Over the course of history and around the world, the bulk of censorship discussions are of prohibiting adults from learning about or expressing some point of view.
But here in the United States, that’s not the primary censorship battleground. The vast majority of censorship incidents concern children and teenagers and parents, leading one to wonder whether a distinction in how children and adults process information might not be valuable in this discussion. Should the rules of censorship for adults be applied universally to children and teenagers? Should the library ever make value judgments about what is appropriate for children?
In the public library, the response to a challenge is, “Well, you’re the parent. If you don’t like what they pick up, get something else.” On the surface, that seems reasonable and appropriate. After all, parents are responsible for their children’s behavior, and the library makes no claims to be a surrogate parent.
But on second thought, this response is unsatisfactory. For one thing, the parent objecting is not suggesting that he has no authority or responsibility for what his child reads.
Surely a parent bears responsibility to protect his children from a predator. But if a unrelated parent saw a predator approach a child at a park, wouldn’t we be taken aback if he callously said “Well, the mom should be more careful; it’s not my job”? There are a number of situations where a child could be in harm’s way through no fault of the parent, and when danger is concerned, it is irrelevant whether the parent is acting responsibly or not.
The problem appears to be that the ALA really doesn’t recognize any danger in objectionable materials. If they did, it would be morally reprehensible to dismiss a parent’s concern as they do, just as the callous stander-by in our example.
Rather than dismiss all challenges as irresponsible parenting, we ought instead to evaluate who is qualified to inform our understanding of dangerous materials, and whether there is any consensus to the danger or appropriateness of materials.
First, teachers and librarians have much to offer in understanding what books benefit and interest children. They regularly recommend and receive feedback on books. They talk with a great number of children, whereas most of us have experience with just a few. Parents would do well to consider their opinion, especially when they give specific reasons for recommending or not recommending a particular book.
Likewise, since all agree that parents are primarily responsible for their children, we should place a high degree of weight on parental opinion. In reality, though, librarians rely primarily on the ALA for recommendations, and consider parental objections as mere ignorance (after all, the books parents object to are often award winners).
We also should be aware that some awards are within the context of adult readers. For example, Of Mice and Men was not written for a twelve year old. Neither was 1984. Nor was Moby Dick. Just because something is appropriate for adults does not make it appropriate for children. As librarians respond to concerned parents, it will be helpful for them to remember that “award winning” does not apply to all patrons, and neither does “award winning” trump the expressed concerns of people who often know children best.
Already the library recognizes a distinction between books that are “for children” and “for adults.” Is it unreasonable to suggest that sometimes the publishers and award givers have it wrong?
Now we should consider whether there is any evidence that some materials are harmful to children. Is the concern simply a result of a few narrow-minded, prudish individuals, or is there concern in society in general? This relates to the discussion earlier making a distinction between mildly objectionable content a few parents might have a problem with, and content to which a diverse majority of society objects. Let’s look at the evidence.
Psychologists and physicians have studied at length the influence that violent media can have on children. Children are developing schema of how the world works, and media violence influences their development.
For a person whose mind is developed, exposure to the same sorts of violence may not have the same effects. This is why we have movie ratings, or video game ratings. As a society, we recognize that some things that are appropriate for adults are harmful for children. As an example, recall the September 11 attacks when media showed footage of people jumping out of buildings to certain death. Schools and other concerned individuals pointed out nearly universally that it would be inappropriate to expose young children to these images. But most agreed that these images were appropriate for adults (albeit with a brief warning).
The American Psychological Association (APA) created a task force to address the troubling sexualization of young girls. Their report identified concern with media (including literature) that children and teens absorb, and issued a stern warning of the dangers of such media.
We understand that teenagers are particularly prone to making poor choices that can affect them the rest of their lives. They are especially susceptible to binge drinking, gambling addiction, reckless driving, and unsafe sex. Ford motor company now makes a key that limits the speed the car can go, the volume on the audio, and beeps continuously if the driver does not wear a seatbelt. Why? Because teenagers are not the same as adults, and parents own the cars. We may disagree that more control is the best way to help teenagers develop responsibly, but there’s not really a serious question of the rights of parents, and we do recognize that there is a significant difference.
Historically, several proponents of intellectual freedom recognize a distinction between mature and immature readers. Consider Milton, who in Areopagitica said,
Bad meats will scarce breed good nourishment in the healthiest concoction; but herein the difference is of bad books, that they to a discreet and judicious Reader serve in many respects to discover, to confute, to forewarn, and to illustrate.”
Here Milton qualifies that “bad” books can sometimes benefit a “discreet and judicious Reader.” Later, he makes a good case for this position biblically. Is “discreet and judicious” characteristic of most preschoolers? Obviously, the older the child, the more potential for discretion, but it’s helpful to note that even Milton recognizes that not everyone responds well to bad literature.
“yet God committs the managing so great a trust, without particular Law or prescription, wholly to the demeanour of every grown man….The rest, as children and childish men, who have not the art to qualifie and prepare these working mineralls, well may be exhorted to forbear, but hinder’d forcibly they cannot be by all the licencing that Sainted Inquisition could ever yet contrive; which is what I promis’d to deliver next, That this order of licencing conduces nothing to the end for which it was fram’d;”
Milton here is arguing that forbidding books is ineffective for those who will be harmed by bad books. Significantly, he in no way denies that children and childish men (adults without discernment) can be harmed. He’s simply saying that the method of protection (forbidding publication) was insufficient (I would argue that while I agree with him, I do not agree that this renders all censorship or attempts at protection ineffective or unimportant).
Likewise, in the realm of literature, what is good for children and teenagers is not always what they want. In A History of the Newbery and Caldecott Medals, Irene Smith discusses less popular award winners. She acknowledges that “an introduction by the librarian is frequently necessary to enlarge their circle [of interested and appreciative readers]” (pp. 85-86). A page later she addresses the concern expressed that many award winners are not popular with children. Her words are significant in this discussion and worth quoting in full.
On the question of the Medal books’ popularity with children, Louise Seaman Bechtel once wrote to Frederic Melcher, “I am beginning to feel that that, as an immediate qualification, is not so necessary. The Medals shold hold up standards on writing and art– and if they are above a current average, so much the better!”
The danger of awards which are not “above a current average” should cause at least equal concern. The whole tendency today being to popularize and standardize, perhaps children’s book standards must inevitably feel the same creeping influence. But so far as the Newbery and Caldecott Medals are concered, those standards are in the sole hands of children’s librarians, the one group involved with children’s books who can afford to rebuff the advances of mediocrity. Children’s librarians are duly anxious for the honored books to be liked by children. This is healthy within reason, but standards are at stake which mean life or death to the Medals. The ideal they represent is a lofty one which smothers close to the ground, and breathes its proper air head and shoulders above the crowd. (pp.91-92)
Again, what children want is not always what is healthy, and should not always be catered to.
Acknowledging that librarians have the right to choose books that will rise above mediocrity, and acknowledging that librarians have the responsibility to assist parents in protecting their children from harm, what solutions should we consider?
- Perhaps a controversial book with redeeming value should be removed from the picture book section and placed in a section for older children and young adults. Perhaps a book should be removed from the young adult section and placed in the adult stacks. This solution should be welcome for a good many controversial books. In this solution, no child is forbidden from viewing the controversial book, but it is placed in a more appropriate location based on its content.
- It may be appropriate to require parental consent before checking out certain books. Again, this is one way to acknowledge that parents do have the right to control what their children read.
- Some books should not be purchased, in accordance with principles discussed earlier.
I had hoped to include in this discussion school libraries, but the pile of clean clothes on my bedroom floor is calling my name. If the topic is getting boring, I can table it for a different context. I don’t have to monologue.