Where the Wild Books are

Did you know that some of your (and your children’s) favourite books may have been considered “unsuitable”and subsequently banned? Diana Noonan explains.

Yikes! I think I may have been severely remiss in the child-rearing stakes. How do I know? Because I’ve just read a list of the 25 most banned children’s books of all time, and guess what? My son read almost half of them before he was 14!

How was I supposed to know the Harry Potter books were in the “no-go” zone? I thought they were just a great read for kids but, no; apparently, JK Rowling’s books once caused such a stir they were publicly burned by members of an objecting church on the basis that they depicted the occult and encouraged kids to take up wizardry. What I can’t figure out is how, after reading all eight books in the series, my son is one of the few under-30s to attend his local Anglican cathedral on a fairly regular basis.

Not that I can afford to relax, because if the Harry Potters didn’t “do” for my son, then Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are surely must have. Billed as “too dark and frightening” for children, and consequently banned in some circles, it probably turned him into an anxiety-ridden adult who sees danger around every corner. Which doesn’t quite explain why did he still loved the story so much at age 25 that he bought a T-shirt with his favourite “wild thing” emblazoned on the front and has been wearing it ever since.

As for letting him read Enid Blyton – don’t even go there! The BBC banned her work from their airwaves for 20 years because they considered them to lack literary merit. And then Noddy came in for a hammering. It’s no urban myth that Noddy was branded a closet homosexual with a live-in lover (Big Ears) at a time when such an arrangement was deemed “unsuitable”. But rather than being forced off the shelves, the series was given a dramatic makeover. Along with the removal of a few golliwogs from the text, Big Ears became Whitebeard, and the hitherto meek Tessie Bear received a few lessons in feminism.

If such paranoia has you giggling, I regret to inform you that banning is still very much part of the children’s literary scene today. As writer of early literacy material (the sort of little books your five- to seven-year-old brings home to read aloud for homework), I have, over the years, received some seriously odd requests from publishers desperate to “get things politically correct”. One memorable conversation I recall involved my being asked to remove from a manuscript
a description of children playing  hide-and-seek in a park. The reason: While hidden, the children were unable to be adequately supervised by the parent accompanying them!

Witches, witchcraft, and the supernatural are completely unacceptable in some circles, and this  once became a major difficulty for a teacher acquaintance working in the US. Asked to lead a class project on traditional stories from various ethnic groups around the world, she was unable to find a folk tale that didn’t contain a fairy (or similar) or a spell. When reading such stories to the class, she lost count of the number of times she had to replace the word “magical” with “special”.

But one of the saddest censorship cases I was ever involved in was when I was a volunteer at what was then my local public library. Our community included a substantially large group of lesbian parents, and several of the children from these families (at that time considered by many to be on the “fringes” of society) regularly visited the library to borrow books. Aiming to be as inclusive as possible, the librarian in charge decided to source young adult literature that depicted characters with same-gender parents, something we volunteers supported wholeheartedly.

Such books were difficult to find in the early 1980s, but when one or two were finally located and installed on the shelves, there was an uproar from various folk who objected. Shortly after, the books disappeared from the shelves (presumably they had been stolen) and were never seen again.

As parents, it is up to us to help our children decide what is best for them when it comes to reading. But I do believe that if we are sufficiently connected with our children (both when they are young and as they move through adolescence and into young adulthood) to discuss the important, and often intimate, things of life, we can assist them to read widely and with discernment.

Until they are fully equipped to make their own decisions where any media is concerned, we need to walk with them on this fascinating journey, rather than banning and censoring what might be right for another who is at a different stage in their experience of life.

Catlins author Diana Noonan is one of New Zealand’s best-known writers for children. A former editor of the iconic School Journal, she writes for a wide range of educational resources, and takes a strong interest in the New Zealand Curriculum.

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