TLG 12.2 Introduction

Frame of Reference

Introduction – Censorship in Children's Literature

David Beagley

It can easily be suggested that children’s literature is not about children at all.  Rather, it is about how adults define children.

After all, it is adults who write the literature and illustrate it, they edit and publish it, sell and promote it, recommend and scaffold its reading. They are the ones who decide what is appropriate to be in it, and whether children should or should not read it.

In other words, as they make all of these decisions, benevolently or paternally, acting as mediators, scaffolders, gatekeepers, facilitators, guardians or whatever they might be called, adults censor children’s literature.

The ancient Roman Censor undertook the census, counting and overseeing the public to maintain social order, and censuring those causing affront to public morals - all in all (and keeping up the Latin derivations), a very patriarchal responsibility. The social assumption of the role, and the duty and the authority, to censor is so closely linked to the role, and the duty and the authority, of the parent over the child.

As adults (who are often parents as well) we, quite naturally want to protect innocent children not just from "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" but from the cruelties and disasters of the modern world. We want them to grow up safe, and good, and happy. Then, when they are ready, they can take on that role for their futures.

Well, that is the idea, anyway. In doing this, we make some very large assumptions about children's limits and abilities, and about adults' rights and responsibilities.

So, in this issue of The Looking Glass, as we look at censorship in children's literature, the question of who makes these choices is always there.

Kate McInally's study in Alice's Academy considers the author as both self-censor and as manipulator. In "Subverting Censorship through Heteroqueer: How to do Straight Queerly (and get away with it) in the Novels of Doug MacLeod" she explores how an author can subtly twist expectations and ideologies, especially in the grey (and often humorous) areas of the Young Adult novel.

Roald Dahl has long been one of those writers that polarize debate. Is he anti-adult, mysoginist and violent, or subversive, tongue-in-cheek and supportive of the child? Elizabeth Oliver considers his award winning 1983 story The Witches and the controversy around this duality of Dahl. Is enthusiastic reading by children sufficient justification for (adult-perceived) negative portrayals of authority and women?

Our Jabberwocky column brings a range of opinion pieces to the discussion of censorship. Firstly, author Hazel Edwards describes her dilemma when a public furore erupted around the changing of a "questionable" phrase in one of her stories on its republication. "The Curious Electronic E-fair of the Hippo Smack" also examines how online avenues for debate can galvanize public opinion and expression in the blinking of an eye. Marshall McLuhan would have had a wonderful time with email, discussion lists and blogs!

Then, in three companion pieces, parent Heather Rae, librarian Miffy Farquharson, and aspiring writer Loretta Caravette present their personal perspectives from these respective roles. Each considers the necessity of limiting, guiding, framing or otherwise controlling the literature available to children, and then the capacity of the children concerned and the adults involved to make such decisions.

Andy Griffiths - a frequently questioned author for his popular humour series, the Just ... books and the Bum/Butt books - noted that "Tim Winton once said that the difficult thing about writing for children is that you’re writing in triangles: at one point of the triangle is you. At another point is your audience. And at another point are the gatekeepers (adults, reviewers, teachers, parents, librarians etc.). The art of successful children’s writing is in pleasing (or at least appeasing) all three points: yourself, your audience and your gatekeepers."

Unfortunately, he has taken this excellent quote down from his website, but the point remains true. Children's literature has more points to please than adult writing. Juggling these three different requirements forces any children's writer to maintain a precarious balance.

Where should a line be drawn? Can a line be drawn? I certainly cannot tell you! Read on and decide for yourself.

David Beagley

Volume 12, Issue 2 The Looking Glass, May/June, 2008

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"Frame of Reference - Introduction"
© David Beagley, 2008.
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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

ISBN 1551-5680