Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Censoring a Children’s Book - John Dougherty

Censorship is a tricky area, isn’t it?

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
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


Stroppy Author said...

An interesting question, John. I think for me it would depend on the context in which I was reading. If it was a bedtime story, where the emphasis was on peaceful enjoyment and close engagement, I'd skip it. If it was the middle of the day (and the child was old enough to engage with the debate) I'd read the sentence and pause, giving them the chance to say something. If they didn't, I'd say something like 'that's a funny thing to say' and comment on passing time, prejudice changing attitudes.

Stroppy Author said...

prejudice *and* changing attitudes.

Joan Lennon said...

They're different activities/ways of engaging. Maybe better suited for happening at different times? Though your kids are unlikely to need convincing, having grown up with you!

Catherine Butler said...

It is indeed a tricky one. Of course, sometimes the publishers have been there before you, which can be problematic in another way. I remember reading the first page of Five Fall into Adventure (1950 - but in a 1980s edition) to my daughter: George's "arms and legs were as brown as a traveller's." Presumably trying to sidestep "gypsy", but toppling into nonsense. You have to be quick on your feet as a bedtime reader!

Penny Dolan said...

I think that if your aim was to read and enjoy the book with your children as you describe, you did just the right thing to follow that instinct.

There'll be other times for other - and maybe longer - talks with them, and you can always refer back to that moment in WD if you want to.

John Dougherty said...

I really appreciate all the comments so far! Yes, I usually read to them at bedtime, and perhaps that was one of the reasons I censored.

zornhau said...

Yeah, I'v done this with older books, especially old Pulp where there can be a background radiation of mild racism not part of the story.

Andrew said...

Well, I'm not a writer. I do though come here occasionally to check out another world from my one.

I actually hate reading something that I know is bowdlerised. I think I would prefer to read it out as it's written. And for kids.., to insert quietly.. "Of course, they don't all fight.." or somesuch..

If they're 10 they seem old enough to learn about prejudgment, not be hidden from it.

John Dougherty said...

That's a fair point, Andrew; and I hope I do teach them about prejudice in other ways. Is there a real difference, do you think, between removing a phrase from the text and adding one that's not in there?

okida said...
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Emma Barnes said...

Fascinating, and I agree it depends on context - if you are reading aloud to kids there are all sorts of things you might omit for all kinds of reasons.

But - to stir a bit - times have changed in all kinds of ways, and Adams may not even have intended any kind of negative connotation? The phrase might imply - have a strong sense of honour and therefore don't back down, even when things get rough - a different code, but not necessarily meant to be derogatory?

Nick Green said...

I'm with Emma here - I always interpreted that remark as a compliment, referring to courage and honour, not a tendency towards violence per se.

D.H. Wallace said...

"What would you have done?"

I'm a Scot and as you know we're all work-shy drunkards, so if I were you, I would have swapped 'Irishman' for 'Welshman' or 'Englishman' and would have momentarily struggled to keep reading because I was trying to suppress a cheap and unwarranted laugh at the expense of fellow UK nationals.

Oh okay, before I get pilloried by the PC brigade: seriously, I think that it’s wholly appropriate to 'update' (not censor) children’s books to avoid future generations from adopting outdated offensive language and attitudes. Personally, I didn't get hung up on this sort of thing at bed time, because I saw myself as a translator of the books I was reading for my children not a censor. For example, I used to replace the all too American 'tub' with the more English 'bath' when reading 'The cat in the hat comes back' (Dr Seuss) to ease my children's understanding.

Reading aloud to children is a performance, and in the intimate privacy of your own home you don't need to fret too much about the bigger implications of censoring literature on a grand scale, because that's not what's happening. After all, the word 'Irishman' is still in your copy of the book, so the censorship is purely local to your children and that specific performance. That's a personal choice. That's your interpretation of the book, and that's perfectly reasonable.

For me that's completely different from suppressing, blocking, or censoring national access to (or awareness of) a book that doesn't fit with the censor's subjective values; that's an attack on freedom of speech.