Protect Children’s Intellectual Freedom: End Censorship in Children’s Literature
Censorship of children’s literature is an issue in the field of education which affects children, parents, teachers, administrators, librarians, editors, authors, and more. Books may be censored when an individual or group believes the content of a book is ill-suited for a particular audience. Censorship takes many forms, the most common includes moving a book from a school, library, or booklist to an area non-accessible by children. The first amendment allows for the free exchange of ideas from one person to another; censorship of children’s literature interferes with the first amendment rights of children. Banned Books Week is an annual campaign which seeks to raise awareness about the issue of censorship and celebrate the books which have been banned.
Censorship of children’s literature occurs when an individual or group challenge a book. Books may be challenged when an individual or group feels that the content of a novel or book is inappropriate for children. A book is considered banned if it is removed from a booklist, school or library. Books are challenged because the content clashes with the beliefs and values of a particular group. These conflicts are often caused when a book includes characters who challenge the dominant narrative in society, characters who challenge authority, content considered inappropriate or obscene, or because of the actions of the author.
One reason a text is challenged is because the text challenges dominant narratives in society. This can be done through including diverse characters who represent minority groups in society. For example, books that feature people of color, LGTQIA+, women, or differently abled people may be challenged. This is especially true of LGBTQIA+ representation in children’s literature. In 2017 George, by Alex Gino, was challenged because it includes a transgender character (American Library Association [ALA], 2018). As the understanding of gender becomes more fluid, it often conflicts with conservative Christian beliefs and values about a fixed gender binary. Parents who hold these beliefs want to protect and shield their children from these different perspectives. George was challenged by Christian groups who believe the book will cause confusion for children (Ong, 2015). While it may not have been the main purpose of the book, George has made children empathize and sympathize with the characters struggling with gender identity. A sixth-grade student wrote a letter to Gino about George saying, “Your book made me realize that maybe I can help the next George be accepted throughout their life, and I can also help the next mother of George better accept their child if they have that challenge” (Diaz, 2017). George can help dismantle gender norms in society and create more accepting human beings in the next generation. The letter written to Gino is proof of this. Banning the book limits its power to create change. George has won awards and inspired students. It was not banned for its literary value, but for its progressive content. There are children in classrooms who identify with George; they have the right to read literature where they see themselves represented. A parent does not have the right to dictate what other people’s children can and cannot read, just because they do not want their own child reading a particular book. Banning or challenging books limits all children’s access to a challenged text. Similarly, And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson was the ninth most-challenged book of 2017 because of its depiction of a same-sex relationship (ALA, 2018). These books have characters who represent minority groups in society and go against the gender and sexuality norms in America.
Books are banned because they are viewed as obscene, pornographic, or encourage sexuality in children. According to the ALA (2018), Sex is a Funny Word was the sixth most banned book of 2017. Written by sex-educator Cory Silverberg, this inclusive sex-education book was challenged because it will encourage students to either have sex or ask questions about sex (ALA, 2018). Challenging this book not only limits children’s access to an inclusive sex education book, but continues to stigmatize talking about sex. Not wanting children to ask questions about sex stifles their natural curiosity. Sex is a Funny Word helps children explore their feelings about growing up. Topics of consent, boundaries, gender identity, crushes, and safety are discussed. All of these topics are natural and normal human experiences which some children may experience during elementary school. The characters represent different cultural backgrounds, gender identities, and sexual orientations in a sensitive way; children from all walks of life can identify with a character in this text (Popova, 2015). Written in an engaging comic strip style, Sex is a Funny Word helps young readers explore part of their human nature that is still largely taboo in our culture. A sex-education book from a reputable sex educator can be helpful to children as they begin to develop. If children do not have a reputable source to get information from, they could go looking for information elsewhere and be misinformed.
Another common reason books are banned is because they contain characters who challenge authority or are free thinkers. An article about censorship in children’s literature lists The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as historically challenged books because of their rebellious and free-thinking main characters (Burnett, 2016). A novel showcasing free thinkers is valuable to society, especially a democracy, because it encourages readers to be free thinkers. Free thinkers will be less susceptible to propaganda and manipulation and make sound judgements when voting. Censoring books showcasing characters who challenge authority is damaging to a democratic society.
Books have been challenged because of authors’ behavior. Little Bill series by Bill Crosby was the ninth most challenged book of 2016 because of criminal sexual allegations against the author (ALA 2018). Individuals believe that because of the actions of the author, the literature should not be red. Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was the second most challenged book of 2012 because of racism, profanity, sexually explicit scenes, and for being unsuited for a particular age group (ALA, 2018). The MeToo movement has brought to light several allegations against Alexie for sexual harassment. As a show of support for the survivors of this harassment, awards have been rescinded from Alexie’s books to show that organizations do not support or condone sexual harassment (Yorio, 2018). While it is important to support victims and condemn sexual misconduct, it does not give anyone the right to limit children’s access to a book. Reading books by these authors can lead to conversations about their behavior and caring adults can communicate with children that what the author did was not right.
Censorship can occur on a spectrum and have many forms. Removing a book from a library, school booklist, bookstore etc. is hard censorship. Relocating a book to a section of a library or store where children’s’ access to the book in inhibited is not as severe censorship, but is still censorship as it infringes upon access to the book. Soft censorship occurs when schools or teachers ask guests not to mention specific books. Parents controlling what children are reading is also a form of censorship. When a publishing company decides not to publish a book based on its literary value or its themes, they act as a sensor. Teachers make curricular decisions about which books to have in their classroom libraries, which texts to use as a read aloud, and which to use for whole group and small group instruction. These choices should be made based on the literary merit of the texts, not because a teacher is scared of how parents might react or challenge their choices. These curricular decisions are necessary and made based on professional judgement. Similarly, school librarians make judgments when choosing which books to purchase for the school library. An article in the National Council For Teachers of English (NCTE) journal suggests that school districts should have selection policies and criteria in place to aid teachers and librarians in this process and protect against censorship (Schliesman, 2008). There should also be policies in place for how to handle a situation when a book is challenged (Schliesman, 2008). There is a fine line between acting as a sensor and choosing quality literature with merit for classrooms and libraries. Teachers and librarians should be aware of this when selecting materials for their school.
Banning books or removing books is not ethical, it infringes upon the First Amendment right to free speech. There are numerous examples of court cases where the supreme court ruled that the school board or district does not have the right to remove the questioned books from the schools or libraries. Doing so infringes on the first amendment rights of children when there are no substantial curricular reasons for doing so. The supreme court upheld minors’ right to intellectual freedom and access to diverse opinions, ideas, characters, beliefs, etc. In the ruling on Minarcini v. Strongsville (Ohio) City School District, the supreme court said that “The removal of books from a school library is a much more serious burden upon the freedom of classroom discussion than the action found unconstitutional in Tinker v. Des Moines School District." In Tinker v. Des Moines School District, it was found unconstitutional for a school to expel students for wearing black armbands in protest of the Vietnam war. The right to intellectual freedom and to gain knowledge has to come before the right to freedom of expression. Intellectual freedom and freedom of thought influences the freedom to express your opinions and ideas and is vital to the running of a successful democracy. Tinker v. Des Moines School District (1969) set the precedent that students maintain their first amendment right at school. The decision says that students “do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate.” Students have the right to read freely as upheld by the supreme court.
Banned Books Week was started in the 1980s as an annual celebration of banned books (ALA, 2018). This weekly celebration is international and seeks to raise awareness to the issue of censorship and celebrates books and authors that have been banned. Resources are available to schools and teachers who want to celebrate banned books week. Celebrating banned books week may include reading banned books, sending letters to a banned author, donating money to the ALA or other advocacy groups that protect intellectual freedom, and further educating people about the issue of censorship.
School districts, school librarians, school administrators, and teachers have a responsibility to uphold students’ right to intellectual freedom. Teachers have an important role in this when selecting curricular and supplemental materials for use in their classrooms. Teachers should choose materials based on their academic merit.
American Library Association. (2018, April 09). Top Ten Most Challenged Books Lists. Retrieved December 2, 2018, from http://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks/top10#2017
Burnet, M. (2016, April 21). Children's Literature and the Censorship Conversation: Dialogues on Challenged Books. Retrieved from https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-industry-news/article/70037-children-s-literature-and-the-censorship-conversation-dialogues-on-challenged-books.html
Diaz, E. (2017, April 14). Spotlight on Censorship: 'George'. Retrieved from https://www.oif.ala.org/oif/?p=9361
Minarcini v. Strongsville (Ohio) City School District, 541 F.2d 577 (6th Cir. 1976) Ong, C. (2015, September 07). Christian groups slam transgender book 'George,' saying it will only confuse kids. Retrieved from https://www.christiantoday.com/article/christian-groups-slam-pro-transgender-book-george-saying-it-will-confuse-kids/63995.htm
Popova, M. (2015, November 05). Sex Is a Funny Word: An Intelligent and Inclusive Illustrated Primer on Sexuality. Retrieved from https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/11/05/sex-is-a-funny-word-cory-silverberg-fiona-smyth/
Schliesman, M. (2008). Intellectutal Freedom. Language Arts, 85(3), 221-227. Retrieved December 3, 2018, from http://www.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Resources/Journals/LA/0853-jan08/LA0853Focus.pdf
Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503, 89 S.Ct. 733, 21 L.Ed.2d. 731 (1969)
Yorio, K. (2018, March 21). AILA Rescinds Sherman Alexie's 2008 YA Book of the Year Award. Retrieved from https://www.slj.com/?detailStory=aila-rescinds-sherman-alexies-2008-ya-book-year-award