Saturday, September 29, 2012

In Honor of Banned Book Week: Take Two

 I recently watched a documentary called Cleanflix (2009) that tells the story of companies in Utah that attempted to clean up “R” rated movies for Christian audiences, particularly the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. The film focuses primarily on the video stores that sold the cleaned-up versions of the movies until most of the production companies lost a lawsuit with the Directors Guild over artistic license in 2007. While the documentary is only moderately successful, it brought to my mind several times in my experience as a librarian when there were attempts to clean up objectionable “stuff” in children’s books.
 I particularly remember the flap over In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak which has a drawing of a naked little boy. Published in 1972, the book engendered intense discussions in my graduate classes in library school. Some librarians chose to draw diapers on the little boy; some chose to remove the book from their library. As I was watching the CleanFlicks documentary, I was reminded of those teachers who chose to draw the diapers. Because of Maurice Sendak’s reputation, they didn’t feel confident about not having the book in the library, but they still didn’t want to have that naked little boy on their shelves. I had the book on my library shelf my entire career and never once entertained any objection.

Another time, a teacher came to me after he had started reading Tom Sawyer to his class. “What should I do?” he asked. He had never read it before and didn’t know that one of the characters was named “Nigger Joe”. Should he change the name of the character? I suggested that a simple explanation to the students that calling someone Nigger Joe was how slaves or freed slaves were addressed 100 years ago. It would be a good history lesson. A publishing house has recently decided to sanitize Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn by removing all the references to “nigger” and “injun” from the books—Mark Twain for the politically correct century, I guess.

 And then, recently I was involved with a group of librarians, scholars, and booksellers who were creating a list of the best books for children. One of the decisions we had to face was to decide whether we would include the “Little House” books on our final list because Pa Ingalls calls the Native Americans “injuns”. Believe me, there was a lot of intense debate over that! Practically every member of the committee had loved the “Little House” books and couldn’t image any list of “best” books without them. Would we remove “injun” from future editions of the book? Would we put a disclaimer on the book list? In the end, we decided to leave the books as is, thank God.

 Children are so smart. If they are told why African Americans were called “niggers” or Native Americans were called “injuns” in these well-loved books, they are most likely to go “Oh, OK” and settle down to listen to, or read, great literature. They don’t need diapers on naked little boys, or black magic markers through offensive words. 

Philip Nel, a professor at the University of Kansas wrote an outstanding piece on his blog about censorship of children's books. He spoke extensively about the Oompa Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In early editions they were African Pygmies, but in later editions White. In early editions they came from Africa, in later editions they came from Oompa  Loompa Land. I had to chuckle about this because my toddler granddaughter's favorite song of late is Oompa Loompa from the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Movie. 

Nel closes his blog posting with these comments:  "As a negative state, innocence cannot be sustained indefinitely.  As they grow up, children will gain experience and knowledge.  Some of those experiences will hurt; some of that knowledge will make them sad.  If we exclude troubling works from the discussion, then children are more likely to face sadness and pain on their own.  It is, I think, better that we give them the tools with which to face prejudice-bearing literature.  In doing so, we can help them learn to cope with a world that can be neither just nor fair.  With this knowledge, perhaps we may also give them a source of power."

You might also be interested in the article I wrote for Banned Book Week last year. You can find it here.
 An interesting analysis of the Cleanflix documentary by a Mormon:

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