Monday, December 15, 2008

Censorship--is it ever okay?

Recently, two censorship stories have come to my attention. One involves the book Girl Interrupted and New Rochelle High School:

Sources at the school says that after receiving complaints from an as yet-to-be-identified person or group, the school district ordered students to return the book to the chairperson of the English department who then personally tore out pages 64 through 70 before returning the books to students. Ironically, news of the school censorship first broke during the same week as the school district's annual Literary Festival.
What?! I had never heard of this before. Apparently, it's something called Bowdlerizing, after Thomas Bowdler, who published an edition of Shakespeare's plays that he felt was more suitable for women and children. Basically, he censored certain sections of Shakespeare's plays that he found vulgar, or inappropriate. According to Wikipedia, here is an example of some of the changes he made:

-In Hamlet, the death of Ophelia was referred to as an accidental drowning, omitting the suggestions that she may have intended suicide.
-In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth's famous cry "Out, damned spot!" was changed to "Out, crimson spot!" -"God!" as an exclamation is replaced with "Heavens!"
-In Henry IV, Part 2, the prostitute Doll Tearsheet is omitted entirely; the slightly more reputable Mistress Quickly is retained.

The fact that an English Department chairperson (or anyone, for that matter) would physically tear out pages of a book is appalling to me, regardless of the reasoning behind it. The poor books! (I'm one of those people who can't bear writing in or ear-marking pages of books.) And it goes without saying that I hate the censorship as well. At least in this story, there's a happy ending. The publisher issued a strong response, and the school district has said that the students will be receiving new books.

Here is another recent report of censorship, this time of Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. This is an amazing book, and personally, I think everyone should read it at some point in their life. The fact that a father would call the book "trashy" and succeed in getting the school board to remove the book from the classroom is ridiculous. This did make me think, though--is it okay for a parent to restrict their children's reading? I mean, sure, of course--parents should do what they feel is right for their children. But I'm of the camp that after age 12, give or take a few year depending on a child's development, I think young adults can handle almost anything (although I kinda wish I hadn't seen the movie Robocop at age 12 or 13!). I was reading horror and romance (Stephen King and V.C. Andrews!) and whatever else was lying around our house, including some erotica, by at least age 12, and I think I turned out pretty okay. Then again, I wonder if there are certain camps that will look at my lifestyle and political beliefs and disagree. And could they blame some of my beliefs on books?

I don't want to get too political here, but I've recently been in a debate with some of my extended family about Prop 8 in CA. Some of them (many of them?) supported it, which really shocked me. I'm not sure why, but every since I was a child, gay rights were important to me. I don't remember a particular book or movie that affected my beliefs, but as I did not have an openly gay friends or family, I have to believe that something I read or saw must have affected me, although I suppose it could also have just been how I always thought about fairness and injustice.

Anyway, my family has gone back and forth about this issue, and it occurred to me that my extended family and I probably differ on quite a few things (which wasn't really news to me, as we have very different religious beliefs), and I wondered if censorship could be another issue. Some people think masturbation is morally wrong, which I suppose must have been the objection to Sherman Alexie's book. If they feel that having their child read a scene where a character masturbates goes against their religious beliefs, then I guess I have to accept that decision, for their particular child. But regardless of what your beliefs are, I do think most 14-year-olds can handle reading a scene about masturbation.

But if the father deemed that his son should not, then okay, I suppose he should be able to make that choice. But I really can't stand someone taking their own beliefs and imposing them on other people who might not share those beliefs. If he objected to the book, then perhaps the teacher could have assigned an alternate book for that one individual to read, right? Isn't that how it works with dissection assignments and sex education on occasion? It just made me sad because I think this makes teachers more cautious about what books they assign, and there are so many wonderful, layered books out there with what some people would deem inappropriate material.

I do think that kids shouldn't be exposed to certain content at an early age. For example, if I had nightmares after watching Robocop, it was even worse for my little brother who was eight at the time. I'm not sure what my parents were thinking--although I'm sure somehow my older brother and I convinced them it would be okay. But I think my tolerance level is higher for sex scenes in books than for violence, especially for teenagers (I'd balk at nine-year-olds reading Gossip Girl). Teens know about sex. Denying them the opportunity to read a great work of literature because it has a few masturbation or sex scenes is a bit unreasonable, I think. Why not read the book alongside your child and then have a frank discussion about it? Because no doubt otherwise your kid will sneak the book and read it on his own, without the guidance of a parent of teacher.

I'm probably preaching to the choir on this blog, but I do wonder--do you think it's ever okay to censor? And is it better to censor part of a book rather than the whole? Would it have been better if the father had torn the "objectionable" pages out of his son's book and let him read the rest of it? And for you parents out there, did you monitor your children's reading and keep them from reading certain books at certain ages?

The Longstockings had an interesting, related discussion going on about the book Living Dead Girl here.

Thanks to Tanya Lee Stone and David Macinnis Gill for the original links, via Facebook.


Karen Mahoney said...

I usually just lurk on this blog (which is fabulous, btw!), but I have to say what a great post this is. Very thought-provoking. In a good way. Personally, I don't believe censorship in books is acceptable - not when it comes to tearing pages from books. This is getting scarily close to book-burning, imho.

Of course, there are some things that aren't appropriate for young children, etc. But this is for the parent/carer to decide and deal with - honest & open discussion should be encouraged within families. I don't have children of my own, it's true, but when I was young I read adult books (from age 12 and up), but I never had to hide this from my mum. She shared books with me and we talked about things. I was always an advanced reader, and I admit that I read things at 12 and 13 that confused/disturbed me, but I could always ask mum questions.

I know not everyone can be that lucky, but I still would never advocate removing pages of a book before giving it to teenagers. Teens today are aware of a lot more than some adults might give them credit for! :)

Jean Wogaman said...

I never censored my daughter's reading material, but I restricted some movies until she was about 14. Movies are more likely to trap the viewer in scenes with uncomfortable imagery than books, which are easily set aside if they overwhelm.

As to tearing pages out of books, what a great way to draw extra attention to that section of the story. I suspect most kids will be eager to find out what was on those pages. Some students will have access to unripped copies of the book. No doubt, these kids will experience an increase in popularity as their classmates clamor to see the forbidden document. Those few pages will be the ones they remember most in years to come.

Anonymous said...

I think in the circumstance of the school, the best choice is to send home notification that someone has objected to a part of the book and offer an alternative assignment.

As a parent, I think it is far better to read the book yourself and discuss the parts you think are inappropriate. Rarely are parents doing this to protect their children from something they think they can't handle, I think. Usually, it's something they don't want them to have to deal with, whether or not they are capable of it. That, in my opinion, is not okay. I think, though, that the option should always exist for a parent/student to opt OUT of something - but not to force others to go with their choice.

saramoohead said...

For me, the solution is in the idea that books can be a platform for discussion -- with concerned parents at home or in classrooms/school cafeterias etc.

If a parent thinks a scene is "trashy", they can sit down with their child and explain why -- teaching and interacting with thier child in a healthy and beneficial way.

But banning, ripping out, censoring, and/or shouting about how horrific it is only serves to confuse, embarass, stifle and isolate young readers -- from thier parents or from their classmates.

Books should get people talking and debating!

Anonymous said...

As a parent I'm willing to bet the incident involving Sherman Alexie's book had little to do with the text. This kind of overly zealous response from a parent tends to have history behind it.

Suppose, for example, the son has been bullied for years about something in regard to his sexuality. Suppose the school has been unwilling or unable to stop the bullying. Suppose the teacher assigning the book has favored the very children who are bullying the son. Suppose the parent has already tried the school counselor, requested a different teacher, tutored the child extensively because of academic loss due to bullying. Suppose the parents of the bullies are the employer of the censoring parent. Or maybe they are the children who bullied him when he was a boy. Now after all that history a teacher assigns an extraordinarily good book, but one that touches on this very tender history. That is how you get a situation where a parent bypasses both the teacher and the principal and goes directly to the school board for relief not from the book at hand but the issue that has tormented his family for years.

I disagree with censoring what other people's children read. I think Sherman's book is great, but I can imagine a circumstance in which a parent might be driven to such an extreme response.

This is why schools need a clearly defined procedure to challenge books. If there is a system which guarantees that all involved parties read the entire text and sit down in a well-regulated meeting to discuss the issues, extreme examples of censorship tend not to happen. Sometimes a librarian makes a mistake and shelves an adult book in the children's section. Sometimes a teacher is out of touch with the community and recommends a culturally offensive book. Parents need a way to make their concerns heard. It is the feeling that others are trying to manipulate your child and usurp your rights as a parent that lead to extreme censorship.

T.S. said...

It's funny because when I think about this topic, I don't think of it as a 27 year old children's book editor, I think of it from the perspective of my teenage self, who read voraciously and wouldn't have let his parents tell him what to read (I was always a very headstrong kid and I didn't take orders unless they had a legit reason behidn them - book censorship would never have flown with me).

I read everything from Stephen King to AniMorphs when I was in high school and there were some books (especially on the adult side) that had some very mature themes/scenes/etc. But looking back, I'm glad I had those books to teach me about the real world, because I grew up with a very strongly opinionated, very overprotective mother and I was already socially awkward enough. I'm SO thankful that I had books to teach me about other peoples' definitions of normal so I could see that the way I was being shown wasn't necessarily the only way and that I could choose what was right for ME, not my parents.

I think that is what bugs me about parental censorship. You're deliberately blocking your child from knowledge. What is so bad about your TEEN son or daughter reading about another person's version of reality (and in the form of FICTION no less). Maybe you don't agree with it, but that's where communicating with your children comes into play. And the rest is trusting that you did a good enough job over the course of the 12-17 years you already spent raising them and that they can handle reading something that you and/or they don't agree with without instantly changing their minds and becoming a bad kid/heathen. Or worse...catching the gay disease! THAT'S THE WORST!

Anonymous said...

I don't believe in censorship. My mother censored me quite a bit and it was frustrating and ridiculous. My daughter was not.
I got grief from other parents. Kids know what they can handle and what they like and if we came across anything controversial, it opened up great discussions. I'm also very disappointed about Prop 8
although a lot of Californians were confused and misinformed about it, I think, was part of the downfall, hopefully rectified in courts. Sherman Alexie's Diary book was the topic of discussion in one of my listserves and I was shocked how many people were perturbed by it and took a big dislike to the whole thing. I loved it. We need to fight to hang on to Freedom of Choice in all things!!! topangamaria

Anonymous said...

Censorship is of course wrong, but parents do have the right to suggest what's appropriate & what's not for their children, and school districts have the same right (without damaging the book!). One of the reasons Scholastic Book Clubs does so well is because their books are so squeaky clean. Scholastic does sometimes ask certain "content" to be removed before they publish their version of certain books. What they do sounds totally wrong, but it seems to work.