Censoring Children’s Literature, Fall 2010

Helen Bannerman, Little Black SamboJ. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of AzkabanSometimes, a new course draws on my expertise. Other times, a new course is a chance for me to develop that expertise. This class — “Censoring Children’s Literature” — is definitely the latter. I have an interest in the subject, and I’ve tried to structure the syllabus around major issues concerning the regulation of what children and young adults read: texts that have been Bowdlerized so as not to offend current sensitivities, texts altered without the author’s consent, texts over which there’s a documented scuffle between author and publisher, and of course the many reasons that adults may deem a text unsuitable for children or adolescents (profanity, sex, homosexuality, racism, religion, and so on). But I’m definitely not an expert on the subject.

Justine Larbalestier, LiarRoald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964)The class is called “Censoring Children’s Literature” because that’s what fit on the university’s line schedule.  A more accurate title would be “What You Can and Can’t Say in Literature for Children and Young Adults.” In other words, rather than framing the class around “censorship” exclusively, I also recognize there are reasons to be concerned about what children read – they lack the experience of adults, their identities are in the process of being formed, and one may fairly consider them more impressionable than older readers.  Certainly, one does not want to scar children emotionally, nor teach them to hate.  On the flip side, part of growing up is learning to cope with a world that can seem indifferent to your troubles: literature can help you explore these troubles imaginatively.

Dav Pilkey, The Adventures of Captain UnderpantsJudy Blume, ForeverAnd, then, there’s the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “Congress shall make no law […] abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”  In other words, it’s one thing to seek to prevent your own children from reading a work you consider inappropriate, and it’s another thing to decide – on behalf of an entire school district or public library – that no children should have access to the work.

Walter Dean Myers, Fallen AngelsI expect the class to disagree about what books are and are not appropriate for younger readers.  That disagreement is part of the point of having this conversation in the first place.  Discerning how “the average person, applying contemporary community standards” — to quote the landmark obscenity ruling Roth v. United States (1957) — might perceive a book is a tricky business.  But I am and have always been drawn to the difficult questions, the grey areas of a debate, the problems without clear solutions.  So.  Let the conversation begin!


  1. Maria Nikolajeva


    Philip, I have written a lot about children’s literature censorship in the former Soviet Union and how much of it was self-censorship. But also how children’s literature became a refuge from censorship and how it benefitted from this (see e.g. my article “The serendipity of censorship”. This is a fascinating subject, and I envy you that you can have a whole class on it.

  2. Reply

    Thanks, Maria! I will check out your article. As you may’ve noticed, one flaw of this particular syllabus is it’s very U.S.-centric. Some British texts on there, but a greater range of countries is something I need to improve upon, should I teach this class a 2nd time.

  3. Kay Weisman


    I would agree that self-censorship is a big part of this issue and something that is not often discussed. It happens every day in school districts across the US. Books are not being selected because there is fear that they might offend someone.

  4. Reply

    Good point, yes. And this might be an appropriate moment to send a big THANK YOU to Kay for sharing her very helpful censorship bibliography with me. So… THANKS, Kay!

  5. Kenneth Kidd


    Hey Phil — sounds like a great class! I did a piece on censorship and/as prizing in CL in Education which might be useful — if nothing else, for troubling the idea that anticensorship work is always or necessarily progressive

  6. Reply

    Kenneth: Excellent! I will check it out! It’s *exactly* what I’m addressing in the first part of the course, incidentally — that anticensorship is not necessarily progressive. Thank you!

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  8. Claudia Pearson


    Picture books are perhaps subjected to less censorship than other children’s genre, unless they include obvious nudity as in Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen or characterizations that have become”politically incorrect” over time. This may be a result of the perception that picture books are “simple.” Readers who would take offense at things said in words may not look for similarly “offensive” messages in picture books.

  9. Reply

    Thanks, Debbie! I appreciate the tip! Claudia: I’ve seen this reviewer’s videos before. I see them as less a serious engagement with the work at hand, and more a performance of a particular type of sarcasm.

  10. Reply

    Hi Philip, I’ve just discovered your intriguing blog tonight. I’m very interested in this course you are undertaking. I hope there’ll be more blog posts to come about it. I know that Enid Blyton isn’t all that popular in America, but there have been quite a number of recent moves to “update” her work that I think you might be interested in. I wrote a bit of a ranting blog post about it a few weeks ago as it had me all stirred up. I realise that she isn’t the greatest childrens writer ever- but I really enjoyed her books when I was growing up, and my 9 year old loved her stuff when he was at the right age too. It doesn’t need to be updated/ dumbed down or generally tinkered with.

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  12. Reply

    Hey, pal. You might recall that in my playground poetry chapter & article I touch on how the oral tradition of (an often profane and vulgar) playground poetry intersects with the issue of censorship. It may be of some use to you and your class.

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