Self-Censorship in the Library

Miffy Farquharson

Miffy Farquharson is currently working as Junior School Teacher-Librarian at Girton Grammar School, Bendigo, and is galloping through boxes of books in preparation for judging the CBCA Book of the Year Awards 2008 and 2009. Her interest in Children’s Literature stems from a childhood filled with secondhand books and empty of television; and continues through her work with students in primary school

It is interesting, the idea of censorship. Governments, teachers, librarians, and parents are all prone to censoring various forms of expression. Witness the furor in the United States over The Golden Compass! Having just been to see it with my family, it astounds me that the Catholic Church thinks that the film is about the Church. Do they really see themselves as that controlling? If I was them, I would be disassociating myself from such a fascist organisation as the Magisterium! And can they not see the parallel between their protesters and the Magisterium? The protesters against The Golden Compass are using the very same language as the Lords of the Magisterium. “We know what’s best for you!”

But I digress.

In his article ‘Watch Dogs or Mad Dogs?’ Jim Trelease puts a lucid argument that censorship is an attempt to impose one’s will on others. He contends that people have the right to disagree, to protest as they feel the need, to have an opinion on a book, film, idea, government policy and so on. He has no problem with people having an opinion, but he objects when they try to enforce that opinion on everyone else. What most arbiters of ‘niceness’ and ‘correctness fail to realise is that most people, both adults and children, are quite capable of censoring what they read and see, without anyone telling them what they can and cannot peruse.

We all self-censor, all the time.

“No, it looks lovely!” (My god, that dress makes you look like the side of a house!).
(If I say anything, I’ll just look stupid, so I won’t say anything at all. That’s safest.).
“I think that’s a great idea.” (If you think that I’m going to do that, you’ve got another think coming!).

Adults that work with children are particularly wary of books that may be seen as subversive or inappropriate, but in my experience children are more than capable of knowing what is appropriate for them. It may be that one look at the illustrations is enough to send a message that the book is ‘not for me’. Sometimes the concepts may be too new, or too complex to comprehend. I had three attempts at reading The Lord of the Rings before I could get beyond the tricky, unfamiliar names, and the long and complex fantasy paradigm. At ages 11, 15 and 17 it was beyond me. But in my twenties I had sufficient life experience and had read enough fantasy novels to be able to become totally immersed in the world of Middle-Earth. I now read The Lord of the Rings once a year. I have yet to read The Silmarillion! I may never come to read it. My self-censoring tells me that I’m not ready for it yet. That’s OK.

Speaking of The Lord of the Rings brings me to another point. Texts change in their appropriateness and in their ‘need’ to be censored. Ever read Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence? The ‘sex’ scene in the book is so tame by ‘modern’ standards that I totally missed it the first time, and had to re-read the book to find the ‘offending’ paragraph or two. Reading and writing have changed in style and content even in the years since I was at school. And yet children will still self-censor if something is too scary, or ‘adult’, or obscure. They simply return the book to the shelf, perhaps to be sampled again at a later date, perhaps never to be revisited.

Because of this inherent self-censorship I very rarely forbid any student from borrowing anything from our school library. Two rules prevail – the student must be able to read the ‘text’ themselves, and they must be prepared to carry it home! Children in Prep often borrow the Harry Potter books, only to return them the following day. They just want to get the ‘feel’ of borrowing a big book like that. And one day they will take it home, and read it, and enjoy it. But until then, it’s probably just a bit too heavy to lug around in their reader satchel!

Providing the opportunity for children to choose for themselves, and make mistakes about their choices, is essential for developing discerning readers. Students who read widely, in varying genres and at varying levels of difficulty, will in the end, I believe, become the big thinkers in our society. And that got to be a good thing in a world that is increasingly becoming a ‘Nanny’ state.

Trelease is also quite right in asserting that, “Book bannings make as much sense as a parent telling her children in December, "Don't look in the back of the hall closet." You've just advertised the fact that something is there you don't want them to see. This is true for both children and adults.” When Lady Chatterley’s Lover was banned, sales went through the roof; when the commotion over the witchcraft in Harry Potter began, sales went through the roof.


Work Cited

Trelease, Jim. "Censors and Children's Literature: Are They Watch Dogs or Mad Dogs?" 2006. Trelease-on-reading.com. 9 January 2007. <http://www.trelease-on-reading.com/censor_entry.html>.


Miffy Farquharson

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

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