What's Worth Censoring in Children's Literature? Beyond Misdirected Piety

July 06, 2010

Some readers of this blog may be aware that I write a blog on children's language and literacy learning - 'Literacy, Families & Learning'. I also have a long-term interest in children's literature and have published widely in these areas. I have been seeking for many years to reconcile good secular scholarship, my theology and writing on Christian education. This is challenging. I don't always agree with the things I see written by Christians in the field of education. It seems far too easy to use a shallow form of piety or offer up appropriate theological language to dismiss ideas in the field of education without thinking biblically about the myriad decisions we make daily as teachers and parents. As I have shared in previous posts on censorship (here) and Tedd Tripp's views on physical punishment (here), I'm puzzled at times by the views of some of my fellow Christians hold when commenting on education. One area of ongoing bafflement, which I suspect is symptomatic of different biblical application, is the children's books that are banned or challenged by parents.  While Christians aren't the only people to object to some children's books, many have questioned some of my favourite books, including 'Where the Wild Things Are', 'Bridge to Terabithia' and 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer'. Lists of frequently challenged children's books (here) contain a number of books that I value highly, or would use, as well as some that I wouldn't want my children to read.

It is clear that in the last twenty years authors have pushed the boundaries of appropriateness for the child reader. This alone should be reason enough for any Christian parent to be very careful about the things that their children read, and even the books that might be set for study at school. But while many parents complained when Susan Patron's book 'The Higher Power of Lucky' was published in 2006 with the word 'scrotum' on the first page, few seem to complain about books that promote other topics like nationalism, militarism or versions of humanism that many Christians. Nor do some Christian parents question the view of the world promoted in many TV teen dramas, videos, musical lyrics, teen magazines etc.

Nicholas Wolterstorff, Professor of Philosophy at Yale University, offers some wisdom on this topic in 'Educating for Life' (p. 43):
There is rampant in our Reformed community, as I guess there is in most Christian communities, the belief that the great dangers in literature are obscenity and profanity. Thus, we wage strong campaigns to keep the eyes and ears of our children from "filth" as we call it. We have not the slightest compunction in allowing our children to read paeans of praise to nationalism, to financial success, to humanism, to militarism - just provided they are "clean"...What the Christian school absolutely must do is educate its constituency to these issues. It must teach them to be discerning as to the message of literary works. And with them - not against them - it must face up to the issue as to wherein lie the really serious threats to the moral and religious life of young children, and adults as well.
I hope that Christian readers of this blog do not misunderstand what I am saying. I am not against censorship and in fact managed to ban a number of televisions shows, teen magazines and the odd book when my children were growing up, but much more of my time was spent talking to them about the things they read, viewed, listened to etc.  And if I had an objection (as I did have to Dolly magazine), why did I hold it. In the process, I was helping them to apply their growing understanding of the purposes for which God had made them and his expectations for the life that he had given them. This is surely one of the most fundamental challenges for parents and Christian teachers, and is one of the true 'basics' in Christian education and parenting.

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