A few years ago, I wrote a piece on efforts by Canadian Jewish organizations and individuals to censor an anti-Israel children’s book. Did I think the book was one-sided and lacking in nuance? Yes! Did I think it should have been removed from reading lists or reshelved in school libraries so that only older kids could get it? No! Because censorship is bad. And this is censorship, no matter what you want to call it. The answer to hate speech is more speech, as the kids say.
I thought about our neighbors to the north while at a conference earlier this month called “Who Are You To Say? Children’s Literature and the Censorship Conversation,” at Bank Street College of Education. Children’s literature scholar Leonard Marcus gave a lecture on the history of censorship in the United States; panels featuring a diverse group of authors, editors, critics, and librarians discussed challenges to picture books and young adult books, primarily but not exclusively from the political and religious right; and Joan Bertin, the director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, gave a rousing keynote on literary freedom.
As we all know, Jewish books are no strangers to censorship. There’s currently (through June 3) a show at the Center for Jewish History called Burning Words: The Battle of Books, about early 16th-century Christian efforts to confiscate and burn Jewish texts, and the efforts of German humanist and Hebrew scholar Johannes Reuchlin, a Catholic, to preserve them.
As we’ve discussed in Tablet, far more recent books by Jewish authors, written for children, have been frequent targets for censors, too. In 1972, a librarian in Louisiana drew pants on Maurice Sendak’s naked baby in In the Night Kitchen. In 1977, the Illinois Police Association objected to William Steig’s illustration of police offers as pigs (nice pigs!) in Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, so they requested that the book be removed from libraries. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume, one of Tablet’s 101 Great Jewish Books, is challenged regularly. (You’ve still got it, Judy!) Why? Because 12-year-old Margaret claims not to believe in God and waffles about whether to be Jewish or Christian, plus there are Sexual Themes, which presumably means talk of boobs and menstruation plus Margaret kissing a cute boy in a closet. Blume’s Deenie (female masturbation!) and Forever (teenagers having protected sex!) have been challenged, too.
I noted jokingly that back in the ’70s-’90s, Jewish authors were banned and challenged way more often than we are today, which clearly shows that we are losing our edge. Thankfully, Robie Harris is still Team Jew’s standard bearer, getting herself banned constantly. One example: Her fabulous sex-ed book It’s Perfectly Normal horrified a library patron in Maine, who took a copy out of two different branches and refused to return either one. The patron (a grandmother, the press helpfully noted) sent each library a check for $20.95 to cover the cost of the books, adding, “I have been sufficiently horrified of the illustrations and sexually graphic, amoral, abnormal contents. I will not be returning the books.” A judge ordered her to return them (and also fined her $100 and barred her from the Lewiston Public Library) but she held firm. Fortunately for her, the library declined to seek jail time. At Bank Street, Harris noted that she’d learned the day before her panel that her work had been challenged yet again. (A note on terminology: A challenge is any attempt to get a book removed, reshelved, or restricted. A ban is the actual removal of the book.)
Another of the day’s speakers, librarian and School Library Journal Editor Shelley Diaz, noted, “A lot of censorship comes from a place of love … and fear.” Parents and authority figures on the right may fret about depictions of teenage sexuality, portraits of LGBT people’s lives, insufficient respect for authority. Folks on the left may urge that books be removed from libraries and classrooms because of racist portrayals of black, Native American, or Hispanic people or culture. In both cases, these gatekeepers want to do right by kids. Where they differ, of course, is in what “right” means.
Harris has had her books pulped—destroyed and turned into mulch. Two other authors who spoke at Bank Street, Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson, authors of the adorable And Tango Makes Three, nearly saw their book meet the same fate in Singapore. But a grassroots movement there saved the book from the shredder. There was a read-in at the national library, attended by hundreds of families and kids in pajamas. Efforts to preserve the book got so much publicity, the government backed off.
No one defended a book that was recently shredded in America: A Birthday Cake for George Washington, with its depiction of merry slaves whipping up a treat for the first president. The book’s back matter seemed to contradict the text, indicating that the portrayal of Washington’s chef Hercules and his daughter Delia happily baking together maybe wasn’t the whole story. In real life, said the author’s note, Hercules escaped from Mount Vernon (his daughter remained enslaved for the rest of her life), and the president who fought for the United States’ freedom refused to ever free his own slaves. Critics observed that, yeah, kids don’t tend to read a picture book’s afterword, and there’s a huge disconnect between actual reality and the “strangely cheerful and exuberant” illustrations, “reminiscent of a Disney film.” Before long the book’s publisher, Scholastic, released a statement saying that the book didn’t meet its editorial standards, withdrew it from circulation, and destroyed it. At Bank Street, only Bertin spoke in favor of the book—not its content, but its existence. She said she wished that Scholastic had “taken its lumps” and kept the book on shelves, the way Random House did with A Fine Dessert, another dessert-centric slave-featuring book (what are the odds?) that also met with outrage. Bertin said that future historians and literature experts should be able to read books that are deemed offensive, and destroying them hurts academic freedom. (The NCAC scanned A Birthday Cake for George Washington and will send a PDF to scholars.)
On the whole, though, the speakers at Bank Street had more experience with “soft censorship” than with outright banning, burning, or pulping. Soft censorship is when an invitation to an author to speak at a school is suddenly withdrawn after a parent complains about an author’s work. It’s when a school librarian tells an author, “I love your book, but it’s not right for our school district”—leaving the rest unspoken: which is conservative/which is mostly white/which is name-your-rationale. It’s when authors of color are invited to speak and then discover that they’ll be addressing a special assembly of kids of color. It’s when authors of books about princesses find out that boys aren’t invited to hear them speak at schools—unlike authors of “boy books,” which are for everyone, authors of “girl books” should apparently only talk to girls. Coe Booth, author of the powerful novel Tyrell, discussed having her books moved from the general young adult section to a shelf called “street lit” or “urban” in the back of the library. “Sometimes my book is displayed in a glass case during Black History Month … where it can’t be removed,” she said dryly.
These practices are widespread. In 2009, School Library Journal surveyed 655 school librarians and learned that 70 percent don’t buy certain books because they’re worried about how parents will respond; 29 percent refrained for fear of the reaction of their administration, and 29 percent were concerned about pushback from “the community.”
I’ve been guilty of a form of unconscious censorship, too. Some of my older Goodreads shelves are tagged “boys 9-12” and “girls 3-6.” What the hell was I thinking? Why segregate books? My editor at the New York Times once saved me from referring to an exciting picture book about war as appealing to “comic-book-loving boys.” (She changed my phrasing to “reluctant readers,” which is often code for “boys” but is certainly better than my own explicit, stupid, gender-based generalization.) We’re not always aware of our own biases. And you’d think I’d be clueful—in the ’90s I worked at Sassy, a magazine that was repeatedly censored by the religious right. Focus on the Family, The American Family Association, and the Moral Majority all pressured outlets to stop carrying the magazine and threatened to boycott advertisers that didn’t pull their ads. They said Sassy was too sympathetic toward LGBT teenagers, too rabble-rousing, too full of honest sex information (which meant anything but abstinence-based education). We writers insisted we weren’t cowed by the boycotts … but we stopped pitching stories we knew for sure the publisher would quash. We focused on lefty politics (it was my first time writing, rapturously, about Bernie Sanders!) instead of sex, and told ourselves we were picking our battles. Guess what! That’s self-censorship.
Lots of us white liberals shy away from honest discussion of sensitive subjects when we’re uncomfortable. Booth mentioned a high-school teacher telling her she loved Tyrell but opted not to teach it because she was anxious about its characters’ use of the n-word. She was white, and her students were all kids of color. “Why can’t you be uncomfortable?” Booth asked rhetorically. “There’s a good reason to be uncomfortable with the n-word! But tell your students how you feel and explain why.” She also observed, “Gee, I grew up in an entirely black and Latino school and I had to read The Great Gatsby. Most of the books I’ve read throughout my life have made me uncomfortable!” That shouldn’t mean shying away from tough topics; it means trying to handle them sensitively and talking openly about your anxieties and biases.
Back when I wrote about the Canadian Jewish controversy, I wanted to talk about a different book that a different group of Canadians wanted omitted from a summer reading program and put on a higher shelf in Ontario libraries: Three Wishes, by Deborah Ellis, a collection of interviews with Jewish Israeli and Palestinian kids with a range of political perspectives. I thought it was even-handed. But the Canadian organization was distressed by an interview with the sister of a suicide bomber. As I said on my own blog, the girl’s words in the book are indeed shocking and upsetting. She says of her sister: “She’s a martyr and is now in paradise, where it is supposed to be very beautiful. I would like to join her there. … I don’t think it would hurt if I blew myself up. I don’t think it hurt my sister. I think she was very brave, not scared at all. I think she was probably very happy. I don’t know if the girl she killed had a sister my age or not. What does it matter? I don’t know any Israeli kids. Why would I want to?” Yes, this is horrifying. But it’s also an opportunity to talk about why kids kill. The interview makes the 12-year-old sound like a baffled, confused child trying to talk herself into her sister’s death having meaning. She keeps repeating, “She should have told me.” Is she a monster, or a grieving kid? Does hiding the book make terrorism go away? Might this be an opportunity to talk with your child about your own political beliefs, no matter what they are … maybe especially if you have no answers yourself? Why do we think kid readers are incapable of nuanced thinking?
One of my favorite children’s books of last year, The Hired Girl, was attacked by the left for the narrator’s racism toward blacks and Native Americans as well as her anti-Semitism. I think it’s pretty clear that the main character’s voice—she’s a 14-year-old poorly educated farm girl—is not the author’s voice. The book makes clear that Joan is an unreliable narrator, as well as clueless and ignorant … but she’s capable of learning and eager to be educated. And I think about the brilliant middle-grade novel The Great Gilly Hopkins, written by the former Ambassador for Children’s Literature, Katherine Paterson. It, too, is frequently challenged and banned. Gilly is gasp-inducingly racist and disgustingly biased against fat people. She’s a bully, and she steals. But over the course of the book, you see that she’s a hurting child, and she is capable of growth. I think kids should know that even people who have foul thoughts and say and do foul things can be redeemed.
I don’t mean to minimize how hurtful racist books can be. One of the panelists, Cheryl Wills Hudson, editorial director of Just Us Books, told us that one of the first books she was exposed to as a child was Little Black Sambo. She showed us a slide of the book cover, featuring a horrid pickaninny caricature. “It was damaging to generations,” she said. How could it not be? It’s difficult to square that image with Bertin’s statements that “part of growing up is sifting ideas .. unruly conversation is how we learn” and “Freedom of speech is uncomfortable, challenging, messy, difficult.” No kid should have to read a book with parodic, minstrel-esque speech and vile drawings. But I don’t want us to destroy it, either—it is part of our (shameful) history.
I have to stand by what I said back in 2010. We parents need to be able to discuss picture books thoughtfully with our kids and point out covert as well as explicit problems with them. We need to talk extensively about our own values and live them. We need to counter books we find objectionable (such as books that don’t state that Israel has a right to exist) with books that offer more nuance. We have to give kids unfettered access to libraries and information about sex and gender. Jews, of all people, should understand that banning books stifles freedom.
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