Today is the final day of Banned Book Week (Sept 21-27) in the United States – an annual event sponsored by the ALA (American Library Association) and many other educational and publishing groups, including NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) and the NCAC (National Coalition Against Censorship).
Every year the ALA publishes a list of the Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books, and in 2013 Dav Pilkey once again won the top spot: the dubious distinction of having the most challenged book(s) with his hugely popular, best-selling Captain Underpants series. For many, this will seem like rank absurdity – much like the books themselves. Aimed at 9-12 year-old boys, this series is prank-pulling potty humour in which the ‘heroes’ invariably triumph over their mean teachers. One of the reasons cited for challenging the books is that they are ‘unsuited for the age group,’ although their extreme popularity would seem to belie this assertion. Indeed, these books deliver exactly the kind of humour (and sense of subversive empowerment) that most appeals to a huge majority of this age group. Depending on your viewpoint, the books are enjoyably irreverent – or deeply disrespectful of adult authority figures.
Censorship of educational material, particularly books being taught by classroom teachers or available from school libraries, is an ongoing battle in the culture wars of the United States. The number of skirmishes can vary from year to year, but the intensity of feeling on both sides does not really change. Perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not, the UK has nothing comparable – neither the efforts to censor children’s and YA books, nor the organised resistance to this censorship. Certainly it has nothing to do inherently with the content, as UK authors such as JK Rowling and Philip Pullman feature prominently on the US parental complaint lists. In the decade of 2000-2009, the Harry Potter series was #1 on the Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books list and Pullman’s His Dark Materials series took the #8 spot. Those books are primarily criticised for their portrayal of ‘occult’ magic (Harry Potter) and religious viewpoint (His Dark Materials), and certainly that would not surprise UK readers who may view the United States as a hotbed of religious nutters. Indeed, a 2010 BBC article suggests that the fact that the UK is a "less religious society" accounts for the more relaxed attitude towards children’s literature.
Contrary to this evidence, religious viewpoint is actually way down on the list of reasons why books tend to be challenged by parents. The three most common challenges, by far, are: (1) sexually explicit; (2) offensive language; and (3) unsuited for age group.
As I was perusing recent lists of Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books, I was surprised to find Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (pub. 1970) in the #2 spot on the 2013 list. I had read this novella in a university English class and it made a huge impact on me. Of all the books we read that year, I remember this slim volume attracting the most debate. There is plenty of emotionally tough content in this book, particularly the abuse and neglect of 11 year old Pecola Breedlove. Pecola is raped by her father and becomes pregnant by him. Not comfortable reading by a long chalk, but what really makes this scene controversial is the omniscient narrator’s unusual sympathy for the father. The theme of the book is cultural racism so pervasive that it becomes internalised, hardening into self-hatred and madness. Toni Morrison is the most literary and poetic of authors; she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. Like all truly gifted writers, she has that ability to transform a reader’s understanding of her chosen subject matter, no matter how removed it might be from the reader’s own experience and consciousness. Surely this is one of the primary reasons that we read? The U.S. Department of Education thought so, and it included this book on its Common Core suggested reading list for 11th grade students. (The 11th grade corresponds to the Lower Sixth year in the British school system. In age-related terms, this book was proposed reading for 16/17 year olds.) Many American parents did not agree with this professional advisement, though. Parents in states such as Colorado, North Carolina and Ohio (the author’s home state) demanded that their school boards remove the book from the curriculum. The sexual content was cited, and certainly that fact is incontestable, although it ‘reads’ differently in context; the really grey area, though, is the oft-cited ‘unsuited for age group’. That is a judgement call, and it is one that many parents feel is their entire right to make – not just for their own child (or young adult), but other children as well.
In general, I have no sympathy whatsoever with the book-banning crowd. It makes my blood boil that To Kill a Mockingbird – a book that has done more than perhaps any other to promote a cultural sensitivity and understanding of racism – is accused itself of racism, and still manages to rank #21 on the Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books of the last decade. And yet, as a teacher and parent I have often had to make judgement calls about what is appropriate reading for a given age group and there is definitely not any ‘one size fits all’ ruling on these matters.
When the Trustees of TRAC began working on a core book list for teenagers, we debated the advantages and disadvantages of including age guidelines and content warnings. As difficult as it is to prescribe books for an unknown reader – given how we may vary so much in terms of life experience, not to mention emotional and intellectual maturity – some broad guidelines still seemed preferable to none. And despite ongoing efforts to control what is read in specific school systems, the truth is that this kind of cultural ring-fencing is at odds with the general trend of YA publishing – not to mention the broader culture. Sexual content, violence and strong language are more common than ever, most notably in realistic fiction. For decades, Judy Blume has been a whipping boy for censorship due to her frank treatment of themes like sexual development and bullying. Frankly, Judy Blume’s work – and four of her novels still made the last decade’s 100 list -- seems pretty tame by contemporary standards. Referring back to the controversies surrounding The Bluest Eye, it is difficult to imagine that there are many teenagers of 2014 who haven’t been exposed to knowledge of sexual violence. In recent weeks, the biggest story in the US news was domestic violence in the NFL (National Football League). It is difficult to believe that many 16-year-olds really need to be 'protected' from this kind of knowledge; what is more likely is that they need to be educated about it.