September 21, 2017

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Experts Focus on Censorship at Bank Street Conference

Photo courtesy of Rebecca Migdal

Photo courtesy of Rebecca Migdal

What’s really at stake when it comes to censorship? Which books are under fire—and why? And in light of titles that have generated criticism due to perceived racial insensitivity, such as Laura Amy Schlitz’s The Hired Girl, Emily Jenkins’s A Fine Dessert, and Ramin Ganeshram’s A Birthday Cake for George Washington, where is the line between being aware and censoring? At “Who Are You To Say?”, an event held at Bank Street College of Education on April 16, several authors and kid lit experts weighed in.

In his opening speech, children’s book historian Leonard Marcus provided an overview of the history of censorship. Though censorship has come in many forms—from those who thought that Lewis Carroll’s Alice and Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn were poor role models, to a progressive-minded teacher who provided a rewritten version of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, stripped of racial epithets—it’s “teachers and librarians who find themselves most at risk for suffering consequences,” he said.

During the first panel, “Developing Challenged Children’s Books: Authors and their Editors,” moderated by Marcus, authors and editors of books that have come under fire shared their experiences. It’s Perfectly Normal author Robie Harris, whose frank and honest explanations of bodies, families, and sexuality have resulted in challenges, said that “no one I know…has set out to write a controversial book. We’ve set out to write…books that have meaning for children.”

All of the authors were acutely aware of the issues and problems faced by librarians, who are on the front lines. Susan Kuklin, author of Beyond Magenta, described how often the urge to self-censor creeps in. “I know that if I write something [controversial], it’s the librarians who are going to have their jobs on the line…. I was once working on a chapter when CCBC was having a [listserv] conversation about librarians in pain because they had to keep certain books under the desk…. Meanwhile, I was counting [how much profanity to use in a book], literally crying about the librarians [who] were going to have to face that.”

Diversity under attack

As writers on the second panel, “Why Are Young Adult Books Challenged?” discussed, censorship sometimes comes in different, more insidious forms; often, they say, it’s a thinly veiled attack on diversity.

Coe Booth, author of Tyrell, Kendra, and Kinda Like Brothers, talked about how her books have been reshelved in the urban or street lit sections rather than in the mainstream YA sections. “I’ve had [my books] not displayed at all except for during Black History Month. I even had a teacher in Illinois say, ‘We only have two ethnic students in our school district, so why should we have your book?’ ” Booth said that she has also been uninvited to speaking events at schools. “The best one was, ‘Oh, we forgot the students were taking tests that day.’”

Meg Medina, author of Burn Baby Burn and Yaqui Delgado Wants To Kick Your Ass, a coming-of-age novel about a young Latina woman coping with bullying, described similar situations. Her titles have been given special stickers; sometimes librarians have required permission slips or notes for students to check them out. Medina said that in one instance, when she was scheduled to speak at an antibullying assembly at a Virginia school, she was told she could come but that she couldn’t use the cover image of Yaqui Delgado Wants To Kick Your Ass or mention its title, owing to the use of profanity. “I adore librarians and teachers. They are often my advocates, but they are also my censors as well,” she said. She also believed that the school felt “the book didn’t reflect the values of their community.”

Emily m. danforth spoke about how her book, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, the story of a lesbian teenager who is sent to a religious conversion camp, was challenged. A school board in Delaware voted to remove the book from the Blue Hen list, a compilation of titles put together by librarians, saying that the profanity made it unsuitable. But there was a “lack of honesty going on,” said danforth. “A number of books on the Blue Hen list had similar or more egregious instances of profanity. Mine was the only book, of course, with lesbians.”

Underscoring their points, Shelley Diaz, reviews manager at School Library Journal (SLJ), said, “To quote Malinda Lo, diversity is actually under attack. To me, this is a form of erasure. This is a group of people who…are uncomfortable with people who are not like themselves and feel they need to erase that and pretend it doesn’t exist.”

Sense and sensitivity

Deciding whether criticizing a book is censorship or just awareness can be a fine line, as the panelists of “Context and Controversy: Recently Censored and Contested Books for Children” addressed. Kiera Parrott, reviews director for SLJ and Library Journal, spoke about encountering “soft” censorship. SLJ readers have contacted her, she said, asking about why, for instance, the review for Brian Selznick’s middle grade novel The Marvels didn’t mention that the book featured a gay character. “As review editor, I spend a lot of time thinking about the content we put in our reviews. When do we mention if a character is gay? When is it relevant?”

What about when content can genuinely harm children, as in the case of works that make use of racial stereotypes? Cheryl Willis Hudson, publisher of Just Us Books, an independent publishing company dedicated to diversity, said, “We employ sensors rather than censors. Publishers need to have more sensors on when selecting books, because there are books that are harmful,” she said, citing Little Black Sambo as an example of literature that has done “irreparable harm.” Hudson said that when she was an elementary student in the 1950s in Virginia, the history textbooks included images of happy, smiling slaves. When the class got to those sections of the curriculum, Hudson said that her teachers would tell the students to put the books under their chairs. “You may consider that censorship,” she said. “It was in the canon but should not have been.”

Allie Jane Bruce, children’s librarian at the Bank Street College of Education, has seen censorship used as a tool to shut down conversation about whether a book is racist. “I’ve been told, ‘We can’t have that conversation, because you are trying to censor that book.’ In those situations, I’m left…thinking, ‘Well, what I did wasn’t censorship, but that was.’ ”

Fatima Shaik, who is on the Children’s/Young Adult Books Committee of PEN American Center, spoke about the issue of “sense and sensitivity.” When it comes to race, she said, “Words have created stereotypes. So we are dismantling. We’re trying to re-create, we’re trying to redefine something that has been made up to begin with.”

Shaik discussed going through books from her daughter’s school to donate to schools in New Orleans. She found a book, Beloved Belindy, about the black servant (or “mammy”) of the characters Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy, and knew that she couldn’t donate the book. “Is that an issue of sense? Or of sensitivity? I believe in the First Amendment. We have to be able to read the books. They have to be somewhere. [But we] have to be sensitive about what these books contain.”

“Words have consequences, but images do, too,” said Hudson. For her, it was the visual elements that made Emily Jenkins’s A Fine Dessert and Ramin Ganeshram’s A Birthday Cake for George Washington so problematic. A Fine Dessert told the story of a recipe for blackberry fool enjoyed by many generations, and featured an enslaved mother and child sharing the dessert together and smiling—which many critics charged was an inaccurate, whitewashed example of history. Similarly, A Birthday Cake for George Washington relied on cheery and upbeat images to relate the tale of Hercules, a chef and slave owned by the first president, making a dessert for Washington; many spoke out, saying that the book glossed over the realities of slavery.

Hudson described A Fine Dessert as “a perfect picture book in terms of form, in terms of how the author moved from one era to next, one generation to the next. [There are] choices you can make to illustrate a story, and I think that was an unfortunate choice…. That beautiful book might be first book that a child sees that has any reference to slavery…. The same thing for George Washington. It just reinforces stereotyped imagery that I think is inappropriate for young children to process.’”

Using censorship to shut down criticism of potentially insensitive works can be problematic, too, said Bruce. She described early 19th-century filmmaker D.W. Griffith, whose Birth of a Nation depicted the Ku Klux Klan as heroic. In response to protests from organizations such as the NAACP, Griffith directed Intolerance, presenting himself as the victim of censorship. “Griffith got to be the one defining censorship…. For him, tolerance meant I get to tell my story…in a way that might get you killed, and when you try to stop me, I get to call you a censor.”

What kinds of questions should librarians, publishers, and editors, be posing themselves? Medina asked. “One question I ask myself is, Could any child come along and pick up this book and have it be a self-affirming experience?” said Bruce. “This comes up in books that have kids playing ‘Indian’…. The argument is that kids really do play like this, or they really did play like this…. If a native kid picks up this book, is reading this going to be safe?”

Safety on

Getting back to the harm that these challenges can do to the marginalized, Joan Bertin, director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, discussed in her closing keynote how censorship has been—and continues to—perpetuate biased beliefs. There has been a “virtual explosion” of challenges to materials about Islam recently, she said, with “parents [confusing] teaching about with indoctrination.” Similarly, Bertin said, as laws aimed at protecting transgender people have been introduced, there have been far more challenges to books with gender-nonconforming or transgender characters.

Bertin took issue with the idea of a book being “safe,” saying, “Literature is not safe. Nor should it be. It is what unsettles us, what allows us to explore the things we are afraid to talk about, and it allows us to explore dangerous ideas in a safe way.”

Addressing A Birthday Cake for George Washington, which was ultimately recalled by its publisher, Scholastic, Bertin said, “No one is saying you should teach a book that isn’t…very good…. The problem is once [it’s been published], …pulling it is an extreme act. I’m hesitant to use the burning word, but it disappears a book.”

“How do you confront all the issues that people have in their life without feeling a little unsafe?”

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Mahnaz Dar About Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is Assistant Managing Editor for Library Journal and School Library Journal and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

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Comments

  1. Megan Ettinger says:

    What this article didn’t touch on is the graphic sexuality, instructional drug use, and excessive foul language that many YA authors appear to think is the norm. When does sensitivity to maturation come into play? As we have kids as young as 10 reading from our YA section, our staff needs to be knowledgeable as to what is just plain indecency. We don’t hide the books or censor them, but I definitely will tell kids that they should probably wait to read a book due to its graphic content. I find it interesting that people are up in arms about a picture of a happy slave (definitely misleading, but they’ll have their misconceptions corrected in the next history class) but not about inaccurate depictions of teenage drug use and sexuality (directly harmful, and rarely addressed in realistic terms by authoritative adults). I don’t believe that books should be banned or removed from library shelves, but I really wish they had similar ratings to TV shows.