Colleagues are talking a lot about Banned Books Week. Here are just two of many excellent articles on the subject. I used to be quite contemptuous about this form of censorship. In the late '90s I contributed to a special issue of the journal Paradoxa on censorship in children’s literature. With my background in a country with real censorship, where 2,500 writers paid with their lives for their written words during the Great Terror, I found the practice of removing children’s books from libraries or pasting underwear over Mickey’s private parts in In the Night Kitchen touchingly innocent. I now admit that I was wrong. No censorship is innocent.
I have written about silly examples of Swedish children's books published in the US, when a striptease dancer in a nonsense verse The Pirate Book turned into a “smashing lady” and got a proper black dress over her naked breasts. Or another nonsensical story, Else-Marie and Her Seven Daddies, where a girl takes a bath with her mother and her tiny imaginary daddies – in the US edition, the artist agreed to produce another picture with the girl reading in an armchair. Nobody objected to the seven daddies then. They probably would today.
I was upset when the mother was deleted from the image in the American version of The Wild Baby Goes to Sea, because it was an important part of the story that a parent is allowed to participate in imaginary adventures. Authors and artists agree to do such interventions because otherwise their books will not be translated, and the US market is powerful.
But it is still worse with original books. When I taught in California, my colleagues told me I was exceptionally brave because I had The Adventures of Tom Sawyer on my syllabus. I thought they were joking. The students explained how controversial this book was in the eyes of the school district authorities and how challenging, not to say reckless, it would be for them to choose it for classroom use.
My two other rather unexpected teaching experiences concerned Bridge to Terabithia and The Giver, two novels which I regard among the best works for children published in the US during the last 50 years. I was prepared for the discussion around the theme of death. In fact, I was very well prepared for this discussion of “sensitive issues”, with lots of good arguments I have been using in my courses in Sweden. But the students did not object to death as a subject in a children’s book. On the contrary, they thought that Bridge to Terabithia was a wonderful book to use in the classroom to talk to children about death (my intention had been to show, just as the author says herself, that this is not “a book about death”. Never mind). But they were concerned about the mention of religion. Jess’s family owns a Bible and goes to church on Easter Day. In the novel, this is an opportunity to discuss diversity, since Leslie’s parents are atheists, and she has never been to church. However, a student pointed out in her paper, as a teacher she was not allowed to discuss religion in the classroom without the parents’ consent; which means that a whole level of significance in the novel would have to be excluded from classroom discussion. Or maybe the novel can be censored? Let the family go to a market instead – this is what was done in translated children’s books in the Soviet Union whenever church visits were mentioned. Only how can a visit to a market inspire the underlying ideas of the novel about life and death, sin and reconciliation? Best not to use it at all then.
But the argument against The Giver – which by the way most of the students agreed was the best novel in the whole course – made me laugh and cry at the same time. The novel cannot be taught in schools, a student claimed in a paper, because it describes extrasensory perception, which parents may find offensive and inappropriate. The half of me that was laughing said: “Hey, this is a story, this is sort of science fiction!” But the other half sighed with resignation: “Poor kids! Not only are they denied the pleasures of the demonic Harry Potter, but also The Giver is dangerous, and not at all for the reasons I would think subversive”.
These are some of the aspects of censorship I brought home from my years in California and shared with my Swedish colleagues. Together, we laughed. Today I believe we are all in dismay. Alfie Atkins' father is not allowed to smoke his pipe any more. Critics, publishers and educators in Sweden, which I have always thought was an enlightened country, very seriously discuss whether nudity, sex, alcohol, smoking, politics, religion should be allowed in children's books. Whether death is an appropriate subject. Whether books should be removed form libraries because characters eat meat or drink coffee.
I am concerned. Censorship is spreading. How can we protect our children from overprotective adults?