edification? These questions have preoccupied teachers, critics, writers and librarians from Charlotte Yonge and Caroline Hewins in the 19th century to Anne Carroll Moore, Bertha Mahony Miller (founder of The Horn Book Magazine) and Lillian H. Smith (who established the Toronto Public Library's children's services) in the 20th.

Of course, there have always been people with didactic and moralistic views towards children's literature who have scoured children's books for attitudes and ideas from which children should be sheltered. The earliest form of children's literature to come under such scrutiny may have been the oral tradition of fairy and folktale. Folklore has been under attack as unsuitable reading for children at least since the 16th century. In the 17th century, the Puritans condemned fairy tales and literature of the imagination and John Locke deplored children's exposure to fairy tales and old ballads. He could recommend only Aesop's fables and Reynard the fox as having any "moral" value.

In the 18th century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his highly influential book Emile or On Education, argued that children should be given nothing but the unvarnished truth. In fact, he suggested children were to have no books before age 12. In 1802, the vigorous Mrs. Sarah Trimmer founded The Guardian of Education, the first magazine to carry regular reviews of children's literature and she followed in Rousseau's footsteps: "We cannot approve of those [books] which are only fit to fill the heads of children with confused notions of wonderful and supernatural events, brought about by the agency of imaginary beings" (Rev. of Mother, 38).

Mrs. Trimmer had strong guidance for adults; she alerted them to the necessity of "the utmost circumspection … requisite in making a proper selection" of children's books, which "of late years … have multiplied to an astonishing and alarming degree, and much mischief lies hid in many of them" (On the Care, 4). Perhaps Mrs. Trimmer's most fascinating remarks concern the dangers of Robinson Crusoe, which, she attests, should not "be put into the hands of all boys without discrimination."

Mrs. Trimmer was opposed to books "calculated to entertain the imagination, rather than to improve the heart, or cultivate the understanding" (Trimmer, 1802). Her views were shared by other Victorians who evaluated children's books in terms of the precepts of behavior and lessons in social and religious morality contained within them. One such critic was Edward Salmon who, writing in Juvenile Literature as It Is in 1888, soundly trounced the rather sensationalistic Victorian "penny dreadful" magazines, the new pulp literature stimulated by the fast, cheap printing of the rotary press invention. He thunders:

No element of sweetness and light ever finds its way into their columns and … they are filled with stories of blood and revenge, of passion and cruelty, as improbable and often impossible in plot as their literary execution is contemptible…. Is it surprising that "the pales and forts of reason' should fall before the vicious onslaught?

                                         (Egoff, 1981)

The later Victorians and Edwardians developed a more literary and aesthetic perspective on children's literature, and 19th-century moralism waned with the increasing awareness in the 20th century of literary quality in children's books. With this growing sensitivity to literary standards, there developed parallel concerns regarding book selection.

Critics of both centuries saw the need for a set of standards by which to judge children's books, but today there is more disagreement over what principles of evaluation should be used than ever before. And there are more objections and challenges to the content of the books than in any earlier era.

In a throwback to the moral and spiritual guardianship of the likes of Mrs. Trimmer and Edward Salmon, various adult groups since the 1960s have viewed children's literature, once again, as a socializing rather than a literary force. If children's books are evaluated only by the criteria of moral values, "correct" ideas and ultimate influence on children's moral, political and social perceptions, then whose moral and cultural values, whose ideas, should be applied? In fact, the types of complaints received about books in schools, libraries and bookstores take many forms and come from many positions on the political and social spectrum.

The liberal side of the spectrum objects to perceived images of racism, sexism, ageism, elitism, materialism and cultural appropriation, and judges children's books solely for positive images of women, ethnic minorities, senior citizens and the disabled. Many adults judge children's books only on their perceived developmental or bibliotherapeutic values or commitment to social change.

Canadian examples of book challenges in these areas include Beatrice Culleton's April Raintree (originally published as In Search of April Raintree), criticized for negative portrayal of a Metis girl, role stereotyping and degradation of women. Ian Wallace's Chin Chiang and the Dragon's Dance, was criticized for inaccuracies in the depiction of Chinese culture. False Face by Welwyn Wilton Katz has been attacked for cultural appropriation. A rumor heartily enjoyed by Janet Lunn is that her picture book Amos' Sweater, was rejected by an American publisher on the grounds of ageism: "Amos was old and Amos was cold …" ([3]). Amos is a ram. Objections to the portrayal of characters with disabilities have been made about The Cripples Club by William Bell.

In the United States, Theodore Taylor's The Cay has been challenged as racist. The Indian in the Cupboard and Return of the Indian by British author Lynne Reid Banks have also been challenged because of racist stereotyping of native characters.

Political correctness can reach the heights of absurdity; Beatrix Potter's classic Tale of Peter Rabbit was banned in England by the London County Council because it portrays only middle-class rabbits.

The American writer and social activist, Nat Hentoff, believes that this reformist attitude to writing for children "fundamentally misunderstands the act of imagination" (177). Children's books written according to politically correct guidelines are created, he says, as a tool for the promotion of social values and social change. He writes:

I apologize for being obvious, but literature cannot breathe if it is forced to be utilitarian in this or any other sense…. [T]ruly creative tellers of tales … cannot be fitted into neat, sanitized, newly 'proper' molds.


Ironically, advocates of censorship of children's literature on the left of the political spectrum are becoming uneasy bedfellows with the traditional advocates of censorship, those on the right. The new realism in children's fiction has prompted a call from some for a return to conservative values and limitations on content, and book banning in schools and libraries is threatening to become epidemic.

Conservatives object to frank language and profanity, images of nudity, references to sexuality, especially homosexuality, ideas that threaten their values, such as the undermining of authority and content believed too mature or inappropriate for children's understanding.

Canadian young adult rifles challenged here include, among others, Margaret Buffie's Who Is Frances Rain?, for profanity and Kevin Major's Hold Fast, for explicit language, immorality and sexuality. Marie-Francine Hebert's picture book The Amazing Adventure of Little Fish, was challenged for nudity in one of Darcia Labrosse's illustrations. Adolescent sexuality in the rape and emotional content in William Bell's Crabbe, was considered unsuitable and too intense for younger teen readers. Beatrice Culle-ton's In Search of April Raintree, was similarly banned for rape, explicit sex, child abuse and profanity. There may also have been a publishing "chill" in relation to The First Time, an anthology of true stories of first sexual experiences edited by Charles Montpetit. While three Quebec publishers vied for publishing rights to the French language version, 27 English-Canadian publishers rejected the English language counterpart before it found a home. Bad Boy, by Diana Wieler, has been challenged for inclusion of homosexuality.

In the United States, similar concerns have been raised for the following material: Brock Cole's The Goats has been challenged for nudity and offensive language; James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier's My Brother Sam Is Dead and Katherine Pater-son's The Great Gilly Hopkins for profanity and violence; Lois Lowry's The Giver for violence and sexual passages.

British authors under attack in this area include Raymond Briggs, whose sophisticated picture book, The Tin Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman has been challenged for sexually graphic illustrations and Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach, criticized for profanity and promotion of drugs and alcohol.

Perhaps the most extreme response to nudity in picture books was seen when Maurice Sendak's In the Night Kitchen, still regularly challenged, was published in 1970; it was reported that teachers and librarians painted diapers over the naked protagonist.

The presentation of lesbianism, homosexuality and same-sex parents continues to be a strong target in the United States, where challenged rifles include Nancy Garden's young adult novel Annie on My Mind, Leslea Newman's picture book Heather Has Two Mommies, and Michael Wilhoite's picture book Daddy's Roommate, which, since it was published in 1990, has had 84 challenges reported to the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom.

Objections to negative values have been raised against both Canadian picture books and fiction. Robert Munsch's picture book Thomas' Snowsuit has been banned for undermining school principals' authority. The picture book Dinner at Auntie Rose's by Janet Munsil was challenged for disrespect to adults and bad manners. Brian Doyle's novel Hey, Dad! was challenged for its graphic language, negative values and absence of positive citizenship values. Doyle's You Can Pick Me Up at Peggy's Cove has come under attack on a wide range of subjects, from flatulence to racism, defiance of authority to poor role models.

Objections have been raised to Sandra Richmond's young adult Wheels for Walking, for profanity and negative teen behavior, including attitudes towards adults. Both Jan Truss' Jasmin and William Bell's Crabbe have been criticized for the depiction of teenage runaways.

American titles challenged because of negative values include Harry Allard's The Stupids Step Out, attacked for undermining authority and encouraging disrespect and disobedience to parents. Objections to Judy Blume's Blubber have emphasized profanity, immorality, and lack of punishment of the cruel children. Shel Silverstein's collection of light verse, A Light in the Attic, has been challenged for promotion of disrespectful behavior, as well as for images of death, horror, violence, morbidity, nudity and profanity.

British author-illustrator Raymond Briggs' Father Christmas has come under fire for irreverence and negative values in the image of Santa drinking alcohol.

Fundamentalist groups on the religious right object to references to the occult and to the wizards, witchcraft and magic of folklore and fantasy, blasphemy and differing moral values from their own.

Canadian books caught in the crossfire in this general area include challenges for witchcraft in Susan Mus-grave's Hag Head and in David Booth's educational reading series Impressions, which has been ferociously attacked in the United States and Canada. Robert Munsch's picture book Giant; Or Waiting for the Thursday Boat, has been criticized for blasphemy and violence.

British author Roald Dahl's The Witches has been challenged for witchcraft. American rifles challenged for occultism, witchcraft, and Satanism include The Headless Cupid by Zilpha Snyder, Halloween ABC by Eve Merriam, No Place for Me by Barthe Clements, and Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson, attacked for references to sorcery and for profanity and negative values.

Among the most commonly challenged books in the United States and Canada is the series of eerie folktale collections by American author Alvin Schwartz (Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark; More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark; and Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones). These collections of stories of ghosts and witches have been challenged at least 88 times for violence, frightening subject matter, occultism and Satanism.

Individuals or organizations object to depictions that they feel unfairly portray or denigrate their identity or group. The Canadian picture book Maxine's Tree, by Diane Leger-Haskell, was challenged by an organized group of loggers (a local of International Woodworkers of America), who complained that the book was pro-environmentalist, anti-logging and anti-loggers.

Also, in Canada, Cherylyn Stacey's How Do You Spell Abducted? was criticized by a journalist and politician for lack of family values and the promotion of hatred to a specific group: men and fathers.

Parents object to violence and cruelty in fiction and fairy tales and depictions of death, divorce and other social problems and issues which they feel will cause their children fear or other emotional distress. Violence in text and illustration has been the parental objection to the London Bridge nursery rhyme from Canadian folklorist Edith Fowke's Sally Go Round the Sun and to Dennis Lee's and Marie-Louise Gay's picture book Lizzie's Lion.

Alvin Schrader has observed differences of emphasis in American and Canadian challenges. In his survey of censorship in Canada's public libraries between 1985 and 1987, he notes that the 430 reasons for 257 challenged children's rifles reveal a fascinating, and at times bewildering, spectrum of community values, social attitudes, and ideological mindsets. The most common grounds for objections were violence, cruelty, and "scary" titles (24 percent of challenges). Second were titles deemed unsuitable for a particular age group (17 percent), almost always in combination with additional groups such as sex or violence. Third were objections to sexual explicitness, nudity, and pornography (16 percent). Fourth were objections to rifles deemed to promote negative moral values (14 percent) (74-75).

Schrader goes on to make an interesting observation on the differences between censorship patterns in Canada and in the United States:

These [Canadian] patterns are somewhat similar to those found in several American studies of public libraries in individual states or regions. Noticeably absent from the American studies, however, were challenges on the basis of violence, cruelty, and scary titles. In a nationwide study … by Dianne Hopkins of challenges to materials in secondary school libraries, responses showed that violence was at the bottom of the list of concerns, while sexuality, profanity, obscenity and morality ranked highest.


Like Mrs. Trimmer, many adults are wary of the power of ideas, concepts and attitudes found in children's books. Sincere in their concern for children, many individuals wish to protect children from beliefs and realities that they don't agree with, that they don't want their children to adopt, or that they feel are harmful to their children. There will always be those who feel ideas are dangerous, children's books hold much mischief and children inexperienced, vulnerable and easily influenced should be given only books that promote certain, "right" values and thoughts.

Our libraries, schools and bookstores exist, however, in a pluralistic society serving communities which contain families and cultural and social groups with a vast range of beliefs and values, family backgrounds and child-rearing practices. This mandates a concomitant diversity of viewpoints, values and options in our children's books.

Tolerance is essential in our society, particularly tolerance in recognizing the right of others, especially minors, to make their own decisions about what they will read and their right to have access to a wide range of information. It is therefore critical that public and school libraries offer the broadest possible variety of informational and recreational reading materials to accommodate the diverse interests and needs of youth.

Adults who work with children and their books—librarians, teachers, writers, publishers and booksellers empathize with parents' concern to protect children. For we all consider children to be important. In fact, the fervour with which issues in children's literature are debated is a measure of the importance we ascribe to children, the potential inheritors of the values, aspirations and dreams of our culture. Parents play an absolutely critical role in this process. They participate in the active nourishing of their children's minds from the introduction of books in babyhood, to reading aloud throughout childhood, to the seminal discussion of ideas that arise in the context of home reading. This is the perfect time and place for parents and children to examine how family values and beliefs relate to those expressed in books.

In a library context, while parents often guide their children in their reading and, in fact, may actually restrict their children and only their children from access to library materials, librarians do not restrict children's access. They do not serve in loco parentis. Educators also share the role of guiding, but not restricting, children in their choice of reading materials. Librarians and teachers must continue to be defenders of the freedom to read.

Most parents and those who work with children's books, agree that imagination cannot serve utilitarian purposes, that the best literature for children cannot be ideology or propaganda. Children grow in maturity, intellect and imagination through exposure to stories of emotional realism, stories with a diversity of concepts, beliefs, truths. Reading nurtures the child's first steps in self-individuation toward becoming an adult who can think critically, make informed decisions, develop personal value systems and enter into empathetic relationships with other human beings.

Even the most literary of critics certainly could not fault those who, with sensitivity and good will, wish to retire once and for all the negative racial or sexual stereotypes found in the children's literature of earlier eras and sometimes, unfortunately, in that of the present. But the majority of critics, teachers, librarians and parents would be sympathetic to children's author and critic Dorothy Butler, when she argues that adults searching children's books "for unpalatable attitudes from which the child must be sheltered" miss a significant point.

To adults concerned with attitudes in children's books with which they don't agree, Butler recommends tolerance and belief in children's ability to understand complex ideas. Although she is speaking of children's books of an earlier era and their value to our children despite changing social mores, her words also apply to the misapprehension that children's books of any era should be safe or sanitized. Butler says,

Must children grow up believing that no one ever behaved selfishly, exploited nature cruelly, or held rigid racist or sexist attitudes in days gone by? Should our children not be told of the selfish actions and unworthy prejudices of earlier generations? Let them see that the people who held these views and performed these acts were people like themselves, that humankind falls easily into error, and that most people accept without question the mores of the era and society into which they are born … [Children] will learn to look honestly and respond sensitively if the books we give them are good books and true, full of real people be having as well as they can in the face of a world which offers contradictory inducements, the good and the bad inextricably entwined…. Only felt principles ever work for human beings.


All books contain messages. The censors believe that by tolerating dissenting opinions we are somehow endorsing them, being approving of them to our children. This is a fallacy. A political or religious group that is totally convinced of the righteousness of its position might wish to suppress differing points of view, but democracy is based on the free exchange of ideas: we tolerate differing opinions not because we endorse them but because we wish to remain free to express our own. Intolerance of differing views in children's books easily leads to vigilante tactics, censorship and the suppression of the imagination.


Abercrombie, N. (1997, March). "Freedom to Read Week 1: Unseen Blocks." Books in Canada 26, 34-35.

Butler, Dorothy. (1983). "Reading Begins at Home: Part I." The Horn Book Magazine 59, 545-52.

Egoff, S. (1981) Thursday's Child. Chicago: American Library Association.

Hentoff, Nat. (1977, November). "Any Writer Who Follows Anyone Else's Guidelines Ought to be in Advertising." School Library Journal 24, 27-29. Rpt. in Beyond Fact: Nonfiction for Children and Young People. Carr, Jo. (Comp.). (1982). Chicago: American Library Association, 176-80.

Krug, J. E. (1996). Introduction. In Hit List: Frequently Challenged Books for Children. Ed. Donna Reidy Pistolis. Chicago: American Library Association, ix.

Lunn, Janet. Amos' Sweater. Illus. by Kim LaFave. Toronto: Groundwood, (1988).

Schrader, A. M. (1992) "Too Young to Know? The Censorship of Children's Materials in Canadian Public Libraries." CCL: Canadian Children's Literature 68, 71-86.

Trimmer, Sarah. (1802). "Observations on the Changes Which Have Taken Place in Books for Children and Young Persons." The Guardian of Education 1, 61-66. Rpt. in A Peculiar Gift: Nineteenth-Century Writing on Books for Children. Salway, L. (Ed.) (1976). Harmondsworth, Middlesex, Eng.: Kestrel, 19-22.

―――――――. "On the Care Which Is Requisite in the Choice of Books for Children." The Guardian of Education 2 (1803): 407-10. Rpt. in Children and Literature: Views and Reviews. Ed. Virginia Haviland. Glenview: Scott, Foresman: 1973. 4-6.

―――――――. Rev. of Mother Bunch's Fairy Tales. The Guardian of Education 2 (1803). Rpt. in Suitable for Children? Controversies in Children's Literature. Ed. Nicholas Tucker. London: Sussex University Press, 1976. 38.

Allen Douglas and Fedwa Malti-Douglas (essay date 1999)

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Michael O. Tunnell (essay date December 1994)

SOURCE: Tunnell, Michael O. "The Double-Edged Sword: Fantasy and Censorship." Language Arts 71, no. 8 (December 1994): 606-12.

[In the following essay, Tunnell expounds on various attempts to censor works of young adult and children's fantasy, asking the question: "During a time in which educators bemoan the lack of creative and critical thinking in our students, how can we avoid the very books and stories that cultivate imaginative thought?"]

About once every hundred years some wiseacre gets up and tries to banish the fairy tale. Perhaps I had better say a few words in its defence, as reading for children.

                         (Lewis, 1980, p. 213)

C. S. Lewis was compelled to write his defense of fantasy stories, particularly traditional tales, in 1952. Yet, in far less than a hundred years, "wiseacres" are trying to banish not only the fairy tale but also much of modern fantasy literature for children. We seem to have entered a new age of censorship, as reflected by the American Library Association's ever-growing annual list of censorship cases affecting schools and public libraries (Doyle, 1993). Within the last decade, both the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association have joined the American Library Association in its acute concern about the forces that want to restrict our children's intellectual freedom.

According to children's book editor Phyllis J. Fogle-man, censorship letters received by publishers in the 1970s and 80s mostly complained about sexuality, "but now censors are broadening their scope to include anything that seems even vaguely anti-Christian to them. For a number of fundamentalist groups, certain words are seen as red flags. If a book simply includes the words devil and witch, it's enough to cause these people to file a complaint" (West, 1988, p. 111). She points out that even The Wizard of Oz (Baum, 1900) was attacked in Tennessee for portraying witches in too positive a fashion.

Following in the footsteps of C. S. Lewis, I also would like to defend the fairy tale and its other fantasy relatives. Instead of a genre that threatens our children, fantasy is fundamentally the most important kind of story to share with them. I can best support this premise by offering an answer-perhaps a challenge—to each of the major objections to fantasy stories. Though there are a variety of complaints, most seem to fall into four categories.

Psychological Fantasy

There are adults who fear that fairy tales and fantasy will lead children to be somehow out of touch with reality, that they will be less likely to distinguish fact from fancy if they are read too many fairy stories. "Do fairy tales teach children to retreat into a world of wish-fulfillment—'fantasy' in the technical psychological sense of the word—instead of facing the problems of the real world?" asks C. S. Lewis (1980, p. 214). Of course not, he concludes, and goes on to say that realistic "school stories" written for young readers are far more likely to cause problems:

I do not mean that school stories for boys and girls ought not to be written. I am only saying that they are far more liable to become "fantasies" in the clinical sense than fantastic stories are. And this distinction holds for adult reading too. The dangerous fantasy is always superficially realistic. The real victim of wishful reverie does not batten on The Odyssey, The Tempest, or The Worm of Ouroboros: he [or she] prefers stories about millionaires, irresistible beauties, posh hotels, palm beaches, and bedroom scenes—things that really might happen, that ought to happen, that would have happened if the reader had had a fair chance. For, as I say, there are two kinds of longing. The one is an askesis, a spiritual exercise, and the other is a disease.

                              (Lewis, 1980, p. 215)

In fact, according to eminent child psychologist Bruno Bettleheim (1977), children deprived of a rich fantasy life are more likely to search for a magical means of coping with the realities of daily living:

Many young people who today suddenly seek escape in drug-induced dreams, apprentice themselves to some guru, believe in astrology, engage in practicing "black magic," or who in some other fashion escape from reality into daydreams about magic experiences which are to change their life for the better, were prematurely pressed to view reality in an adult way.

                                        (p. 51)

Fairy tales and fantasy are prescriptions for mental health, not disease-causing agents. "Myth making is essential in gaining mental health, and the compassionate therapist will not discourage it," says Rollo May (1991), the world-renowned psychiatrist. "Indeed, the very birth and proliferation of psychotherapy in our contemporary age were called forth by the disintegration of our myths" (p. 15). Children denied the opportunity to dream of magical lands and imaginary solutions to terrible problems may be less capable as teenagers and adults of coping with harsh or troubling realities.

For example, coping devices may act like the safety valve on the boiler of a steam engine and have helped many a child (and adult) deal with stress. A small child, for instance, is completely controlled by an adult world—told when to eat, when to sleep, what to wear. But in fairy tales, it is often the youngest son or daughter or the weak, seemingly less able character, rather than parents or other power figures, who wins the day: Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, or the youngest son in Grimm's "The Water of Life." Children vicariously vent frustrations in healthy ways by subconsciously identifying with such heroes. They also are given a sense of hope about their ultimate abilities to succeed in the world (Bettleheim, 1977). Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are (1963) mirrors just such a process occurring in the life of a child. Max, banished to his room without any supper, is filled with rage and is helpless to change his lot. He channels his anger and frustration into a wild fantasy, in which he travels "to where the wild things are." All powerful, Max tames the terrible beasts and becomes "king of all wild things" until his anger is properly vented, and then he misses the good things about home. Sendak creates a marvelous story in the fairy tale tradition and at the same time reveals a bit of truth about the positive attributes of fantasies. Of course, Where the Wild Things Are has been challenged by censors and nervous parents since its publication, partly because the idea of a child defying parental authority by escaping into a dream world seems unhealthy—a negative message to children.

Censors worried about anti-Christian issues in stories also are troubled by the psychological aspects of fantasy. They seem to worry that the escapism of fantasy leads children into the occult or Satanism. Of all the books (adult and children's titles cutting across all genres) reported as challenged or banned by the Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom during a period from March 1992 to March 1993, 20% were fantasies for which the complaints included the words anti-Christian, occult, Satanism, or witchcraft (Doyle, 1993). Take, for example, Zilpha Keatley Snyder's Newbery Honor Book, The Headless Cupid (1971).

It is the story of an unhappy step-sibling who awes and frightens her new brothers and sisters by pretending to have mystical powers. Though she is a complete fraud, a few unexplainable ghostly events nevertheless do occur. In 1989 at the Hays (Kansas) Public Library, The Headless Cupid was challenged "because it [The Headless Cupid] could lead young readers to embrace Satanism" (Doyle, 1991, p. 37). Again, in 1992, complaints surfaced in the Escondido, California, school system "because it [The Headless Cupid] contains references to the occult" (Doyle, 1993, p. 53).


Just as a cry has gone up from many societal watchdogs about violence on television, film, and even in pop music, censors have long protested the violence in many traditional tales. Modern high fantasy stories, the type of fantasy most like fairy tales (such as Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy or Alexander's Prydain Chronicles), have suffered similar criticism. Critics suggest that the so-called violent acts in these stories will breed violence in children. However, this supposition is refuted by the work of Ephraim Biblow. Biblow (1973) explains the results of an experimental study which revealed that children with rich fantasy lives (which fairy stories stimulate) who were exposed to a film with aggressive content responded to the experience with a significant decrease in aggressive behavior. "Low-fantasy" children showed no decrease but a tendency toward increased aggression. Furthermore, Biblow's study clearly indicated that children skilled in "fantasy usage," who therefore engage in aggressive fantasies, are less aggressive during play activities and times of confrontation. Note the concluding sentences of Biblow's report:

The low-fantasy child, as observed during play, presented himself as more motorically oriented, revealed much action and little thought in play activities. The high-fantasy child in contrast was more highly structured and creative and tended to be verbally rather than physically aggressive.

                                     (1973, p. 128)

Contrary to a popular belief, frequent trips into the land of faerie make for creative thinkers and problem solvers who are less physically aggressive—certainly qualities most parents desire for their children. For instance, many of us remember using "white knight" fantasies to defuse our hostilities, and these fantasies were often patterned on fairy stories. For example, a bully terrorizes you. You are helpless. In your fantasy, you must protect someone more helpless than yourself, but now you have the power to take control. After giving the bully sufficient warning, you soundly thrash him. I, for one, always felt better after this type of daydream and was less apt to vent my anger on innocent victims like siblings or friends.

Still, some detractors may say that the above reasons are not enough to warrant the violence. Perhaps they need to understand the archetypal nature of traditional stories and their modern counterparts, in which characters often represent or symbolize basic human character traits. The padding is pulled away in these stories, and we are allowed to examine the rudiments of human behavior, painted for us in primary colors. the old stories have existed for centuries mainly because they speak to us on a deep level concerning the human experience. Because good and evil are the most basic of human traits, children are concerned from an early age with the ramifications of good and bad behavior. In classic fantasy stories, there are few gradations of good and bad-the evil characters are truly evil and cannot be swayed toward good. Likewise, the pure in heart remain pure. These stories, then, are a study in justice, or, as Huck, Hepler, and Hickman (1993) put it: "Poetic justice prevails; the good and the just are eventually rewarded, while the evil are punished. This appeals to the child's sense of justice and his moral judgment" (p. 309).

Kohlberg's stages of moral development describe the young child as being in the "Premoral Stage" (up to about 8 years), which basically means that "the child believes that evil behavior is likely to be punished, and good behavior is based on obedience or the avoidance of evil implicit in disobedience" (Lefrancois, 1986, p. 446). According to Bettleheim (1977), the evil person meeting a well-deserved fate in the fairy tale satisfies a child's deep need for justice to prevail. Sometimes this means destroying the evil altogether. Author and literary critic G. K. Chesterton told the story of some children with whom he saw Maeterlinck's play The Blue Bird. They were unhappy because there was no "Day of Judgment" for the wicked character. His clear understanding of children's moral development elicited this deeply meaningful response from Chesterton: "For children are innocent and love justice; while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy" (quoted in Tolkien, 1966, p. 66). A study conducted with first-grade students supports Chesterton's observation. When asked to choose a preferred ending to "Little Red Riding Hood" from three variations of the tale, the children selected the ending in which the wolf was made to suffer the most (Yolen, 1981). The children demanded that the villain pay dearly for his crimes.

I think it is important to examine exactly what elements are labeled as violent in fairy tales and in quality works of modern fantasy. Take one of the bloodier fairy tales, Grimm's version of "Cinderella," for example. Both truly wicked stepsisters mutilate themselves (trimming heel and cutting off toe) so that the slipper might fit. Only the blood reveals their treachery. Later, the birds peck out their eyes. Yet, the tale very simply and compactly describes each violent act. We don't read of viscous fluid streaming down faces or blood spurting on walls and floors. That's the stuff of slasher horror movies, sensationalism designed to titillate, not a careful comment on justice.

The better works of modern high fantasy handle violence in the same manner. In the final book of Lloyd Alexander's Prydain series, the arch villain Arawn Death-Lord is confronted for the first time. He shape-shifts into the form of a serpent, but nevertheless is destroyed. Note the controlled images Alexander gives of Arawn's violent death:

… Taran swung the flashing sword with all his strength. The blade clove the serpent in two….

A horrified gasp came from Eilonwy. Taran looked up as the girl pointed to the cloven serpent. Its body writhed, its shape blurred. In its place appeared the black-cloaked figure of a man whose severed head had rolled face downward on the earth. Yet in a moment this shape too lost its form and the corpse sank like a shadow into the earth; and where it had lain was seared and fallow, the ground wasted, fissured as though by drought. Arawn Death-Lord had vanished.

                   (Alexander, 1968a, p. 256-257)

Violence in stories also appears to compound the complaints of those who see fantasy as anti-Christian. C. S. Lewis's immortal classic, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950), was challenged in 1990 in the Howard County, Maryland, Public Schools because of "graphic violence, mysticism and gore" (Doyle, 1991, p. 46). The sacrifice of the great lion, Aslan, who represents Christ in this Christian allegory, is probably the most violent and gory scene, evoking images of the crucifixion from the New Testament. But the charge of "mysticism" combined with that of "graphic violence" relegates Lewis's allegory to the realm of the occult.

Frightening for Young Children

Related to violence is the fright factor of fantasy stories, particularly the fairy tales. For instance, many parents worry that the original Grimm's version of "Snow White" or "Cinderella" will cause their young children to have nightmares or other sorts of distress. However, dangerous story elements in fairy tales, such as wicked witches or dragons, are far removed in both time and place from the lives of children; therefore these tales prove much less frightening than realistic stories of danger that focus on real-life fears (Smith, 1989). Well-meaning parents often program children to be afraid by telegraphing their anxiety when they assume elements of a story will cause alarm. The truth is that we are unable to predict what will frighten a child in this manner. I was mystified by some of my children being afraid of the dark and others not. Nevertheless, we as parents wish to insulate our children from fear. Yet to completely insulate them may be a disservice, as C. S. Lewis points out:

Those who say that children must not be frightened may mean two things. They may mean (1) that we must not do anything likely to give the child those haunting, disabling, pathological fears against which ordinary courage is helpless: in fact, phobias…. Or they may mean (2) that we must try to keep out of his mind the knowledge that he is born into a world of death, violence, wounds, adventure, heroism and cowardice, good and evil. If they mean the first I agree…. [However] the second would indeed be to give children a false impression and feed them on escapism in the bad sense…. Since it is so likely they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not bright but darker…. Nothing will persuade me that [a fairy tale] causes an ordinary child any kind or degree of fear beyond what it wants, and needs, to feel. For, of course, it wants to be a little frightened.

                            (Lewis, 1980, p. 216)

An ironic outcome of trying to protect children from fairy tales is that parents may indeed be frightening them instead! Ann Trousdale (1989) tells the story of a friend who only read softened versions of the fairy and folktales to her young daughter. The rendering of "The Three Little Pigs" that she chose eliminated the violent elements found in the original Joseph Jacobs version: The first two pigs were not eaten; the wolf was not boiled alive. Instead, the wolf came down the chimney, burned his derriere, rocketed back up the chimney, and ran off into the distance, never to been seen again. The little girl said, "He's gonna come back," and began to have nightmares. Trous-dale provided a copy of the original version and soon received a letter that said, "Well, we put the Big Bad Wolf to rest" (p. 77). Perhaps this is another example of a child's need for justice to prevail, but it seems even more basic: The evil was destroyed, and thus the threat was eliminated.

What fairy tales provide children is a message of hope, not fear. As Joseph Campbell (1949) suggests, a child who follows "a multitude of heroic figures though the classic stages of the universal adventure" will come to understand "the singleness of the human spirit in its aspirations, powers, vicissitudes,—and wisdom" (p. 36). Indeed, no matter how dark the path or how bleak the outlook, fairy tales declare that we have an excellent chance of making it through and coming out on top. The happy ending is an essential part of fairy stories.

Jim Trelease (1986) believes that fairy tales simply confirm what children already know or, at least, suspect about the world: It's often a cruel and dangerous place. But fairy tales take children far beyond this grim reality, calling upon their sense of courage and adventure and advising: "Take your courage in hand and go out to meet that world head on" (Trelease, 1986, p. 185). In fact, children who recoil from strong images of danger in fairy tales have the most to gain from the exposure (Smith, 1989).

Fantasy stories targeted by censors as frightening are typically written for younger children, who are deemed to be more easily alarmed. Fairy tales and ghost stories appear frequently on lists of challenged books for young readers. For example, Alvin Schwartz's popular ghost tales, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (1981), has been challenged repeatedly since its publication. In 1992, challenges were mounted in school districts in Arizona, Connecticut, Indiana, and Washington (Doyle, 1993). Even scary poetry for children has been attacked. Jack Pre-lutsky's The Headless Horseman Rides Tonight and Other Poems to Trouble Your Sleep (1980) was challenged in 1982 at the Victor Elementary School in Rochester, New York, because it "was too frightening for young children to read" (Doyle, 1991, p. 32). Over the years I have asked my graduate students, who are practicing primary- and intermediate-grade teachers, if Prelutsky's poems have frightened their students. Never have I been told "yes."

Waste of Time

The complaint that fantasy is a waste of time is perhaps the most insidious. This is not a reason books are typically challenged by irate censors. Instead, teachers, librarians, and parents simply may not select works of traditional and modern fantasy. This is a form of what Shannon (1989) describes as covert censorship, an example of which occurred with a librarian at the Boulder (Colorado) Public Library, who placed Norton Juster's (1961) The Phantom Tollbooth in a locked reference collection because she considered it poor fantasy. Fortunately, Juster's book was finally exonerated and released from its prison in 1988 (Doyle, 1991).

The answer to the charge that fairy tales and other fantasy stories should be set aside in favor of more substantial books about the real world is two-fold. First, fantasy fosters creativity.

Poet Kornei Chukovsky (1968) writes of his experiences in Russia at a time when the Soviets proposed eliminating folk and fairy tales from education. In 1929 he stopped to tell Baron von Munchausen stories to children in a sanatorium. Uniformed overseers rushed forward to stop the reading of such "trash," explaining that books for children must not be fairy tales "but only the kind that offer most authentic and realistic facts" (p. 115). Chukovsky reasoned with them to no avail that, "Fantasy is the most valuable attribute of the human mind and should be diligently nurtured from earliest childhood" (pp. 116-117). He points out that even Lenin understood this: "It is incorrect to think that fantasy is useful only to the poet…. It is useful even in mathematics—even differential and integrated calculus could not have been discovered without it. Fantasy is a quality of the highest importance" (p. 117).

Please recall that Ephraim Biblow's (1973) study showed "high-fantasy" children to be "more highly structured and creative" (p. 128). In fact, many scientists have credited scientific advancement to the creative seeds sown by fairy stories, fantasy, and science fiction novels. "Imagination," said Einstein, "is more important than knowledge" (quoted in Yolen, 1981, p. 63). Einstein's predecessor, renowned British physicist John Tindale, understood well the power of imagination:

Without the participation of fantasy … all our knowledge about nature would have been limited merely to the classification of obvious facts. The relation between cause and effect and their interaction would have gone unnoticed, thus stemming the progress of science itself, because it is the main function of science to establish the link between the different manifestations of nature, since creative fantasy is the ability to perceive more and more such links.

                (quoted in Chukovsky, 1968, p. 124)

The second of this two-fold answer is that children have an undeniable need for childhood fantasies. Chukovsky (1968) also tells of a leading Russian educator who "did everything in her power to protect her son from fairy tales" (p. 118) but soon discovered that he had begun to create his own fantasies, "as if to make up for the fairy tales of which he had been deprived" (p. 119). Alexander (1968b) maintains that one of fantasy's greatest gifts is its ability to foster a capacity for believing. Interesting many young people in anything seems impossible because they have never valued anything, never developed a capacity for believing anything is really worthwhile. But if the capacity to believe is once developed, it is never lost. "Whether the object of value is Santa Claus or Sunday school, the Prophet Elijah or Arthur, the Once and Future King, does not make too much difference. Our values and beliefs can change. The capacity remains" (Alexander, 1968b, p. 388).

I was taught this truth by my own daughter. When Heather was barely 4, I decided that the Santa Claus myth should no longer be propagated in our household. I had been influenced by those voices of reason: Don't lie to your children! Don't adulterate the true meaning of Christmas! I called Heather to me and told her that Santa was a game; he wasn't real. Then I stressed the true message of Christmas. Heather's eyes were wide when I asked, "Do you understand what I'm telling you?" "Yes," she answered, and the deed was done.

A few nights later it was Christmas Eve, and Heather's eyes were even wider. She was so excited she was near blastoff. "Santa's coming! Get the cookies! Get the milk!" What is this? I thought. Heather is an intelligent child. Surely she understands better than this. Then it dawned on me: Heather's need to believe had superseded the idiocy of her father. She continued to believe in Santa Claus until she reached that age when disbelief seems to creep in naturally.


In a society as diverse as ours in the United States and Canada, what may seem clearly offensive to one group of people may be viewed as beautiful and uplifting by another. An example of this sort of dichotomy took place in a nearby school district while I was teaching at a university in Illinois. Parents of a particular religious sect felt that reading Greek myths in the public schools was an evil practice. Believing strongly in the truth of their Christian faith, they considered the Greek myths pagan theology that threatened to undermine the faith of their children. Of course, many others, Christians and non-Christians alike, viewed the Greek myths as remarkable literature that illuminates the history of our world and fosters an understanding of cultures unlike our own. The controversy in Illinois was, unfortunately, not an isolated incident of this sort of censorship aimed at public schools and libraries. In fact, in 1992 at Woodland Park (Colorado) High School, Max J. Herzberg's Myths and Their Meaning (1984) was challenged "because the stories about mythological figures like Zeus and Apollo threaten Western civilization's foundations" (Doyle, 1993, p. 51).

I wonder whether we will let the strident objections of a few change our behavior. Will we avoid fairy tales as nighttime reading for our own children? Or for our kindergarten classes? Or will we choose "dumbed down" versions? Will we dismiss high fantasy or science fiction in our elementary and secondary classrooms? Is it simply easier to choose other books and avoid controversy?

During a time in which educators bemoan the lack of creative and critical thinking in our students, how can we avoid the very books and stories that cultivate imaginative thought? And how, in a time of increased teen suicide and depression in people of all ages, can we ignore Rollo May's (1991) "cry" for myth? "Many of the problems of our society, including cults and drug addition, can be traced to the lack of myths that give us as individuals the inner security we need in order to live adequately in our day" (p. 9). Fantasy, therefore, is not only safe and acceptable fare for our children; it is a necessity.

There's the wonderful story of the woman who had a young son who was brilliant in mathematics. She had an opportunity to ask Einstein how she should prepare him to achieve greatness in the field. Einstein thought for a moment and said: "Read him the great myths of the past—stretch his imagination." (Huck, 1982, p. 316)


Alexander, L. (1968a). The High King. New York: Holt.

Alexander, L. (1968b). "Wishful Thinking—or Hopeful Dreaming." The Horn Book Magazine, 44, 382-390.

Baum, L. F. (1900; 1970 reissue). The Wizard of Oz. New York: Macmillan.

Bettleheim, B. (1977). The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Vintage.

Biblow, E. (1973). "Imaginative Play and the Control of Aggressive Behavior." In J. S. Singer (Ed.), The Child's World of Make-Believe (pp. 104-128). New York: Academic Press.

Campbell, J. (1949). The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Chukovsky, K. (1968). From Two to Five. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Doyle, R. P. (1991). Banned Books Week '91: Celebrating the Freedom to Read—A Resource Book. Chicago: American Library Association.

Doyle, R. P. (1993). Banned Books Week '93: Celebrating the Freedom to Read—A Resource Book and Promotion Guide. Chicago: American Library Association.

Herzberg, Max J. (1984). Myths and Their Meaning. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Huck, C. (1982). "I Give You the End of a Golden String." Theory into Practice, 21, 315-321.

Huck, C., Hepler, S., & Hickman, J. (1993). Children 5: Literature in the Elementary School. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Juster, N. (1961). The Phantom Tollbooth. New York: Random House/Knopf.

Lefrancois, G. R. (1986). Of Children. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Lewis, C. S. (1980). "On Three Ways of Writing for Children." In S. Egoff, G. T. Stubbs, & L. E. Ashley (Eds.), Only Connect (pp. 207-220). New York: Oxford University Press.

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May, Rollo. (1991). The Cry for Myth. New York: Delta.

Prelutsky, J. (1980). The Headless Horseman Rides Tonight and Other Poems to Trouble Your Sleep. Illustrated by A. Lobel. New York: Greenwillow.

Schwartz, A. (1981). Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Illustrated by S. Gammell. New York: Lippincott.

Sendak, M. (1963). Where the Wild Things Are. New York: HarperCollins.

Shannon, P. (1989). "Overt and Covert Censorship of Children's Books." The New Advocate, 2, 97-104.

Smith, C. A. (1989). From Wonder to Wisdom. New York: New American Library.

Snyder, Z. K. (1971). The Headless Cupid. New York: Atheneum.

Tolkien, J. R. R. (1966). The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine.

Trelease, J. (1986). ["The Effect of Fairy Tales on Children"]. Untitled quotation. The Reading Teacher, 40, 185.

Trousdale, A. (1999). "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf." Children's Literature in Education, 20, 69-79.

West, M. I. (1998). Trust Your Children: Voices against Censorship. New York: Neal-Schuman.

Yolen, J. (1981). Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie, and Folklore in the Literature of Childhood. New York: Philomel.

Mark I. West (essay date winter 1999)

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Nancy Garden (essay date November 1994)

SOURCE: Garden, Nancy. "Banned: Lesbian and Gay Books Under Fire." Lambda Book Report 4, no. 7 (November 1994): 11-13.

[In the following essay, Garden—author of the young adult novel Annie on My Mind—surveys American censorship challenges made against works of children's literature, particularly works that acknowledge homosexuality.]

My eyes were barely on the road, because I was imagining the cover of my young adult novel, Annie on My Mind (FSG) curling, blackening, melting, as flames consumed it.

Farfetched fantasy? No. My book was burned last fall by religious fundamentalists in Kansas City, Missouri. Since then, it has been banned in a school district there, and is now the subject of a lawsuit brought by several kids and their parents.

There's nothing like a censorship attempt against one's own book to sensitize one to similar attempts against others, and to the issue of censorship in general.

According to Judith Krug, Director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom, there were 40 reported challenges (complaints) to or outright bannings of gay books (adult and children's) in 1991, 64 in 1992, 111 in 1993, and 56 from January, 1994 to July 15, 1994. A little arithmetic will show you that so far this year's figure is comparable to last year's. Krug estimates that the incidents her office hears about represent at most only a quarter of the actual ones; most are never reported. Michael Willhoite's picture book Daddy's Roommate (Alyson) was the most challenged book—of all books, not just gay book, and not just children's book—in 1993 and so far maintains that position in 1994. The third most challenged in 1993 was Leslea Newman's Heather Has Two Mommies (also Alyson). [Gay book challenges have continued into the 21st century. For example, three books with gay content, two of them for kids, appeared on ALA's list of the ten most frequently challenged books in 2003–4.]

Promoting Homosexuality?

Kids' books have always been prime targets for censors; protecting "innocent" and "impressionable" minds from "evil ideas" is a popular pastime of people—some sincere but others politically motivated—on the religious right. Daddy's Roommate, said challengers in North Carolina, "promotes a dangerous and ungodly lifestyle from which children must be protected." Promote is a key word used not only in challenges to individual books but also in those states with proposed legislation or ballot initiatives seeking to deny expenditure of public funds for materials on homosexuality for kids, or seeking to deny kids access to such materials.

But I write gay YAs because of the appalling suicide rate among gay adolescents, not to "promote" homosexuality, and because of the loneliness and confusion most gay kids face as they struggle to discover, understand, and accept themselves. Michael Willhoite, who writes for younger kids, told me, "I wrote Daddy's Roommate for kids of gay parents because their lives were not being addressed…. Children need to see their lives reflected in their literature."

Leslea Newman expresses a similar view. "[The subject] resonated with me as a Jew, also…. Nothing reflected my reality in picture books when I was a child…. If I have an 'agenda,' it's that every child in the country should be proud of who they are and what their family is."

Jacqueline Woodson, whose forthcoming book, From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun (Scholastic) is about an African-American boy whose mother falls in love with a white woman, says, "My goal is … to show the one queer kid in class that he or she isn't all alone—to show the one black kid that, too."

I wish it were possible to convey to would-be censors that writing about something isn't the same as promoting it!

Howard Reeves, who's an editor at Hyperion in New York, says "The very idea [of censorship] is revolting. The worst is this guy in Queens"—Frank Borzellieri, chair of the District 24 School Board in Queens, NY, who tried unsuccessfully last spring to ban all multicultural books from the schools. His effort was reminiscent of the one in 1992 banning the Rainbow Curriculum, which included Heather and Daddy's, and led to the firing of Chancellor Joseph A. Fernandez. Sasha Alyson of Alyson Publications told me that was his worst censorship experience. "The potential was so huge," he said; "a real precedent. The biggest school system in the country saying we'll address gay issues—and then backing down."

Authors Threatened

Some campaigns against gay books for kids that fall short of actual censorship are equally alarming—as are threats against authors of gay books. "I'm going to go right on burning your books!" the minister who burned Annie shouted at me when I visited Kansas City last spring. Worse, I recently heard about an author who was threatened with an end to his picture book career if he published a gay anthology on which he was working. After Jacqueline Woodson's new book was mentioned in Out magazine, a clergyman "warned" his congregation against it. Woodson then got letters from 32 sixth graders saying in effect that they'd never buy any more of her books and Wood-son's publisher ran into distribution and book club difficulties. "In the beginning," said Woodson, "I didn't know if they [Scholastic] were on my side…. [But] they wrote a wonderful letter of support. They're going to stand behind the book."

Woodson's editor, Dianne Hess, echoes this. "The company is 100% behind Jacquie's new book," she told me, and pointed out that the flap "wasn't real censorship."

Not "real censorship" either, but equally unsettling is the fact that, according to Diane Wachtell of the New Press, some suburban stores have refused to stock her company's YA anthology Growing Up Gay, and an educational materials catalog has refused to offer it. And also disturbing is an experience Cristina Salat had with her manuscript for Living in Secret (Bantam) about a girl who is kidnapped from her father by her lesbian mom and her mom's lover. "Before Bantam took it," says Salat, "a big house was interested in it for a movie, if I cut the lesbians and anything to do with race. So I didn't do it, and they didn't do it." That's a hard decision for an author to face, especially when it's her first book.

Library Battleground

A hard-fought attempt at actual censorship was levied recently against the fairy tale collection The Duke Who Outlawed Jelly Beans by Johnny Valentine (Alyson) and other Alyson books in Dayton, Ohio. According to Mark Willis, Community Relations Manager for the Dayton and Montgomery County Public Library, last fall a parent who discovered that the stories in Duke involved kids with same-sex parents taped a handwritten note to the book, saying "Warning: This book contains homosexual themes." Then, says Willis, "She alerted the media, who interviewed a lot of people and ran a series on the situation at 6 and 11 two nights in a row." The leader of a small Christian sect, Spirit of Life Christian Center, who Willis said holds an annual Halloween book-burning, urged his followers to complain about the book—and that set off a brouhaha involving angry phone calls and the distribution of a flyer accusing the library of making pornography available to kids. The library sent out some complaint forms, and got about 12 back; most respondents admitted that they hadn't read the book. Library staff then reviewed all the Alyson children's books they had and voted to keep them; the would-be censors appealed, and eventually, after noisy public meetings, the library's Board of Trustees unanimously supported the staff's decision.

Most libraries have specific policies about complaints, and those that do usually have an easier time dealing with them. Ellen Fader, who's Public Library Consultant of the Library Services Division for the State of Oregon, says "Virtually every Oregon public library that's had a challenge has had a policy in place." In 1988–1989 (the library's fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30), Fader's office documented 4 challenges to gay adult and kids' books. In '89-'90, 3; in '90-'91, 2; in '91-'92, also 2. In '92-'93, the year that Ballot Measure 3 hit Oregon, the figure jumped to 35—44% of the year's total challenges.

This year—July 1, 1993–June 30, 1994—there were only 6 documented challenges to gay books in Oregon, so it appears that things have calmed down a little there. But since conservatives in Oregon gathered enough signatures last summer for a ballot measure prohibiting the expenditure of government funds on anything that "promotes" homosexuality, that could be the calm before the storm, even if, as may have happened by now, the court has ruled against it. "The catch," says Fader, "is that anything that doesn't decry homosexuals would be considered promoting."

The Boston Public Library, says Joanne Goodman, children's librarian at the Field's Corner branch, "has no written policy on censorship." Their unwritten policy, she explains, is that "people are responsible for censoring themselves. Parents should select what their kids read," and the rationale for not having a written policy is that "we'd be stuck with it…. This way we can be more flexible. We listen to complaints, and they [those who complain] can put it in writing." A parent recently complained that Isabelle Holland's The Man without a Face (Lippincott) is "horrible and disgusting and shouldn't be on the shelves," Goodman says. "We told him we don't censor, and told him he could put his complaint in writing and send it to the main library. He didn't. Most people don't pursue it. I think the thing to do is to listen to people."

Most people in the literary community agree that no one has the right to censor anyone, even though one may want to. As Judith Krug points out, if one cares deeply about one's own value system, one is, at least potentially, a censor. Leslea Newman adds, "Once any form of censorship is okay, [gay people] will be the first to be censored…. The answer is to protect the First Amendment but to fight like hell when something's expressed that you don't believe in."

Publishers Facing Pressure

As Michael Thomas Ford, formerly an editor at Macmillan and now freelancing, pointed out last February in the trade magazine Publishers Weekly, even among gay or gay-sympathetic publishers, there seems to be a certain amount of resistance to publishing gay kids' books. This also bothers David Gale, now an editor at Simon and Schuster, who worked for a time on Marion Dane Bauer's new YA anthology Am I Blue?: Coming Out from the Silence (HarperCollins). "A lot of [publishers] don't buy gay books because they say there's no market for them," Gale said. "Gay books require extra work—more than just doing the book and giving it to regular channels."

"Gay books are the black books of the 90s," Mike Ford points out. "Editors say 'We'll publish this because it's gay. It's the PC thing to do.'—or they'll say 'We can't do this because it's gay.'"

Susan Korman, Cristina Salat's editor at Bantam Books for Young People, brings up an interesting peripheral point about book clubs, which represent a large part of the sales of many children's publishers, and which, especially at the middle grade level, turn away from anything to do with sex. "There will definitely be some resistance," she said, "to selling [Living in Secret] to a book club." I asked her if that would influence Bantam in acquiring a book. "No," she said. "If it was a good book and we believed the author had a career, it wouldn't make us reject it."

What about self-censorship on the part of the authors? Surely that's one of the most dangerous by-products of attacks on books. Everyone I talked to resists it—but many find it hard.

"The way [censorship] affects us is in our pocket-books," says Cristina Salat, "until we're financially secure…. I want to do this full time, and it's very hard…. I can refine informational details, but I can't change a character once it's come to me."

"I'm doing an adult book now, and it's so much easier," Jacqueline Woodson told me. "I think a lot before I sit down to write a YA book."

Two-Edged Sword

The popular notion, of course, is that censorship increases sales. "Terrific!" was the first response of a number of my writer friends when I told them Annie on My Mind had been burned. "Wonderful! Think of the books you'll sell."

Well, okay, I did think of that, a little, and it's true that I was told all the bookstores in Kansas City were soon sold out of Annie. Although I haven't seen any rise in my royalties as a result, it is nice that people who wouldn't ordinarily be exposed to Annie have read it and have apparently been affected positively by it.

But even though that can be "the silver lining in the cloud," as Sasha Alyson puts it, it doesn't mean publishers or authors can afford to shy away from fighting it when it occurs.

"The author has to be willing to go out there and refute what's being said," feels Cristina Salat, and Jacqueline Woodson says, "I don't believe censorship is good for anyone…. It's going to impact on people who haven't got their stuff together yet, who aren't published. The publisher is going to censor new stuff…. I want there to be other books out there like mine."

Mike Ford called the increase in sales that censorship can bring "a two-edged sword…. If it gets a book out there and gets people to read it, I guess that's a good thing. But if [a book is] read just because it's banned, it isn't so good. To write or publish a book so it'll be banned or controversial is dumb, and has nothing to do with art." But, he went on, publishing a book because you believe in it even though it's going to be banned "is an act of courage."

The Front Lines

Publishers and writers are often the last to know when a book is challenged. First to know, though, are the librarians. They're the ones who face the angry patrons, who replace and repair the books removed or damaged by people who decide to take matters into their own hands, and who sometimes even lose their jobs because of censorship issues. And yet many of them fight tirelessly to keep controversial books—our books—available, and to educate the public about the threat that censorship represents.

Cathi Dunn MacRae, YA librarian at the Boulder, Colorado, Public Library, has an advisory board of middle and high school students who were so horrified to learn about book banning that they were inspired to write a program call "Don't Read This!" which includes information on censorship, book talks on challenged books, and skits—including one featuring Daddy's Roommate. They've performed the program a number of times, despite the fact that four schools cancelled bookings after seeing the script, and despite threats of disruption. Having their play about censorship censored and threatened rocked many of the students. "It was a neat experience," says MacRae, "because the kids were learning [about censorship] first hand."

The Oregon Intellectual Freedom Clearing House, for which Ellen Fader is Coordinator, issues an annual report on challenges in Oregon and tries to help libraries and schools deal with them. They also provide consulting services and workshops about intellectual freedom. Organizations like the American Library Association, People for the American Way, the National Council of Teachers of English, the Coalition Against Censorship, the American Civil Liberties Union, and others, are all doing their part—but that doesn't mean the literary community can afford to leave all the work to them.

Fighting Back

Perhaps we, as queers, are uniquely equipped to fight the efforts against our books. As victims of homophobia, we know firsthand the ignorant, narrow, illogical and controlling thinking that leads to censorship.

How can we fight it?

"By not giving in to it," says David Gale, and, adds Mark Willis, through "a lot of education" and by showing people that "if they could ban everything that offends someone there wouldn't be much left." Sasha Alyson points out, "It's important for people to show up at their library hearings and be heard." Michael Willhoite urges us to write and illustrate "books that are so good they are their own defense," and Cristina Salat suggests "Buy stuff you think is controversial to show the publishers that it sells. And keep putting it out there."

"The Christian right has come together," says Jacqueline Woodson. "We have to do the same. We can't say 'I'm going to make a lot of money.' We have to think of ourselves as a community and come together and right this now…. We can't be selfish and think of personal gain."

The pre-Stonewall fight was hard on many levels, but it looks as if the post-Stonewall-25 fight is going to be even harder. Our enemies are more organized now, and sneakier. They are attacking us on many fronts—and one of them is censorship of books for children and young adults. Make no mistake: this is not a trivial scrap. It is an early battle in what must not become a full-fledged war.

However, in early August, the U.S. Senate sounded a preliminary death knell to future gay books for kids—and sex education, AIDS education, and counseling on matters of sex and sexuality as well. Following in the footsteps of action taken by the House earlier this year, Republicans Robert C. Smith of New Hampshire and Jesse Helms of North Carolina proposed an amendment under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that would deny federal money to any school whose programs, books, materials or counseling has "the purpose or effect of encouraging or supporting homosexuality as a positive life style alternative." This amendment passed 63-36. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D., MA) and Sen. James Jeffords (R., VT) successfully offered a milder amendment stipulating that the federal money can be denied only if it is to be used "to directly promote [note word "promote"] or encourage sexual activity, whether heterosexual or homosexual." This one passed 99-0.

The original House amendment to the Act, offered earlier this year by Rep. Mel Hancock (R., MO), was similar to Smith-Helms. Before the Senate vote, however, it was revised by Rep. Jolene Unsoeld (D., WA) to say federal funds may not be used directly to "promote"—there's that word again—homosexuality—so Sen. Edward Kennedy's amendment is similar to the final House amendment, although the House version apparently doesn't include heterosexuality.

As we go to press a House-Senate conference committee had replaced the anti-gay language with Senator Kennedy's proposal, but the final outcome remains uncertain. But regardless of the outcome of this legislation, it reflects a dangerous trend on the part of the federal government, in favor of, if not actual government censorship, government sanction for keeping gay-positive materials (and materials having to do with sex education in general) out of the schools—for there is much room for interpretation regardless of which amendment holds, and it's clear that the word "promote" is usually interpreted by rightists simply to mean "present." This measure, therefore, is likely to have an impact on publishers and writers. Some schools, one would hope, would resist; federal money accounts for only 6-15% of most public schools' funds. But others may not be able to risk losing money if they try to do the lifesaving work of helping gay students. It behooves us, as members of the literary community, and as gay people concerned with the difficulties of our youth, to protest this act and be alert to its dangerous pro-censorship, anti-free speech implications.

Judy Blume (essay date June-July 1999)

SOURCE: Blume, Judy. "Places I Never Meant to Be: A Personal View." American Libraries 30, no. 6 (June-July 1999): 62-7.

[In the following essay, Blume—author of Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret and one of the most banned children's writers in America—offers her personal thoughts about the nature and effects of literary censorship.]

When I was growing up I'd heard that if a movie or book was "Banned in Boston" everybody wanted to see it or read it right away. My older brother, for example, went to see such a movie—The Outlaw, starring Jane Russell—and I wasn't supposed to tell my mother. I begged him to share what he saw, but he wouldn't. I was intensely curious about the adult world and hated the secrets my parents, and now my brother, kept from me.

A few years later, when I was in 5th grade, my mother was reading a novel called A Rage to Live by John O'Hara, and for the first time (and, as it turned out, the only time) in my life, she told me I was never to look at that book, at least not until I was much older. Once I knew my mother didn't want me to read it, I figured it must be really interesting!

So, you can imagine how surprised and delighted I was when, as a junior in high school, I found John O'Hara's name on my reading list. Not a specific title by John O'Hara, but any title. I didn't waste a minute. I went down to the public library in Elizabeth, New Jersey, that afternoon—a place where I'd spent so many happy hours as a young child, I'd pasted a card pocket on the inside back cover of each book I owned—and looked for A Rage to Live. But I couldn't find it.

When I asked, the librarian told me that book was restricted. It was kept in a locked closet and I couldn't take it out without written permission from my parents.

Aside from my mother's one moment of fear, neither of my parents had ever told me what I could or could not read. They encouraged me to read widely. There were no "young adult" novels then. Serious books about teenagers were published as adult novels. It was my mother who handed me To Kill a Mockingbird and Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl, when they were first published.

By the time I was 12 I was browsing in the bookshelves flanking the fireplace in our living room where, in my quest to make sense of the world, I discovered J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, fell in love with the romantic tragedies of Thomas Hardy and the Bront? sisters, and overidentified with Marjorie Morningstar.

But at the Elizabeth Public Library the librarian didn't care. "Get permission in writing," she told me. When I realized she was not going to let me check out A Rage to Live I was angry. I felt betrayed and held her responsible. It never occurred to me that it might not have been her choice.

At home I complained to my family and that evening my aunt, the principal of an elementary school, brought me her copy of A Rage to Live. I stayed up half the night reading the forbidden book. Yes, it was sexy, but the characters and their story were what kept me turning the pages. Finally, my curiosity (about that book, anyway) was satisfied. Instead of leading me astray, as my mother must have feared, it led me to read everything else I could find by the author.

What Is Censorship Anyway?

All of which brings me to the question What is censorship? If you ask a dozen people you'll get 12 different answers. When I actually looked up the word in The Concise Columbia Encyclopedia I found this definition: "[The] official restriction of any expression believed to threaten the political, social, or moral order." My thesaurus lists the following words that can be used in place of ban (as in book banning): Forbid. Prohibit. Restrict. But what do these words mean to the stories they choose to tell? And what do they mean to the books they choose to read?

I began to write when I was in my mid-20s. By then I was married with two small children and desperately in need of creative work. I wrote Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret right out of my own experiences and feelings when I was in 6th grade. Controversy wasn't on my mind. I wanted only to write what I knew to be true. I wanted to write the best, the most honest books I could, the kinds of books I would have liked to read when I was younger. If someone had told me then I would become one of the most banned writers in America, I'd have laughed.

When Margaret was published in 1970 I gave three copies to my children's elementary school but the books never reached the shelves. The male principal decided on his own that they were inappropriate for elementary school readers because of the discussion of menstruation (never mind how many 5th- and 6th-grade girls already had their periods). Then one night the phone rang and a woman asked if I was the one who had written that book. When I replied that I was, she called me a communist and hung up. I never did figure out if she equated communism with breast development or religion.

In that decade I wrote 13 other books: 11 for young readers, one for teenagers, and one for adults. My publishers were protective of me and didn't necessarily share negative comments about my work during those years. They believed if I didn't know some individuals were upset by my books, I wouldn't be intimidated.

Of course, they couldn't keep the occasional anecdote from reaching me: the mother who admitted she'd cut two pages out of Then Again, Maybe I Won't rather than allow her almost 13-year-old son to read about wet dreams. Or the young librarian who'd been instructed by her male principal to keep Deenie off the shelf because in the book, Deenie masturbates. "It would be different if it were about a boy," he'd told her. "That would be normal."

The stories go on and on but really, I wasn't that concerned. There was no organized effort to ban my books or any other books, none that I knew of, anyway. The '70s were a good decade for writers and readers. Many of us came of age during those years, writing from our heart and gut, finding editors and publishers who believed in us, who willingly took risks to help us find our audience. We were free to write about real kids in the real world. Kids with feelings and emotions, kids with real families, kids like we once were. And young readers gobbled up our books, hungry for characters with whom they could identify, including my own daughter and son, who had become avid readers. No mother could have been more proud to see the tradition of family reading passed on to the next generation.

Then, almost overnight, following the presidential election of 1980, the censors crawled out of the woodwork, organized and determined. Not only would they decide what their children could read but what all children could read. It was the beginning of the decade that wouldn't go away, that still won't go away almost 20 years later. Suddenly books were seen as dangerous to young minds. Thinking was seen as dangerous, unless those thoughts were approved by groups like the Moral Majority, who believed with certainty they knew what was best for everyone.

So now we had individual parents running into schools, waving books, demanding their removal—books they hadn't read except for certain passages. Most often their objections had to do with language, sexuality, and something called "lack of moral tone."

Those who were most active in trying to ban books came from the "religious right" but the impulse to censor spread like a contagious disease. Other parents, confused and uncertain, were happy to jump on the bandwagon. Book banning satisfied their need to feel in control of their children's lives. Those who censored were easily frightened. They were afraid of exposing their children to ideas different from their own. Afraid to answer children's questions or talk with them about sensitive subjects. And they were suspicious. They believed if kids liked a book, it must be dangerous.

Too few schools had policies in place enabling them to deal with challenged materials. So what happened? The domino effect. School administrators sent down the word: Anything that could be seen as controversial had to go. Often books were quietly removed from school libraries and classrooms or, if seen as potential troublemakers, were never purchased in the first place. These decisions were based not on what was best for the students, but what would not offend the censors.

Restricted Shelves

I found myself at the center of the storm. My books were being challenged daily, often placed on restricted shelves (shades of Elizabeth, New Jersey, in 1955) and sometimes removed. A friend sent me a pamphlet called How to Rid Your Schools and Libraries of Judy Blume Books. Never once did the pamphlet suggest the books actually be read. Of course I wasn't the only target across the country; the Sex Police and the Language Police were thumbing through books at record speed, looking for any words or phrases that, taken out of context, could be used as evidence against them.

Puberty became a dirty word, as if children who didn't read about it wouldn't know about it, and if they didn't know about it, it would never happen.

The Moral Tone Brigade attacked Blubber (a story of victimization in the classroom) with a vengeance because, as they saw it, in this book evil goes unpunished. As if kids need to be hit over the head, as if they don't get it without having the message spelled out for them.

I had letters from angry parents accusing me of ruining Christmas forever because of a chapter in Super-fudge, called "Santa Who?" Some sent lists showing me how easily I could have substituted one word for another. Meanie for bitch, darn for damn, nasty for ass. More words taken out of context. A teacher wrote to say she blacked out offending words and passages with a felt-tip marker. Perhaps most shocking of all was a letter from a 9-year-old addressed to Jewdy Blume telling me I had no right to write about Jewish angels in Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself.

My Worst Moment

My worst moment came when I was working with my editor on the manuscript of Tiger Eyes (the story of a 15-year-old girl, Davey, whose beloved father dies suddenly and violently). When we came to the scene in which Davey allows herself to feel again af-ter months of numbness following her father's death, I saw that a few lines alluding to masturbation had been circled. My editor put down his pencil and faced me. "We want this book to reach as many readers as possible, don't we?" he asked.

I felt my face grow hot, my stomach clench. This was the same editor who had worked with me on Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret; Then Again, Maybe I Won't; Deenie; Blubber; Forever—always encouraging, always supportive. The scene was psychologically sound, he assured me, and delicately handled. But it also spelled trouble. I got the message. If you leave in those lines, the censors will come after this book. Librarians and teachers won't buy it. Book clubs won't take it. Everyone is too scared. The political climate has changed.

I tried to make a case for why that brief moment in Davey's life was important. He asked me how important? Important enough to keep the book from reaching its audience? I willed myself not to give in to the tears of frustration and disappointment I felt coming. I thought about the ways a writer brings a character to life on the page, the same way an artist brings a face to life on canvas—through a series of brush strokes, each detail adding to the others, until we see the essence of the person. I floundered, uncertain. Ultimately, not strong enough or brave enough to defy the editor I trusted and respected, I caved in and took out those lines. I still remember how alone I felt at that moment.

What effect does this climate have on a writer? Chilling. It's easy to become discouraged, to second-guess everything you write. There seemed to be no one to stand up to the censors. No group as organized as they were; none I knew of, anyway. I've never forgiven myself for caving in to editorial pressure based on fear, for playing into the hands of the censors. I knew then it was all over for me unless I took a stand. So I began to speak out about my experiences. And once I did, I found that I wasn't as alone as I'd thought.

My life changed when I learned about the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) (www.ncac.org) and met Leanne Katz, the tiny dynamo who was its first and long-time director. Leanne's intelligence, her wit, her strong commitment to the First Amendment and helping those who were out on a limb trying to defend it, made her my hero. Every day she worked with the teachers, librarians, parents, and students caught in the cross fire. Many put themselves and their jobs on the line fighting for what they believed in.

In Panama City, Florida, junior high school teacher Gloria Pipkin's award-winning English program was targeted by the censors for using young adult literature that was depressing, vulgar, and immoral, specifically I Am the Cheese by Robert Cormier and About David by Susan Beth Pfeffer.

A year later, when a new book selection policy was introduced forbidding vulgar, obscene, and sexually related materials, the school superintendent zealously applied it to remove more than 65 books, many of them classics, from the curriculum and classroom libraries. They included To Kill a Mockingbird, The Red Badge of Courage, The Great Gatsby, Wuthering Heights, and Of Mice and Men. Also banned were Shakespeare's Hamlet, King Lear, The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night.

Gloria Pipkin fought a five-year battle, jeopardizing her job and personal safety (she and the reporter covering the story received death threats) to help reinstate the books. Eventually, the professional isolation as well as the watered-down curriculum led her to resign. She remains without a teaching position.

Claudia Johnson, Florida State University professor and parent, also defended classic books by Aristophanes and Chaucer against a censor who condemned them for promoting "women's lib and pornography." She went on to fight other battles—in defense of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, and a student performance of Lorraine Hansberry's Raisin in the Sun.

English teacher Cecilia Lacks was fired by a high school in St. Louis for permitting her creative-writing students to express themselves in the language they heard and used outside of school every day. In the court case that followed, many of her students testified on their teacher's behalf. Though she won her case, the decision was eventually reversed and at this time Lacks is still without a job.

Colorado English teacher Alfred Wilder was fired for teaching a classic film about fascism, Bernardo Ber-tolucci's 1900.

And in Rib Lake, Wisconsin, guidance counselor Mike Dishnow was fired for writing critically of the board of education's decision to ban my book Forever from the junior high school library. Ultimately he won a court settlement, but by then his life had been turned upside down.

And these are just a few examples.

This obsession with banning books continues as we approach the year 2000. Today it is not only Sex, Swear Words, and Lack of Moral Tone—it is Evil, which, according to the censors, can be found lurking everywhere. Stories about Halloween, witches, and devils are all suspect for promoting Satanism. Romeo and Juliet is under fire for promoting suicide; Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, for promoting New Age-ism. If the censors had their way it would be good-bye to Shakespeare as well as science fiction. There's not an ism you can think of that's not bringing some book to the battlefield.

What I worry about most is the loss to young people. If no one speaks out for them, if they don't speak out for themselves, all they'll get for required reading will be the most bland books available. And instead of finding the information they need at the library, instead of finding the novels that illuminate life, they will find only those materials to which nobody could possibly object.

Some people would like to rate books in schools and libraries the way they rate movies G, PG, R, X, or even more explicitly. But according to whose standards would the books be rated? I don't know about you, but I don't want anyone rating my books or the books my children or grandchildren choose to read. We can make our own decisions, thank you. Be wary of the censors' code words—family friendly; family values; excellence in education. As if the rest of us don't want excellence in education, as if we don't have our own family values, as if libraries haven't always been family-friendly places!

And the demands are not all coming from the religious right. No … the urge to decide not only what's right for their kids but for all kids has caught on with others across the political spectrum. Each year Huckleberry Finn is challenged and sometimes removed from the classroom because, to some, its language, which includes racial epithets, is offensive. Better to acknowledge the language, bring it out in the open, and discuss why the book remains important than to ban it. Teachers and parents can talk with their students and children about any book considered controversial.

I gave a friend's child one of my favorite picture books, The Stupids Step Out and was amazed when she said, "I'm sorry, but we can't accept that book. My children are not permitted to use that word. Ever. It should be changed to The Sillies Step Out." I may not agree, but I have to respect this woman's right to keep that book from her child as long as she isn't trying to keep it from other people's children. Still, I can't help lamenting the lack of humor in her decision. The Stupids Step Out is a very funny book. Instead of banning it from her home, I wish she could have used it as an opportunity to talk with her child about why she felt the way she did, about why she never wanted to hear her child call anyone stupid. Even very young children can understand. So many adults are exhausting themselves worrying about other people corrupting their children with books, they're turning kids off to reading instead of turning them on.

In this age of censorship I mourn the loss of books that will never be written, I mourn the voices that will be silenced—writers' voices, teachers' voices, students' voices—and all because of fear. How many have resorted to self-censorship? How many are saying to themselves, "Nope … can't write about that. Can't teach that book. Can't have that book in our collection. Can't let my student write that editorial in the school paper."

The new book I'm editing—a collection of original stories by censored writers—is dedicated to Leanne Katz to commemorate a life spent trying to prevent voices from being silenced. (Leanne died in 1997.) It is our way of thanking her and NCAC for their hard and valuable work, which continues today under the able direction of Joan Bertin and her small staff of dedicated coworkers. All the royalties from the sale of this book will go directly to NCAC to benefit their work. The authors to be included in the book are Norma Fox Mazur, Julius Lester, Rachel Vail, Katherine Paterson, Jacqueline Woodson, Harry Mazer, Walter Dean Myers, Susan Beth Pfeffer, David Klass, Paul Zindel, Chris Lynch, and Norma Klein.

Aside from being good storytellers, what these writers have in common is that somewhere along the way their work has been challenged by an individual or group wanting to forbid, prohibit, or restrict the books they have written. In some cases the censors have been successful; in others, sanity has prevailed. Following each story the writer shares his/her personal experiences and feelings about censorship. Remember, if you ask a dozen people what censorship means, you'll get 12 different answers.

The bottom line is, censorship happens, often when you least expect it. It's not just about the book you may want to read but about the book your classmate might want to read. It's not just about teachers and librarians at other schools who might find themselves in job-threatening situations—it could happen at your school. Your favorite teacher, the one who made literature come alive for you, the one who helped you find exactly the book you needed when you were curious, or hurting, the one who was there to listen to you when you felt alone, could become the next target.

A word of warning to anyone who writes or wants to write: There is no predicting the censor. No telling what will be seen as controversial tomorrow. I've talked with writers who have told me, "Oh … I don't write the kinds of stories you do. I write for younger children. My work will never be attacked," only to find themselves under fire the next day.

So write honestly. Write from deep inside. Leanne used to say "It's your job to write as well as you can, Judy. It's my job to defend what you've written."

But Leanne couldn't do it on her own. No one can. It's up to all of us.



Briggs, Julia. "Reading Children's Books." Essays in Criticism 39, no. 1 (January 1989): 1-17.

Discusses issues relevant to children's literature, paying particular attention to the evolving role of censorship within the genre.

Hunt, Peter. "Censorship." In Children's Literature, pp. 255-58. Oxford, England: Blackwell Publishers, 2001.

Offers a broad examination of censorship within thechildren's literature genre.

Khan, Iram. "The Censorship of Canadian Children's Literature." Canadian Content (online journal) http://www.canadiancontent.ca/issues/0699censor.html (June 1999).

Presents a critical overview of censorship challenges made against children's literature in Canada.

MacLeod, Anne Scott. "Censorship and Children's Literature." In American Childhood: Essays on Children's Literature of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, pp. 173-86. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1994.

Discusses various challenges and censorship intiatives enacted against works of juvenile literature during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Steinle, Pamela Hunt. "The Catcher Controversies as Cultural Debate." In In Cold Fear: "The Catcher in the Rye," Censorship Controversies, and Postwar American Character, pp. 106-39. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 2000.

Examines the various reasons cited for withdrawing J. D. Salinger's novel The Catcher n the Rye from school district curricula in the 1950s through the 1980s.