A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein; A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle; And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson, illustrated by Henry Cole; Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret by Judy Blume; Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson; Dragonwings by Laurence Yep; Draw Me a Star by Eric Carle; For Every Child a Better World by Jim Henson; Freaky Friday by Mary Rodgers; Halloween ABC by Eve Mirriam; Hop on Pop by Dr. Seuss; I Saw Esau by Iona Opie, illustrated by Maurice Sendak; In Our Mothers’ House by Patricia Polacco; It’s Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris; James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl; Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George; My Brother Sam is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier; Olive’s Ocean by Kevin Henkes; Pinkerton, Behave by Steven Kellogg; Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry by Mildred D. Taylor; Scary Stories by Alvin Schwartz; Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig; The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder; The Librarian of Basra by Jeanette Winter; The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis; There are Two Lives: Poems by Children from Japan, compiled by Richard Lewis; Where’s Waldo by Hanford Martin; 1984 by George Orwell; Beyond Magenta by Susan Kuklin; Brave New World by Aldous Huxley; Catch 22 by Joseph Heller; Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury; Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes; His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman; I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou; Lord of the Flies by William Golding; Native Son by Richard Wright; Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare; The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain The Call of the Wild by Jack London The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon; The Freedom Writers Diary by the Freedom Writers; The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck; The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald; The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky; To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Most of you probably do remember or are familiar with many of the titles on this list. What they have in common is that all of these books have either been banned or censored.
Years ago, I had a long-sleeved tee shirt with a list of many banned books on it, including some of these books. (Nobody could put all the books that have been banned on one tee-shirt. Just since 1982, the Banned Books website says 11,300 books have been banned, but the history of the banned book goes back to Puritanical America.) My tee-shirt, which I wore until the lettering was illegible, was printed in lines of red and white on a navy-blue shirt, referencing the flag of The Home of the Free. The list included the Bible and Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler, The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein and In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak. That shirt raised discussions among the teens I worked with at the time. Some were appalled that the Bible and the Koran had been banned. One thought Mein Kampf should be banned. I argued against all book banning and censorship, pointing out how important it is to understand history and what happened in the past, as well as to see how other people think. They were surprised that In the Night Kitchen had been widely censored, often by librarians, who felt compelled to put the naked Mickey in a diaper. “That’s stupid,” they said. “We all know what a naked baby looks like.”
In a fascinating new book about censorship of children’s books, which fortunately for this column’s purpose discusses backlist books, Leonard S. Marcus has given us a lot to think about. The information in You Can’t Say That is skillfully woven into interviews with thirteen authors whose books have been censored and/or banned. The authors represent a wide range of genres, styles, and approaches to writing. The interviews personalize the impact of censorship on the author, which is very different from reading a list of banned books.
Marcus makes it clear that the discussion and the free exchange of ideas through books is the basis of freedom and at the root of democracy in the United States. This book is not discussing the pros and cons of the books these authors have written, but rather how books both protect intellectual freedom and reflect it.
At the end of his interview with Susan Kuklin, a photographer and essayist who has taken on many difficult topics, Marcus takes on the current issue of cultural misappropriation when he asks her, “What do you think about the larger question of who has the right to tell what stories?”
Her response: “I write about various people and their cultures because I believe, I strongly believe, that we need to know one another. We need to read one another. . . Another writer who is part of a particular group will approach a subject differently. And that’s great. There’s plenty of room at the table."
Both question and answer are beautifully put. In this country there is plenty of room at the table. How else will we ever know the vast array of experience and thought on a given topic or idea. How will we ever know what different kinds of people think about the same idea? Isn’t that important in order for us to move forward as a polyglot nation?
Unlike books that have been published and meet with attempts to censor them, and are defended by fans of both free speech and the book itself, even books ready for release may currently face a cancellation before they ever greet the public if they are accused of "cultural misappropriation."
At one time publishers viewed publishing as a balanced merger of business and art, of creativity and commercialism—and once a decision was made to publish, they stood behind the book, the author and their investment. One famous case of support for a book that didn’t sell well was Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd (1947). For close to six years, this famous book barely sold. In today’s world, it would have been withdrawn, and the copies literally pulped—denying millions (yes, millions) of small children access to one of the most comforting books available today. It didn’t sell because it was unique in both its art and that it didn’t tell a story, but was rather about childhood rituals. Although not exactly censorship, the current focus on marketing and quick profit frequently doesn’t tolerate a scenario where an unusual book can languish until its sales pick up or it finds its readership.
In a strange twist on a reason to remove a book from a school curriculum, Catcher in Rye by J.D. Salinger was once again a target. The book has been repeatedly censored over the years, usually in protest against sex and profanity found in its pages. But recently, a liberal school district in Maryland decided to try and remove it from their curriculum because it was about a “rich, white boy.” Interestingly, kids from every ethnicity lobbied to have it retained in the curriculum.
Because topic, buzz words, and marketing are driving publishing right now, many books get published that don’t do well for what seem obvious reasons to me. Teens tell me they are looking for the different and unexpected in what they read; that they are sick of endless series and teen romance. They want books to be diverse because their world is, but do not want every book to be about a diverse topic, any more than they want every book to throw in gratuitous violence or romance.
Over the years I have come on many books that have made me question why they were published for a variety of reasons, including writing quality and/or topic. Of course, that is only my opinion, so I ask kids, parents, and teachers what they think of these titles. Almost no one has heard of any of these books, which I think proves that books rise and fall on their merits, not on marketing-think/speak, or on topics, current trends or buzz words. Perhaps that is why, a few years ago there was a surge in teen interest in Pride and Prejudice. Kids are not looking at labels or timely topics when they pick a book. They are looking for a good, well written read and searching for a universal truth in its pages.
And surely, we want them to be intrigued by what they read. Books offer children a chance to develop abstract reasoning, to learn about the myriad points of view in our world, and encourage imagination. They offer a jumping off place to initiate conversations about sometimes controversial topics. Refocusing on taking chances and, once again, balancing the art and business of publishing a book is a paradigm that publishers who want to survive should seriously think about. In fact, perhaps they should read, You Can’t Say That, because like it or not, publishers hold in their hands one of the keys to keeping democracy alive.