The (Very) Dark Side of Censorship

People, we need to discuss censorship and who has the right to decide what’s appropriate (or not) for our children. More precisely, we need to understand why certain literary topics are censored and whether or not they should be.

The rule should be a simple one: is this book advocating violence, disrespect, or hatred; is it promoting hurtful and injurious behavior? Then it probably shouldn’t be on a child’s book shelf. But note, the key words are advocating and promoting. That is quite different than discussing.

We cannot run from the dark things that surround us. We cannot avoid the challenges that fall upon us. We cannot wish away the difficulties that children face simply by closing a book. Unfortunately.

What we can do, is empower children, and the best way to do so is by educating them.

Education is about exposing children, as broadly as possible, to any resources that will help them better understand the world and their place in it. However, as Pernille Ripp says in this great post:

When we censor the books we allow into our reading communities we are telling some of our students that the story they live every day is not suitable for the rest of the class.  That the life they lead is not meant to be discussed by us.  That the experiences they have had is so different/hard/awful/mature that we will not allow a fictional character to experience it along with them, to allow them to feel less alone, less scared, and less broken.

Censorship of this kind is nothing short of disempowerment. On this topic, I think Kate Messner says it best:

We don’t serve only our own children. We don’t serve the children of 1950. We don’t serve the children of some imaginary land where they are protected from the headlines. We serve real children in the real world. A world where nine-year-olds are learning how to administer Naloxone in the hopes that they’ll be able to save a family member from dying of an overdose. And whether you teach in a poor inner city school or a wealthy suburb, that world includes families that are shattered by opioid addiction right now. Not talking about it doesn’t make it go away. It just makes those kids feel more alone.

When we choose books for school and classroom libraries, we need to remember who we serve. We serve the kids. All of them. Even the kids whose lives are not what we might want childhood to look like. Especially those kids.

When we quietly censor books that deal with tough issues like heroin addiction or books like Alex Gino’s GEORGE, which is a wonderful story about a transgender fourth grader, we are hurting kids. Because no matter where we teach, we have students who are living these stories. When we say, “This book is inappropriate,” we’re telling those children, “Your situation…your family…your life is inappropriate.”  This is harmful. It directly hurts children. And that’s not what we do.

We all wish our kids could live in a safer, less scary world. That’s not the issue. The point is that they don’t live in that world, and it is our job as parents, educators, mentors to help them understand and thrive in the world they do inhabit.

And the truth is, the darkest and ugliest things tend to thrive where there is silence and ignorance.

Karla Valenti writes books about and for children. She also offers professional manuscript critique and editing services. You can find her on Facebook and on Twitter.


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