An impassioned conversation about the censorship of children’s literature in the U.S. took place at the main branch of the New York Public Library on February 1, during a panel called This Censorious World: Books for Children and Their Challenges. The speakers were authors Robie H. Harris and Elizabeth Levy; author and children’s book critic Leonard S. Marcus; Charlotte Jones Voiklis, children’s book advocate and granddaughter of Madeleine L’Engle; and Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship. New York Public Library youth materials specialist Elizabeth Bird moderated the discussion.

To kick things off, Bird requested that Marcus provide an overview of the roots of American censorship. He attributed the impetus behind censoring children’s books to three factors: first, a religious or moral perspective stemming from the Puritans’ belief that the bible is the only book of value. Second, Marcus referred to a conviction that became prominent after the Civil War, which held that children’s books should always serve a moral purpose. And third, he referenced the psychological tradition, which is focused on the underlying content of children’s literature. This tradition manifested in challenges to the work of writers like Maurice Sendak, whose books acknowledged the fact that “children have intense views.”

As discussion turned to contemporary children’s book challenges, Bertin said that themes deemed objectionable by censors have remained fairly consistent throughout recent years – namely sexual content, drugs, and violence. However, a new trend has to do with the age range of books that are targeted. Traditionally, Bertin said, “middle school was the hot-bed [of censorship] and there were very few challenges in upper grades.” Today, books aimed at high school-age readers are increasingly a focus for censors. For Bertin, this signifies a mode of thinking that is decidedly anti-literature: “If literature is not acceptable in high school,” she said, “it’s not acceptable anywhere.”

Some school boards have proposed adapting book ratings for the books in their school libraries. Calling the trend “very, very disturbing,” Bertin commented that this is in part “fueled by proliferation of private Web sites run by self-appointed critics of books.” Though pinpointing statistics regarding book challenges can be tricky, Bertin has seen a “tremendous spike in challenges reported to us” in recent years, which may be due to the viral nature of these blogs and book rating sites, such as Compass Book Ratings. And regardless of whether an individual’s challenge to a book results in its removal, if a book is known to be problematic, teachers and librarians will invariably be influenced by this knowledge: such a challenge, she said, has a “chilling effect.”

Harris, the author of the oft-challenged sexual health book It’s Perfectly Normal (1994), expressed empathy for the teachers and librarians who are at the frontlines of censorship debates. One of the most devastating effects of censorship, she said, is that it can lead authors – whether consciously or unconsciously – to self-censorship. Additionally, Harris feels that parents demanding the removal of a book sends a harmful and belligerent message to children: “If you don’t like something, destroy it.”

A ‘Wrinkle’ in the System

One of the most frequently challenged novels of the last 50 years is Madeleine L’Engle’s sci-fi fantasy book A Wrinkle in Time (1962). Censors have described Voiklis’s grandmother’s book in many ways, including “demonistic” and having “cult implications.” Among the passages most objected to is when, Mrs. Which tells Meg, Charles, and Calvin about historical figures who have fought against “the Black Thing.” They include: Jesus, Leonardo Da Vinci, Shakespeare, Gandhi, Euclid, Buddha, and others. Christian groups objected to the fact that Jesus was not set more distinctly apart from the others. In fact, Voiklis said, for a Dutch edition, L’Engle was asked if the content could be altered to reflect the supremacy of Jesus. The author said no.

Not only did L’Engle find censorship to be “extremely dangerous,” Voiklis said, but she also thought it highly “ineffective.” As common wisdom purports, “nothing is more interesting to kids than the forbidden,” Voiklis said. Yet L’Engle was also pensive – even compassionate – about the motivations behind censorship. She viewed it as “misplaced desire for safety, but she felt that we shouldn’t protect children from what they know already,” Voiklis explained.

Until her own books were challenged, Levy hadn’t realized that she was a “situational ethicist.” Her characters’ emotional and psychological states are not always easily defined and their actions, not always moral, which sometimes incites adult audiences. “I thought they were just being human,” she said of protagonists like Adam in The Computer That Said Steal Me (1983).

The panelists touched on what they feel to be a puzzling disconnect between the views of the majority in America and the relatively small minority of individuals who deem it appropriate to remove books from libraries. For those who are not biased against same-sex couples, it may be difficult to imagine someone objecting to the content in Peter Parnell’s and Justin Richardson’s picture book And Tango Makes Three (2005). It’s based on the true story of two male penguins at the Central Park Zoo who become a couple and raise a chick together. However, it is the most banned book in the U.S. “I can’t put it together,” Harris said, remarking that, from her perspective, the nation has made a pronounced shift toward acceptance of the LGBT community. “It doesn’t feel rational,” she said.

Marcus has observed well-meaning parents who ordinarily object to censorship be “deathly afraid of choosing the wrong book” for their own child. Even when intentions are good, this “micromanagement of childhood,” he said, results in limiting a child’s process of discovery.

Of course, Harris said, parents have the freedom to keep a book away from their own child. They do not, however, have the right to keep that book away from other people’s children. Bertin added that, regardless of parental sensitivities, “somewhere in here, kids have rights” too.

A question from an audience member brought home how ubiquitous censorship of children’s literature is today. A teacher from a Manhattan school sought advice about a recent challenge to It’s Perfectly Normal in the school library. The charge? The book has “too much information.” Harris said that the upcoming anniversary edition will have even more information, adding that “kids take in what they want to take in.” What she worries about, she said, “is kids not getting the information they need when the time comes that they need it.”

Bertin, meanwhile, told the concerned teacher: “Call me in the office on Monday.”