Banned: the hidden censorship of children's books
Tibet, sausages and masturbating mice – as Banned Book Week begins, Anne Rooney explores the hidden restrictions on what your children read
Nazis shovelling books onto bonfires and Salman Rushdie skulking behind bodyguards may be the popular image of book bans and censorship, but the everyday reality is a quiet and insidious erosion of our children’s freedom to read and learn. Banned Books Week (25 September to 2 October 2010) is organised by the American Civil Liberties Union to draw attention to the ridiculous but iniquitous censorship of books by Bible-belt America. The bans may operate in the US, but they have a wide-reaching impact, because what American schools and libraries will buy affects what UK publishers produce. Silent censorship takes place long before a book gets to the shelves, or even the printers.
If you’ve taken a peek at the books your kids read, you may not have noticed what’s missing. It might include Taiwan, Tibet and Palestine; anything uncomplimentary about China, the Democratic Republic of Congo or Israel; images of people smoking, drinking, gambling, wearing skimpy clothing or kissing; images of weapons (including swords, bow and arrows and cannons) or works of art that show nudity; unnecessary references to evolution. Oh, and sausages, hedgehogs, alcohol, witches, wardrobes (with a notable exception), or badgers. This doesn’t apply to all children’s books, so please don’t send in examples of books your child has about Palestinian hedgehogs going on drunken, gun-toting, sausage-snaffling trips around Taiwan.
Printed in China, donchaknow
Texas isn’t the only territory limiting the content of UK children’s books. Many books are printed in China, and that makes them vulnerable to Chinese political sensitivities. If a Chinese printer allows a book with un-Chinese sentiments to leave the country the business will be closed down. Children’s Laureate Anthony Browne once had 100,000 copies of a book pulped because a spot-check found a Tibetan flag on top of a merry-go-round.
A book printed in China can’t show Tibet or Taiwan as independent states, or their flags. It may not say anything critical of China, or allies of China such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. It may not show an image of the Dalai Lama, or discuss him in a sympathetic way. One author told me a Chinese printer demanded an account of China’s invasion of Tibet be changed so that China did not look aggressive. That book was printed in Thailand instead, but often UK publishers just toe the line.
Sympathy for Zionism in the USA can lead to another type of state-blindness. A friend of mine was commissioned to write a book of Christmas recipes from around the world (a dodgy premise, indeed…). The US publisher didn’t want the recipe for a soup eaten on Christmas Day in Palestine because "Palestine doesn’t exist", only relenting when the author changed it to "Occupied Territories soup".
Muslims and Christian fundamentalist buyers alike won’t stand for images of gambling, alcohol, skimpy clothes (including swimwear), sexual activity (kissing), mixed-race couples or homosexual couples in children’s books. What the Americans don’t want, we don’t get – because often an illustrated children’s book isn’t viable without a US distributor and many of those look for approval by the notorious Texas State Board of Education. If a publisher wants to sell into the Arab world – or is owned by Arabs – similar restrictions apply. I wasn’t allowed to use the word "cunt" in an A-level guide to Ian McEwan’s Atonement, even though the plot hinges on the word.
No sex, please, we’re American
American teenagers abstain from sex – or so US publishers like to believe. But "abstain" is a very imprecise word; many "don’t have sex" in the way Clinton didn’t have sexual relations with Monica. And orally transmitted STIDs are a problem amongst US teens as a result of such "abstinence". But you can’t mention oral sex in a book on health for teenagers, nor can you suggest they use a condom as condones contraception as well as acknowledges that they might have sex. Thankfully, many British books keep the sexual health content and drop them from the US edition. Perhaps the UK edition should also carry a health warning about having sex with ill-informed American teens.
You don’t need to have sex to upset an American publisher – nudity, or a hint of it, is enough. In 2007, US publisher Boyds Mills Press wanted a half-millimetre-long penis and a cartoon nude removed from a scene in an art gallery in a German picture book. The author refused, and the book wasn’t published in the USA. This robust stance is rare, though. One editor told me about a picture book that showed a clothed mouse sitting with her legs apart and her hands in her lap (over her dress!). The picture was refused because the mouse might be thought to be masturbating. WTF? Another publisher rejected a photo of a cow because its udders were visible, and yet another wouldn’t allow a picture of a man in a deckchair because his nipples were visible and he had a flask beside him which might contain alcohol. All these examples are from UK editors working with American co-editions. With Mr Jobs applying his clean-living standards to apps for Apple devices, books delivered digitally are not likely to be any freer.
A lot of this just looks silly, but it’s harmful, too. What use is a book about childhood and teen alcohol abuse if all the drinkers featured must be over 21, not over-indulging and not looking as though they’re enjoying themselves? And how helpful is a book on health if the changes at puberty have to be guessed at because the teens in the pictures all wear underwear? What do you learn about Amazonian tribes if the people have shorts Photoshopped over their genitals? How much can you learn about art if you can only see Michelangelo’s David from the waist up, paintings of nudes are excluded, and Ancient Greek vases decorated with nude athletes can’t be show? What impression will you have of history if knights in armour aren’t allowed swords, and bows and arrows and other weapons are banned? Items unfamiliar to American children, including hedgehogs, sausages [?], free-standing wardrobes and three-pin electric plugs are not wanted in stories for small children because their novelty makes them too challenging. And no magic or witches, because they’re pagan. A lion, a witch and a wardrobe? Maybe just a lion, but only if it’s not too fierce.
Candide rather than candid
Panglossian objections to acknowledging the seamier side of life have an impact on political and social education. Bans on pictures of children working in factories or markets, images of poverty (in a book on money), and photos of people hanging off buses or on train roofs in Indian are typical examples. It’s not clear whether this is to protect the tender sensibilities of the young or to hide the underbelly of the consumerist economy, or both. The slave trade may have to be called the "triangular trade" (it’s shameful the way they treated those triangles in the plantations) and the Spanish absolutely did NOT invade or colonise South America – they spread their culture to the (few surviving) indigenous people.
Genuine education – introducing something new, encouraging intellectual rigour and intelligent debate – is too scary for US publishers quaking before the Education Boards. This year, the Texas State Board of Education approved a new curriculum worthy of the Ministry of Truth. It’s too early to say what its impact will be on schools and libraries publishing in the UK, but it’s not promising. In a bout of anti-intellectualism worthy of the Cultural Revolution, the Board defended the proposal to replace the unsavoury word "capitalism" with "free enterprise" in books by saying that "capitalism" belonged to the intellectual elite and alienated the normal peopled:
"I see no need, frankly, to compromise with liberal professors from academia. That's part of the problem of how we end up with distorted and liberal biased textbooks is because that's who's writing them." (Terri Leo)
And in case we missed the point because of the dodgy grammar, "somebody's got to stand up to experts." (Don McLeroy)
Anne Rooney’s book Zombies on the Loose is on this year’s Banned Books list. It is a non-fiction book for reluctant readers on the science and history of zombie culture in Haiti, and was banned for "violence or horror".
The UK Banned Books initiative, showcasing "50 books that are mad, bad and dangerous to read", takes place in libraries around the country from 25 September.