Books – to censor or not to censor?

I love to read. I am an avid reader. I’ve been a reader since the age of 3 and a half when, as my mother tells it, she grew tired of constantly reading to me and taught me how to do it for myself. I read very widely – and completely inappropriately.

I recall at a very young age, reading a Reader’s Digest Condensed book called ‘Where are the Children’. I vividly remember the plot, because it revolved around two murdered children and two more kidnapped children, and I was so terrified that I spent the following few nights huddled under my covers with a torch, reading the Bible. I was sure that even if a mass murderer was around, the Bible would keep me safe (I am a minister’s daughter after all!). Needless to say there were no mass murderers, eventually I started sleeping again, and I am not scarred for life. I do remember the basic plot of the story very clearly though (I’ve just googled it and Mary Higgins Clark is the author and I have all the key plot points firmly locked in my head!), and there are some scenes that have stayed with me to this day. I should note at this juncture that I had read the Bible cover to cover a couple of times, and was completely in favour of the somewhat more gory Old Testament!

Then there were the Anya Seton novels. The one I remember most clearly is The Winthrop Woman, with its vivid depictions of scalpings and lots of children, many of whom died. I also loved Seton’s Katherine, and this was far less gruesome! Jean Plaidy was another favourite and I think by age 9, Georgette Heyer had completely captured my imagination. I have been a most intolerant Regency romance ever since, because she set the bar so high for me.

There were the Wilbur Smiths, and other books of my Dad’s. Pretty harmless stuff for the most part, although a few were a bit racy (well, racy for a 10 year old!).  I didn’t tend to filter or censor, I just read anything I could get my hands on. When I was that young, living miles out in the country, there wasn’t a lot of readily available young adult fiction. I do recall my Standard 1 teacher giving me Famous Five books, which were certainly age appropriate and thoroughly enjoyed. I’d read my way through the classics – the Brontes, L M Montgomery, Mark Twain, Johanna Spyri, Louisa M Alcott, Tolkien, C S Lewis, Robert Louis Stevenson and others such as Susan Coolidge and Arthur Ransome by the time I was 9 or 10.

We moved into Gisborne City when I was 10, and there was the bliss of the public library. It wasn’t uncommon for me to take out 10 books and bring them back a few days later. By the time I was 13,  the Childrens’ Librarian was showing me the catalogues of young adult fiction, and together we added Anne McCaffrey, Susan Cooper and a host of others to the Young Adults section.

At the same time, I was taking out biographies, category romance novels (these are your fairly standard Mills & Boon novels), murder, mystery and thrillers. Looking back, not many of the books I was reading, whilst they were adult, had significant adult content. I do recall reading sex scenes, but they were fairly tame. I do recall reading murders (Agatha Christie anyone?) but again, nothing too graphic. I was introduced to Jane Austen about this time too, and continued to read widely.

I have read all through my adult life, and loved my couple of years in England where the books were cheap and there were stores like Forbidden Planet. And an excellent public library down at Clapham Junction stopped me from buying too many books to ship home.

Then I had children, and lo and behold, they were excellent readers. And we had the same issues my parents had – finding suitable content which was still challenging for a young child. I was mindful of my own experiences, and so tried to steer them away or towards certain books. The children never got into Swallows and Amazons, but the girls loved Anne of Green Gables and Little Women. Actually, the boys secretly did too and enjoyed it when I read to them. The joy of passing books I love on to the children, and having them love them as much is indescribable.

We chose not to stop the children from reading anything, but we tried to make sure one of us read it first. The limits for me are when books were just outright nasty – child violence or sex, paedophiles, children being murdered, very graphic sex or violence scenes. Then our oldest girl started reading Jodi Picoult. Picoult’s stories are excellent and the ones that I have read raise very good ethical and moral dilemma questions, but I wasn’t sure that at 13, Genna really was ready for the depth of these. Until she started reading the one about the teenage murder-suicide pact. That was a grim one, but Genna was able to discuss it in some detail, talk about her feelings on the plot and what she would have done in their place. We had some amazing talks because of that book.

It does seem to me that many of the new books published are more graphic in their portrayals of sex and violence, and whilst I think it is very important for children to know about these things, do they need to read graphic descriptions of them? On the other hand, you have wonderful books like ‘The Help’ which my 13-year old and I both loved recently. So the end result of all my musings is that the children will self-censor. If they’re not comfortable with what they’re reading, or it goes above their heads, then they will stop. If they have questions, they will ask. I will give guidance if they come across an author or a story which one of us feels is too graphic, but the choice is normally up to the kids.

And the plus side? They are recommending books to me! The Hunger Games trilogy was a complete favourite, and in return, I recommended Ender’s Game. Some things I’ve held back on a little. My now 13-year old has just embarked on Wuthering Heights. My own experience tells me that 9 was too young for it. At 11, she read and loved Pride and Prejudice, just as I did. My 13-year old stepson has been working his way through his Dad’s collection of Raymond Feist and Janny Wurtz, and has read Lord of the Rings more than once.  On the other hand, my 11-year old son, whilst an excellent reader, isn’t really interested in books. He’s just abandoned Zac Powers (very simple spy type stories) for the Percy Jackson books, which the older children have been trying to persuade him to read for years. He’s setting his own reading level and enjoyment.

Are my older children more sophisticated than they should be? Possibly, when it comes to books and movies, but none of them is showing any signs of distress, angst or terror.  So that’s where I’ve come to. Trying to find books which they will enjoy, recommending excellent writers and stories I’ve enjoyed. Taking the time to discuss the stories they’re reading, applying it to our lives, reading their books.

What books have you shared with your children that you loved? And are there any that you would hesitate to give them?

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Categories: Uncategorized | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Books – to censor or not to censor?

  1. Peter Lane

    Wow – your reading background/process is scary similar to mine!

    The Home Hill High School librarian even gave me my own budget allocation for new acquisitions.

    I think you are right that kids generally will self-censor; but it is predicated on the kids having a solid, grounded and supported upbringing and personality. I don’t think self-censoring will necessarily apply for kids who are mixed up or disturbed (for whatever reason). Occasionally, you might get a kid who gets pushed too far by peer pressure or a desire to show off.

    • I’m very envious Peter – your own budget allocation!! Thanks for the comment, and I am inclined to agree with you that, as with so much else with kids, a lot depends on what else you’re doing with them in your lives together. We’ve chosen to always treat ours as though they are rational human beings, and for the most part, they seem to respond in kind.

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