ON A SUNDAY afternoon in early May, several writers and editors gathered on a small stage at Cooper Union to discuss sex and violence in children’s literature. The moderator, Sharyn November, Senior Editor for Viking Children’s Books, began by reading the American Library Association’s annual list of the most frequently challenged books. The association compiles the list from information provided both by individuals and the media — whenever someone in a community suggests (or demands) a book be removed from the shelf of a library or school, that book will show up in the ALA’s database. Some of the books cited for “offensive language,” “unsuited for age group,” “homosexuality,” and other transgressions: Captain Underpants, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, The Hunger Games, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Alice, Harry Potter, It’s Perfectly Normal, and Bridge to Terabithia.
Among the many questions raised by these lists are: Why? Should there be limits on either sexual or violent content? Set by whom?
Over the next hour and a half of the event, part of the PEN American Center’s annual World Voices Festival, November and the panelists — writers Susan Kuklin, Niki Walker, Sarwat Chadda, and Robie Harris — agreed that children can and should be trusted to make their own reading decisions. Banning books and censoring children’s literature denies them not only access to these books, these writers claimed, but also the agency to choose, and thus to practice discernment. November asserted that kids “know exactly what they can handle and what they can’t handle.” If they cannot handle a book, they put it down. “Parents have to trust their kids more and trust the ways that they’ve raised their children,” she said.
Niki Walker responded in kind:
I think kids are smarter and more curious about the world, that they can handle and process a lot more than a lot of grown ups give them credit for. Don’t you want your children to be equipped with a lot of knowledge — and to me that’s power — to make sense of the world and to make good decisions with what they encounter? If you shield them from those things, what happens when you set them loose?
Robie Harris, whose books on sexual health appeared on the ALA’s list twice in 2005 alone, added:
What is “on the edge” for publishers and editors is not the same as for kids. I think these books look at the topics, the concerns, the worry, the fascination that kids have today, and I don’t know that they would call it edgy either. It’s the world in which they’re living.
Pretty much all agreed that denying children the freedom to fully inhabit this world, to examine their responses and react accordingly, can stunt them.
Anyone who has been a child, of course, knows that kids hunger for information beyond what adults give them, and go out of their way to find it. They don’t have to go far. Some research does suggest that watching sexually explicit videos makes kids more likely to have sex earlier, kids who watch porn are more likely to objectify women, and watching violent television correlates with violent behavior. Such research tends to focus on the effects of watching rather than on reading. Regardless, this is all the more reason for parents to sensitively guide their children and help them make sense of what they’ve learned — not to try in vain to stop them from learning in the first place.
As it is with all censorship, the banning of books cannot be disentangled from fear. Faith and trust, which smoke out fear, enable sensitive, case-by-case decisions and reactions. Censorship is wholesale. It eliminates the need for judgment, which requires attention and by necessity involves a degree of uncertainty. Censorship, on many levels, enables disconnection.
As in the adult cultural realm, sexual content in children’s literature is cited much more frequently than violence as a reason for censorship. (The top three reasons for challenging literature, according to the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, are that it is “sexually explicit,” contains “offensive language,” and is “unsuited to any age group,” in that order.) This is just one facet of American culture’s longstanding discomfort with, and inclination to censor, sexual media. In the past few decades, for example, violent films have increasingly been assigned a PG-13 rating, while sexual films continue to be rated R. We are, after all, a society molded by Puritans.
Violence and sex both involve a loss of control. Rage, realized verbally or violently, threatens the control of not only the attacked, but also the attacker, who struggles to harness her own emotional state. Sex, of course, is another kind of abandon, and, while the consensual kind is not damaging in the same way, it is of course a concern for any adult in a custodial role.
None of this is particularly controversial when we are discussing human realities. Once we enter into discussions of depictions of reality, of course, the debate grows infinitely more complex and emotional. What banning books censors is not action, but fantasy. Sarwat Chadda represented the view of most literary-minded people when he noted, “The ones who are reading are the least likely to be acting it out.” More to the point, fantasy — whether galvanized by reading or by some other stimulus — enables children to probe their own feelings. The primary problem of banning depictions of anger or sexual attraction is that, in the child’s mind, this action may seem akin to saying that anger and sexual attraction are themselves taboo. Niki Walker spoke to this point: “Making people uncomfortable is not a bad thing. That means you’re going in the right direction, sometimes.”
Near the beginning of the event, November had asked the panelists about reactions to their own work, and Harris sympathized with some of the people who had challenged hers. Harris’s books, including It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health, explain what puberty and sex are all about. Challenges have centered on its discussions of sex, masturbation, homosexuality, and nudity; some have called it “vulgar” and “pornographic.” But their complaints were not always crazy, Harris said, though “we see it as crazy because it doesn’t make sense to us.” She does have empathy for people with a history of trauma, she explained: they truly might be retraumatized by exposure to sensitive subjects. The issue is not that everyone should read her books, but that people who want to should have access to them.
Harris’s empathy is a useful springboard. It is not enough to call censorship unfair and blind; doing so invokes the same lack of judgment and attention that yield censorship. November argues that kids can all discern what they can handle and what they can’t. But self-regulation must be practiced and learned. Children learn to tune in to their emotional capacities and respond accordingly when doing so is modeled and supported. But what some adults fail to realize is that, by censoring or banning children’s literature, they reveal that it is they who are scared, they who cannot tune in, they who lack faith in their own abilities to model, support, and respond. Perhaps they are also afraid their kids will develop anyway, without and beyond their parents, leaving them behind.
Jessica Gross is a writer based in New York City. She contributes to The New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review Daily, and Kirkus Reviews, among other places.