Thursday, 30 September 2021

BURN, BANISH OR BOWDLERISE? by Patricia Cleveland-Peck

      We are currently seeing evidence that many old attitudes are being reviewed. In the wake of Black Lives Matter, statues are being taken down or defaced and even the wording of such traditional songs as Land of Hoper and Glory are being challenged. That we are made aware or past injustices is of course a positive thing but when it comes to books, especially children's books, we have to decide what it anything should be done.

     There are a number of options: you could burn the books, something Hitler suggested doing to Munro Leaf's  The Story of Ferdinand, the pacifist bull, illustrated by Robert Lawson; you could ban the books as the BBC did with some of Enid Blyton"s books in the  past; you could banish the books by removing them form public libraries as happens a great deal in the US, sometimes for hilariously inappropriate reasons,  you could excise or alter such material and republish a bowdlerised version of the book - or of course you could do nothing at all.


Sadly the burning of books is not a thing of the past, Isis and China still go in for it and surprisingly, Harry Potter books have been burned in the US and Poland. Another form if radical censorship is the pulping of a book before publication. This happened to the first edition of Elizabeth Rusch's biography of Mario Molina, the chemist who helped solve the ozone-layer crisis. All copies were destroyed when the illustrator, David Diaz was accused of sexual harassment. It appeared later with illustrations by Teresa Martinez and won a 2020 award for best non-fiction book for young readers .

     This brings to mind a controversy nearer home which arose when, in 2004, William Mayne was convicted and imprisoned having been found guilty of paedophilia and the grooming of little girls.

   I had enjoyed several of his books with my children and remember feeling so let down on their behalf that I completely lost the taste for reading any more of Mayne's books. On reflection though, should we judge a book by the activities of the writer?  Does the fact that some of W.B Yeats's activities bordered on the dotty make him any less great as a poet? And what of Lewis Carroll? Who would want to lose the Alice books?

     In fact of course, it is usually the content of the books which is censored rather than the author's proclivities. Amongst the books which have been removed from US libraries are some of the best loved children's classics, including Margaret Wise Brown's Goodnight Moon, Jean de Brunhoff's Babar stories and books by Maurice Sendak, Dr Seuss and Roald Dahl.

     The themes targeted include racism, homosexuality, lack of good family values, obesity, nudism, blasphemy, classism, colonialism and the promotion of such things as violence, witchcraft, smoking and alcohol. In the case of Where the Wild Things Are, sending Max to bed with no supper was deemed to constitute child abuse.


  Sometimes it is the text which offends, sometimes the illustrations. We see for example that Roald Dahl's Oompa-Loompas, originally depicted as black were changed to white in later editions. Covers too have show deceptive images of protagonists as white when the author has described them as black or brown. The excuse for so doing? The Market. Covers showing white characters sell better.

     So should we ban, cut, or alter historic texts to bring them in line with today's evolved attitudes? Many and varying opinions have been expressed. My favourite ( fictional) philosopher even goes as far to say that not even a living author has the right to call in a published text. This she claims is like being given a present, only for the donor to want it back.

    I don't go that far but I have come to the conclusion that altering an original version is counterproductive. In the case of colonialism for example, changing the colour of a character's skin or removing overtly racist comments won't fundamentally change the basic ideology of the book -although it may make the adults reading it feel more comfortable.

    I feel that as soon as the child is old enough, the best strategy is to explain that now we do not hold these views, in fact we find them offensive because they hurt people but that at the time the book was written attitudes were different. I know, I know it will probably  mean fielding off dozens of 'whys? and 'hows?'  but is possibly worth it.

    An example is found in one of my favourite classics The Secret Garden, when sour Mary who has recently arrived from India, stamps her foot when the maid Martha says to her, "I thought you were black too..." To which Mary replies furiously, "You thought I was a native!...You dared! You don't know anything about natives. They are not people they are servants.." 

    This episode illustrates not only racism but classism too. This is a book in which some people  know they 'speak common'. Yet it is true to the culture and time of the period - and devoid of what I call the Downton syndrome in which masters and servants are portrayed as 'pals' in order to make the story chime more easily with modern mores. The Secret Garden from a writing p.o.v also shows  us superb bit of characterisation, illustrating  how the horrid Mary at the outset matures into a pleasant girl at the end.

     Explaining class prejudice in our more egalitarian  days is easier than racial prejudice because although class prejudice has not disappeared I suspect it impinges less on children than it did. The handling of race however, still needs a radical rethink. We need many more books which deal with this matter in a clear and faithful ways.  The ratio of black and mixed race protagonists in children's books comes nowhere near representing the proportion of BAME children in society  and the ratio of BAME authors is equally slewed. Further if these children do appear in books they are often portrayed as victims, sometimes heroic victims, whereas real BAME children don't want to be depicted as exotic or niche, they want to read about ordinary people like them having adventures. Should these books  be written by black or  white authors? Well that's something for a different discussion. 

Patricia Cleveland-Peck


Nick Garlick said...

Fascinating post. I agree so much about NOT changing books to suit today's mores. Do that and you might as well stop teaching history altogether.

Lynne Benton said...

Entirely agree, Nick. Really thought-provoking post, Patricia - many thanks!