A panel on Tuesday morning at the Bologna Book Fair, moderated by Barbara Marcus, president and publisher of Random House Children’s Books, addressed the growing trend of book censorship around the world. Giorgia Grilli, professor of children’s literature and cofounder of the Center for Research in Children’s Literature in the Department of Education at the University of Bologna, began by pointing out that in the U.S. it is estimated that there are more than 1,000 titles banned in schools. “In Italy, we have a deeper problem: we don’t have books in schools,” Grilli said, sardonically.
Grilli noted that banning books in democratic societies may backfire. “Talking about the book [being banned] makes it more widespread; it gives it more power,” she said, reminding everyone that the best way to get someone to read a book may very well be to ban it. Her deeper concern is about self-censorship, “when artists are not willing to write about something that is ideologically charged. When artists adapt to the dominant view, this is the world that worries me,” she said, adding that she longs for more representations of children in picture books as mysterious and melancholy creatures with a wide range of emotions, and not just as open-mouthed, starry-eyed and smiling. “In which world had they grown? I want books with unconventional representations of children,” Grilli said.
Grilli went on to describe how Thames & Hudson in the U.K. asked author-illustrator Beatrice Alemagna to redraw a picture from The Wonderful Fluffy Little Squishy to remove the depiction of a bloody knife from an illustration featuring a butcher threatening a little girl, the protagonist. The knife was replaced with a pointed finger. “Why?,” asked Grilli. “Children are obsessed with blood.”
Author David Levithan drew a comparison between Vladimir Putin’s book banning in Russia with Ron DeSantis’s bans in Florida, both of which target books with LGBTQIA+ content. “What the far right is doing in our country, conservatives in your countries are taking notes from,” he said. “It’s systematic, and a book censorship playbook is at work.” The harm won’t be to publishers or libraries, but to the children themselves, he said. “The books don’t matter in this. The children do. It’s an effort by the far right to push the kids back into the closet. The far right don’t care if they kill themselves there,” he said.
Levithan referenced a survey from PEN America and the American Library Association, which found that 2,500 books have been banned since August 2022, written by a total of 1,800 authors. Levithan pointed out that the recent discussion around revising Roald Dahl’s books was merely a distraction from the larger, more urgent issue at hand. “Many authors have asked me: ‘Do you think this means I won’t be published anymore?’ ” he said, adding that he came to Bologna to ring the alarm. “This is a crucial moment. We need to keep publishing these books! The whole [publishing] chain needs to be there. Even a wobble in one part might cause a chilling effect.”
An audience member asked panelists, which included Jon Anderson, president and publisher of Simon & Schuster’s children’s division, “Where do publishers step in? What have you seen done [by publishers] so far?”
“We were really caught off-guard,” Anderson said. “It’s a fight. A major fight,” but “the forces of good are becoming fully mobilized.”