- What Should Our Children Read?
Anyone involved with children's literature, as a writer, illustrator, editor, critic, teacher or librarian, knows that children's books are subjected to numerous restrictions that would seem foolish if applied to books for adults. A single word can raise a protest, and whole subject areas are either off-limits or viewed with suspicion, on the assumption, usually unexamined, that children cannot comprehend or handle certain topics.
This is especially true of books used in schools or available in school libraries. Since state laws require children to attend school (unless parents can provide alternative instruction, which most cannot afford), parents charge that their children are being forced to read books they find offensive. In recent years, objections to specific books have proliferated, largely because of the influence of the Religious Right. One of its spokesmen has gone so far as to assert that "modern public school education is the most dangerous single force in a child's life."
In Trust Your Children, Mark West examines these concerted efforts to control what American children can read. His thesis is that these attempts are interfering with the teaching of the most basic intellectual skills. West's book consists of 18 interviews with prominent authors such as Judy Blume and Maurice Sendak; publishers and activists who have played leading roles in the decade's censorship battles. Together, these interviews offer a perceptive and often eloquent defense of the idea that children should have freer access to literature that accurately reflects their lives and actively challenges them to think about their world. They also explore the motivations behind efforts to limit what children may read and suggest strategies for contending with them.
The reason censors have made progress in the last 10 years is that freedom of expression in America has an Achilles heel, particularly when children are involved. Many Americans seem to believe that sex is a dangerous subject and are thus willing to accept censorship regarding sexual issues even if they reject it otherwise. (The docile public acceptance [End Page 151] of a movie rating system largely based on sexual criteria is a manifestation of this.) Groups that want to ban certain books use this attitude quite skillfully. In his interview, author Robert Cormier notes that groups seeking to remove individual titles from schools often circulate petitions demanding that "dirty books" be prohibited. As he points out, "Nobody is going to say, 'Yes, I want dirty books in schools.'"
The problem is that many parents consider any book that deals with sexual matters in any way to be a "dirty book." For example, Judy Blume's book, Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret, which describes the awakening sexuality of a teenage girl, was condemned as a "how-to manual about masturbation," according to her publisher, Richard W. Jackson (104). Author Norma Klein, locates much of the motivation behind censorship efforts as an expression of parents' anxiety about changing sex roles and attitudes toward sex: "They see their own children growing up to reject their values, and they want to blame someone. Often it's their own rigidity which has encouraged their kids to seek other answers. But it's easier for them to blame books."
Blume detects a deeper problem: a widespread feeling of shame among parents caused by their own lack of knowledge of sexuality:
They are afraid that their children will ask them questions about sex and not only will they feel embarrassed and uneasy but they won't know the answers, either. I once interviewed a group of men, and I asked them what a uterus is. Not one of them could say a uterus is. . . . Many parents don't have the answer, and this makes them feel ashamed.
As a consequence of all this, many editors are being extremely cautious. In another interview, Stephen B. Roxburgh of Farrar, Straus and Giroux comments that "the children's book world is fast becoming the most conservative world this side of banking." This "conservatism" can have unexpected not to say ludicrous results. I remember an editorial decision that was made a...