Generally speaking, it’s a Bad Thing. I fume as much as the next author when I read one of those articles about a US school board voting to remove To Kill A Mockingbird or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the library because of some imagined unsuitability. I thought the Daily Mail was a bit off with its recent suggestion that teen fiction dealing with issues like terminal illness or self-harm qualifies as “sick-lit” (and, no, I’m not going to provide a link; it’ll only encourage them to do it again).
And yet, occasionally, I’ve found myself censoring children’s books.
I don’t mean that I go through them with a marker pen deleting the ‘unsuitable bits’; and I certainly don’t mean that I remove books from my children’s book shelf, but… well, let me give you the most recent example.
I’m currently reading Watership Down with my kids (they’ve got older since the photo was taken, as have I). My daughter, now aged 10, wasn’t sure about it at first, but they both seem to be really enjoying it now. And so am I; I loved it when I was about their age, and I’m loving reading it again. But a few nights ago, I ran into a sentence that made me feel a little odd when I first read it, and makes me feel extremely odd now.
For those of you who know the book, when Hazel & his companions are in Cowslip’s warren, their hosts ask if one of them will tell a story. And the next sentence reads:
“There is a rabbit saying, ‘In the warren, more stories than passages’; and a rabbit can no more refuse to tell a story than an Irishman can refuse to fight.”
When I encountered this sentence as a child - well, I can’t remember exactly how I felt, but I know it made me pause. I’m Irish - Northern Irish, to be specific - and I’ve never felt particularly inclined to physical violence. Yet here it was, in a book - a terrific book, at that: just an aside, here’s something we all know about Irishmen. They’re violent. Why on earth should the author say that?
So it made me a bit uneasy then. It makes me more uneasy now, not least because in my first proper job - in England - I worked with a colleague who was convinced that Ireland, and especially Northern Ireland, was a horrible violent place. A lot of our clients were troubled young men, but my colleague took it as read that being Irish - or, in the case of one client, merely having an Irish father - would mean a particular predisposition towards violence. It was a dreadful belief to find in someone who was generally thoughtful and intelligent, and in the end it rather poisoned our working relationship.
So the sentence I’ve quoted above is, for me, problematic - as problematic as would be a sentence suggesting that Jewish people are prone to parsimony or black people to idleness. But I’d forgotten about it until… well, until I reached it.
If either child had been leaning on my shoulder, silently reading along with me, as they sometimes do, I’d have had no option. But it so happened that they were reclining at opposite ends of the sofa with their feet on my lap. Which gave me a choice, and a second in which to make it.
I went for the easy option. I censored. I read the second half of the sentence as “no rabbit can refuse to tell a story” and read on.
Did I do the right thing? I don’t know. Perhaps I passed up an opportunity to talk about prejudice. My children are sensible enough to question this sort of statement. Probably both of them would say, “that’s silly’; my son, now at secondary school and becoming more interested in societal issues, might say, “that’s racist, isn’t it?”
And to be honest, I still don’t know quite why I did it, or even for whose benefit it was - theirs, or mine.
What would you have done?
John's website is at www.visitingauthor.com.
He's on twitter as @JohnDougherty8
His most recent books include:
Finn MacCool and the Giant's Causeway - a retelling for the Oxford Reading Tree
Bansi O'Hara and the Edges of Hallowe'en
Zeus Sorts It Out - "A sizzling comedy... a blast for 7+" , and one of The Times' Children's Books of 2011, as chosen by Amanda Craig