I had two recent parenting experiences related to book censorship that I thought might be of interest to readers who liked (or liked to hate) my previous posts on creating house rules for my kid’s internet use and/or book rating systems.
1) Those adults don’t know what they’re talking about
I’m on the ALA OIF‘s listserv that sends out info on book/materials challenges all over the United States and occasionally beyond. (For non-librarians, a “challenge” is what we call it when someone wants a library to remove something from the collection, or move it from one section to another to try to hide/censor it.) The other night I followed a link on the list to this video clip about a mom in TX who just won an appeal to get “The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby” removed from her kid’s school library because the book contains the language “poo poo head” in it. This women’s son had previously been suspended for school due to an incident in which he called another child a “poo poo head.”
I showed the clip to my 8yo, because I knew he has and likes that book. I asked him what he thought, and he immediately said, “That’s silly. They don’t even say ‘poo poo head’ in that book.” He paused, thought for a moment and verified, “Nope, they never do.” He went and got the book from his bookshelf to show me. I skimmed through the whole thing, twice, and darned if he isn’t right! Oh, it’s chock full of potty humour: they say “poo poo” and “Deputy Doo-Doo” and “poopy” all over the place, but nowhere in the book does the phrase in question – “poo poo head” – actually appear.
Unless there’s some different Texas edition of the book, all these adults were arguing over a book they obviously hadn’t even read very closely, if at all. None of the online commentors on the news story seemed to catch this point either – that this entire book challenge is basically built on the premise that this book retroactively incited a child to say a phrase that doesn’t even appear in the book.
Following up on the concept, though, I asked my kid whether he thought a school library should have any books in which people do or say things they’re not allowed to do or say in school. He looked at me like I’d gone off the deep end, and asked if they were also making sure that Harry Potter and the Bible weren’t in the library too, because people fight in Harry Potter and they do a whole lot of bad things in the Bible!
2) Censorship vs Parenting
The very next day, I ended up having a conversation with a bunch of other moms about whether and how we guide our children away from books we think are too mature for them. One mom, with a young daughter who is an exceptionally voracious reader and capable of decoding material aimed at an adult audience, was having mixed feelings about having taken a book (one of the unquestionably-adult Southern Vampire Series) away from her daughter. On one hand she felt like it was unquestionably the right thing to do – this first grader was in no way ready for such mature themes – but on the other hand she felt a little bit like a censor. I’ve heard other parents express such mixed feelings before.
Here’s my take:
As someone who’s taken classes on the topic, read widely about it and even published about censorship, my take is that there’s censorship and then there’s parenting. People have all different definitions of censorship, but only very extreme views contest a parent’s right/responsibility to help their young (e.g. pre-adolescent) child select age-appropriate reading materials. (Unless your opinion of age-appropriate varies hugely from the norms around you.)
Lester Asheim has a statement to the effect that the goal of censorship is thought control. There’s trying to control what your kid thinks. And then there’s trying to help temporarily protect her from stuff she doesn’t have the emotional maturity to process at this time in her young life. This type of parental responsibility is the very reason we can insist that institutions such as libraries take stances *against* censorship – because it’s not *their* job to decide what your kid reads; it’s your job. It’s the library’s job to provide as wide a range as possible of materials from which you may make your selection.
I have no problem telling a kid of mine (or that I’m, say, babysitting) that a certain book they happen upon is a grown-up book and not for them right now. I would not do this as a library worker, however.While I would only recommend books that were clearly age-appropriate to a kid who was looking for something to read, I wouldn’t tell a child that a particular book wasn’t for them. That’s the parent’s job, not the librarian’s job.
Back to my parenting role, if there was a specific book my kid *really* wanted to read, and I was on the fence about in terms of appropriateness, I’d read it with him and discuss. A few times when my own son was considering a library book that was possibly disturbing, I’ve told him, “Hey, I don’t think you’ll like this book. It’s got some violence I think you’ll find upsetting.” Thanks to being a librarian and knowing other librarians to ask for recommendations, I can usually suggest a good substitute in lieu of the particular book, and so far my kid’s never decided he really wants to read any of the books I have concerns about. I find myself doing this less and less as he gets older, more socially adept and better at handling with scary and sad things.
I’ll never forget my grade 3 teacher telling me I couldn’t take a book she had (fairly bizarrely, in retrospect) deemed a “boy book” out of our school library. My mother came to bat for me and made it clear that she was the person to allow or not allow me to read a given (age-appropriate) book, and that my teacher should no longer try to control me or my thinking/reading like that. It was awesome. Not the book – I mean, it was good, from what I can remember – but the freedom from a teacher arbitrarily deciding what books I could or couldn’t read. Go mom.
In sum, there’s censorship and there’s parenting.
Censorship is deciding that no kid in the school should be allowed to read a book in which the villains use potty humour because it might give the impression that the school condones calling people bathroom names.
Parenting is helping your children find developmentally appropriate media, and working through the hard parts with them when they arise.
ps – Spellcheck doesn’t like “poopy” “poo poo” or “censor.”