Censorship : an unnecessary evil

Loretta Caravette

Loretta Caravette has a B.S. from Loyola University in Speech Communications.
She is currently completing her masters in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota.

I live in the city of Chicago. It is a city of neighborhoods. When I was growing up my family lived in a ‘typical Chicago bungalow.’ Our neighborhood was filled with kids playing ball in the street or down at the Junior College baseball diamond.  I spent my summer afternoons swimming in a friend’s pool or riding my bike around the neighborhood.

In our house we had a ‘library.’ This library was in our kitchen and consisted of an entire wall filled with books—from floor to ceiling. Every summer my father and mother required that we read a book. These included, The Red Badge of Courage, Winnie the Pooh, The Winds in the Willows, Black Beauty, to The Call of the Wild. These books were full of adventure, fun and fantasy.
In the private school I attended, we, also, were required to read certain books.

When I was in sixth grade one of my classmates gave me a book to read. Actually, she slipped it under my desk.  It was a story about Jack the Ripper. It was very graphic with a lot of violence and sexual content. It mesmerized me, as well as horrified me.  I took it home to read. My older sister saw what I was reading and told my mother.  The book was quickly confiscated.
That night, when they thought I was asleep, my parents looked over the book and discussed the situation.  The next day my mother sat me down and we talked about ‘Jack.’ In an honest and upfront way, my mother told me why they didn’t want me to read this kind of book, right now. This was my first experience with censorship.

I am sure my parents were very frustrated. They had been so careful to choose the right books for us. Even sending us to a private school.  And still despite all their intentions the ‘wrong book’ got into my hands.  Today’s parents face an even tougher battle in trying to guide their children’s lives. Neighborhoods are a lot more complicated than mine of the 60’s.  The ‘world’ neighborhood is much more open and accessible. We are not only more diverse, but neighborhoods are more combined. Every culture, every religion, every idea, every opinion, every different standard, lives right next door. Information is received at speeds not even imagined in the 60’s—from cell phones to faxes to the Internet.

Children are caught up in this whirlwind, subjected to things that they are still too young to understand or are emotionally unfit to handle. However, despite their free access to so much communication, children’s lives have become much more structured, filled with activities and camps of all kinds: math camps, science camps, and sports camps. They are not free to walk to the corner to meet friends. They are not allowed to ride their bike around the neighborhood, let alone go in someone else’s pool without a multitude of supervision. This is a very adult user world.

Censorship seems to be an adult user answer to the growing problem of how to care and watch over our children. Censorship’s rationale is that it helps assist parents with the raising of their children and in dealing with life issue. But what Censorship also does, like honey to flies, is draw attention to the least desirable elements.  Censorship cannot and should not replace the judgment and actions of parents and teachers in the development of the children they raise.

As early as 387 B.C. in Greece Plato suggested purging Homer for immature readers. Censorship has appeared in many of history’s darkest hours.  Here in the United States, an ostensibly free country, one where people are encouraged and given the legal right to speak their minds, we have been balancing between personal freedom and what is ‘right’.

Our media challenges this balance every day. We, the consumer, respect the artists and allow them the freedom of expression.  But at the same time we are aware that children are seeing some unsuitable situations. We are not always in agreement about what we want our children to watch, hear, or read. In the USA, one political answer to how to balance these freedoms vs. rights came in the way of ratings.

  • In 1968 the movie industry instituted a rating system that is still in existence today. This system was intended for parents, to help them determine what movies would be suitable for their children.
  • In 1985 the Parents Music Resource Center instituted a ‘rating’ system for music with explicit language.
  • The TV Parental Guidelines system went into effect January 1, 1997.

All these rating systems are voluntary and are meant to serve as a guide for parents.  They do not comment on quality or aesthetics. The rating systems serve to help parents in picking appropriate material for their children based on content, theme, violence, language, nudity, sensuality, drug abuse, and other elements.

Despite all the warnings and all the ratings, children are still listening to these songs, watching the television shows and renting these movies. The rating systems have not stopped today’s lyrics from becoming more explicit; our cable television system contains more swearing and sexual content, and our movies are more violent and bloody.

The rating system may have convinced politicians, parents, librarians and other gatekeepers that it could do the job of protecting their young. It may have given them a false sense of security, a feeling that something good was being done for children. But
the ratings, in reality, mean nothing when no one is there to monitor children’s actions and discuss appropriate behavior.

I am currently working towards my Masters In Fine Arts at Hamline University in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Writing for children seems to be a calling for most of the people in this program. To many of us books are meant for exploration, for questioning. They can be a starting point, an introduction to a tricky subject, an answer to a prayer. Within a book’s pages children are safe to explore their feelings, to reflect on their own situations. They can identify with the characters, the situations, and the locations.  There is an intimate connection between book and reader.  Putting the right book into the hands of the right child has great value and changes lives. It can be empowering, motivating and inspiring.

When the idea of  ‘censoring’ any book arises, such as the recent, The Higher Power of Lucky and the Harry Potter series, we writers grumble about the myopic reactions of the ‘gatekeepers’ . We passionately argue that the Harry Potter series bring kids, especially boys, back to books. The Higher Power of Lucky is a wonderful book, with more to it than one word, we press, but the shadow of censorship looms ever larger and darker.

Can anyone establish boundaries for children and keep inappropriate themes and topics away?  Given the accessibility of information today, it seems an impossible task.  Our government has tried, but rating systems need to be enforced. Advertisers and marketers’ jobs are about getting children to buy their client’s product. Who can make a difference?  Three people: a father, a mother and a teacher.

Going back to my own experience, my mother and father took the time to talk to me about why the book was inappropriate. I learned something other than, “I said no.” (My mom and I continued to have other conversations ranging from math problems to sex.)  Parents have a vested interest in their child. Creating a home in which a child feels safe, is their responsibility. Creating a home where a child can safely make mistakes, is their responsibility. Home is the first place where a child learns right from wrong, good from bad, healthy from unhealthy. It is the parents’ job to give their child a good defense by helping them to establish boundaries and then following through to make sure the lessons are learned.

School helps to reinforce these lessons. A teacher is the next ‘parent’ in a child’s life.  A teacher helps the child by challenging them, instructing them, helping them move on to the next level of maturity and understanding. While the teacher has an educational perspective, she also observes the child’s social development and maturity. A teacher may know, before a parent, when a child is ready for the next level or is mature enough to handle a theme or topic. When there is communication and respect between parent and teach, the child’s development is the winner. 

America is a free society and has plenty of forums where people can express their views: newspapers, the Internet, news channels, radio, billboards. People can discuss their differences, learn from each other. Why shouldn’t we allow our children that same rich experience. Censorship is not the answer. Banning a book is about as helpful as using a match in a hurricane. It does not shed light on anything and gets blown around by a lot of wind. Nor does sticking a label on a problem make it go away. Only in discussing and sharing comments and concerns is there growth and understanding. The parents and teachers should be the guiding element in a child’s life.  They are the ones who see the child as an individual.  They are the ones that understand the child’s weaknesses and strengths.  And they are the ones who have the time to give that child the attention he/she needs. Let us hope that a discussion in an honest and upfront way shows children, whether they are ten or seventeen, that knowledge is the most empowering censor they can use.


Loretta Caravette

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

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"Censorship an unnecessary evil" © Loretta Caravette, 2008
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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

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