In keeping with the theme of the 2014 PEN World Voices Festival, “On the Edge,” the May 4 participants on a children’s book panel discussed two of the edgiest subjects in children’s literature: sex and violence. Moderated by Viking editor Sharyn November, one fiction and three nonfiction writers explored the changing definition of “edgy” over the past 30 years, why sexual content is more provocative than violent content, and when self-censorship is a good idea. Panelists were British novelist Sarwat Chadda, Canadian writer Niki Walker, author and photographer Susan Kuklin, and writer Robie Harris. (Missing was Bosnian writer Lamija Begagic, who was hospitalized in Sarajevo with a broken knee.)
November began by comparing the 2013 and 2003 ALA lists of most challenged books, noting that Robie Harris’s 1994 book It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex and Sexual Health was on the 2003 list. She asked if others have had their books challenged. Kuklin, author of books such as What Do I Do Now? Talking About Teenage Pregnancy and After a Suicide: Young People Speak Up, replied that she was somewhat surprised that hers hadn’t been, but she believes it’s because her books are usually first-person narratives, so to challenge the book is to challenge a person’s experiences.
Chadda said that his books have been challenged for religious reasons. “One of my books was called anti-Christian by some groups and anti-Semitic by others. I think that those who challenge for religious reasons do so out of a feeling of protectiveness.”
Panelists agreed that “we all say ‘that’s crazy’ ” when we hear about censorship, but Harris pointed out that she respects the beliefs of parents who challenge her books. “In a democracy, people who want a book should have access to it,” she said. “But others who don’t want to buy my books for their kids – that’s their personal right. There’s a difference between saying ‘I don’t want my child to read this,’ and saying ‘I don’t want any child to read this.’ I have had librarians tell me they would never have my books in their home, but that it’s their job to have them in the library. Those librarians are heroes, in my view.”
Sex vs. Violence
November asked why there seems to be a higher tolerance for violence than for sex in children’s books. Kuklin noted that her book, No Choirboy, about teens in prison, had plenty of violence in it, but she never received any complaints about it. She wonders what the reaction will be to her new book, Beyond Magenta, about transgender teens.
Chadda said his fiction is full of violence and deals with the painful consequences of violence. “I find it appalling that there are no consequences in many violent movies and books: entire cities are demolished, but no people suffer.” Walker noted, “As a society, we are becoming desensitized to carnage.” In her book, Why Do We Fight?, she left out the “grisly details,” choosing, rather to examine the roots of conflicts. “Every conflict seems different, but at the root, they are often the same. I wanted to give kids the tools to take apart a conflict and see just what is at the root.” She admits that writing the book changed her. “I went into it much more cynical than I came out.” When asked how she writes about the enemy, she responded, “I am careful to point out that the enemy is somebody whose story you haven’t heard yet.”
Panelists agreed that the concern about children reading inappropriate material for their age can be unjustified because young readers self-censor. “Kids who can’t handle something in a book shut down,” said Harris. “They don’t read the book.” November added, “Often you read so you don’t have to experience. Parents need to trust their own child-raising skills and their own children more.” And Chadda noted that sometimes “if you don’t understand something, it blows right over your head.”
November asked the panelists if they ever self-censored themselves. Kuklin discussed her 1989 book Fighting Back: What Some People Are Doing About AIDS, which featured a gay couple and contained a number of expletives. Her editor asked her to remove some, fearing that potential readers would be put off by the language. Kuklin worried that removing them wouldn’t be true to the story, but when she talked to the subjects of the book, they encouraged her to take out the words so their story could be read by the greatest number of readers. Chadda agreed that it can be beneficial to remove potentially objectionable material if it distracts from the story you’re telling.
A Changing Landscape
Asked how the landscape of edgy nonfiction has changed since the 1980s, Kuklin noted that “the ‘f-word’ is now acceptable!” Harris discussed the greater acceptance of LGBT material, but noted that writing about abortion is still very difficult. She also recalled challenges to the image of a mother breastfeeding her newborn in her 1996 picture book Happy Birth Day, illustrated by Michael Emberley.
November referred to Norma Klein’s YA novels, some of which, she said, would likely not be published today, such as her 1978 Love Is One of the Choices, about a high school girl who moves in with her chemistry teacher. There were no objections to that aspect of the book then; it would be a vastly different story today, November said. “If it were published today, the focus of the story would be about how this is not okay.”
November wondered whether there are any books or subjects that do go over the edge, and Kuklin had a quick and firm response: “No. It’s about how the subject is handled and what age group the book is written for.”
The audience included two-time Caldecott Honor artist Vera B. Williams, who brought up the taboo subject of masturbation in picture books and fiction for young readers. “Nobody writes about a young child in bed discovering the pleasure of his or her own body. If somebody did publish such a book, kids would be delighted! But also embarrassed because they’ve been taught to be embarrassed about this.”
At the panel’s end, Harris expressed her believe that the theme “On the Edge” is misleading when it comes to children’s books. “For kids, these subjects are not ‘on the edge’; it’s the world they’re living in. And the hope is that because our kids are being exposed to so much today, they’re growing more open and accepting of our differences. That’s our hope.”