March 8, 2011

Do Challenging Books Deserve to be Challenged?

Children’s picture books are censored for the oddest reasons. The Carrot Seed, by Ruth Krauss, first published in 1945, for questioning parental authority. The Very Hungry Caterpillar, by Eric Carle, banned in Herefordshire, England, for promoting obesity and over-consumption.

I discussed this issue of censorship last week with a middle-school librarian who said the parent challenges she receives have to do with “cussing and sex.”

As for language, the word “damn” raises objections for this age. So does an anatomically correct word like “scrotum.” Yes, really. Read the discussion about the 2007 Newbery winner, The Higher Power of Lucky, by Susan Patron. 

Regarding sex, it’s not so much “the intensity of the theme,” the librarian said, but the presence of sexual activity. Date rape doesn’t cause the same concerns as characters engaged in consensual sex. Some sixth and seventh graders—many of whom are reading the tween books mentioned in “Ages and Stages”—also read Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, depicts a dystopia in which kids from the world’s remaining territories are pitted against each other—to the death—for food and resources for their communities. Neither of these books has received a challenge in her library.

Parents may challenge books, but most schools don’t make the jump from listening to the challenges to actually banning the books. The real problem comes when the book is required reading, rather than just a book available on the shelf.

What good school librarians do is discuss the books, know their students, make suggestions but respect their choices, most likely ask if parents might object. (What will happen if these positions are cut in our current funding battles? But that’s another issue.)

The American Library Association (ALA) has promoted Banned Book Week since 1982, to draw attention to the books being challenged, to celebrate the freedom to read. Every April, the list of the prior year’s most frequently challenged books is released. The reasons for the challenges on the 2009 list  include (in their words) homosexuality as well as offensive language and being sexually explicit. And, believe it or not, you’ll find To Kill A Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye on that list.

Why is this important to freelance editors? Should authors of YA literature censor themselves? I heard an author speak about the advice she received from the acquiring editor at the publishing house planning to print her book. Basically, the editor wasn’t going to tell her what to do, but wanted her to know that leaving in offensive language might negatively affect sales. That was several years back. After the recent whitewashing of Huckleberry Finn, who knows what the editor would advise now. 

What you provide your client is an objective look at the manuscript: Does the language fit the character? Does the text have purple prose for its own sake? unnecessary violence? stereotyping? the –isms we watch for when editing adult fiction? What’s integral to the plot and character motivations? What is the author’s intent? Arm yourself and your author with the confidence to believe in a project that is honest, compelling, true. 


  1. I read YA fiction for myself--mostly speculative fiction, but not always.

    "Speak" was a Printz honor book in 2000. It's about rape. Which is a particular type of violence, as much as sex. Let's set aside for now why it's "cussing and sex" that bothers people, more than violence. "how i live now" was a Printz award winner in 2005. It includes consensual sex between teenage cousins. "White Darkness" was a Printz award winner in 2008. Part of the story involves a trusted adult's abusive sexualization of a teenager. (That's not the whole story, however!)

    Complete list of Printz winners and honors:

    Of course, these books have something in common apart from challenging topics: Excellent writing. One approach that comes to mind for me is caution: If you're writing something you know some readers will find offensive, then do it well, d*&! it. So I think I'd want to challenge a writer to do these things as well, as skilfully, as she possibly can, and then better. Make it work.

    I can't think of any reference book for "how to write" such things in particular. Any ideas, Pamela? For now, I think I'd rely on varied examples of how others have done it. Always happy to collect more recommendations ...

  2. While I understand that a world full of writers, editors, parents, librarians and clients will be full of opportunity for offence, I feel that the censorship should be down to the writer, otherwise where would it all end? The only person in the chain whose opinion might matter, in a financial sense, may be the publisher, who ought to know a thing or two about which books will be successful and which will be sidelined.

  3. Good comments. What I'm hearing are know the audience for your story and write it the best you can. In the end, that all falls on the author's shoulders. Kyra, you asked about how-to books. I haven't seen any specifics of how to write sex scenes for YAs. Your idea of reading well-written scenes to study how they work is useful for me too. I'm compiling a list of resources that I'll post at some point, but one I'll note here seems to speak to some of the issues we're discussing. In K.L. Going's Writing and Selling the YA Novel, quotes from a teen panel on banning books are presented. As you might expect, it's as varied as adults on the subject.