- Author's Bane
The old magical swords carried great names to indicate their prime usage: Dragon's Bane, Troll Sticker, Demon Pricker, Squirrel's Bane. Squirrel's Bane? My friend, fantasy writer Steve Brust, put a badly wounded squirrel, who had played in Minneapolis traffic, out of its misery with the thing closest to hand, his fencing sword. Hence Squirrel's Bane.
But the weapon which is right now thoroughly sticking and pricking and generally doing damage to writers in this country—and especially children's book writers—is P.C. language: Author's Bane.
I actually first came upon this weapon years ago when writing my picture book The Girl Who Loved the Wind. Set in a quasi-Persia by the illustrations, the story tells of the daughter of a rich merchant who is kept innocent of all of the wickedness in the world by her overprotective father.
In her garden grew every kind of fair fruit and flower, for so her father willed it. And on her table was every kind of fresh fish and fowl, for so her father ordered. In her room were the finest furnishings. Gay books and happy music, light dancing and bright paintings filled her days. And the servants were instructed always to smile, never to say no, and to be cheerful all through the year.
At least, that is how I wrote it. My editor balked at the phrase "gay books," and this was in 1971, mind you!
I countered that the book was for five to eight-year-olds, who knew nothing of the just-beginning-to-be-current terminology for homosexuality. And that I was appalled that such a fine editor (my favorite, with whom I eventually did twenty-four books) should want to limit my vocabulary. I even quoted Lewis Carroll:
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master—that's all."(Through the Looking Glass, ch. 6)
I said that if such things were allowed to occur, we could no longer say Sleeping Beauty pricked her finger, but rather broke it. We could no [End Page 75] longer say "Nipped it in the bud" but rather just "caught it in time." We could no longer say "They got ready to burn the witch, piling the fagots on the fire" but rather "They stuck on more wood." We could no longer teach seventh-graders Emily Dickinson's lovely poem "There is no frigate like a book."
And I was right.
I still am.
The question is, which is to be master—that's all.
My editor stood her ground. I—alas—threw up my hands and said, "Then we shall say 'gaily colored books' and get two minorities at once." (Sarcasm is the last refuge of the truly defeated.) And so if you look at the book today, still in print since 1972, you will see the sentence in all its PC glory.
I edited a collection of stories recently, 2041; science fiction stories that take place fifty years in the future when all our young readers will be my age and older. The opening story is a powerful indictment of just this sort of thing. It is called "Much Ado about (Censored)" and in it author Connie Willis shows a group of students trying to study a Shakespearean play. When all the censorship groups, from the left and from the right, are done with it, there are two sentences left.
Author's Bane, indeed. [End Page 76]
Known as "The Hans Christian Andersen of America," Jane Yolen is the author of over 115 books, most of them for young readers. Her Owl Book won the Caldecott in 1988; The Emperor & the Kite was a Caldecott Honor Book in 1968. She is editor-in-chief of Jane Yolen Books, an imprint of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Reprinted by permission of Curtis Brown, Ltd.