Reading Interruptus: Censorship and Children

by Pari

My parents may have done many things wrong in raising me, but when it came to literacy they were magnificent.The entrance to my childhood home — a grand hallway about 20 feet long — was lined on one side with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.

Since I wasn't allowed to watch television during the school week, I'd spend hours looking at the books we owned. In elementary and junior high school, I didn't like reading. However, without alternatives, I defaulted to it most days.

When I was eight, I found a slim volume by George Bernard Shaw titled, My Dear Dorothea:  A practical system of moral eduation for females embodied in a letter to a young person of that sex. Written for his five-year-old niece, the book is a fanciful ditty. Now that I'm older, I can see that it's dated, but back then I loved its tongue-in-cheek audacity.

Among the pearls of wisdom therein is this: "If you are told any book is not fit for you to read, get it, read it."

Could there be any better advice?

I thought of that phrase last week when I read about the chairperson of the English Department at New Rochelle High School being ordered to rip pages out of the book Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen before giving it to students. Apparently the school district received a complaint about some of the content and that was that.

As a parent, I struggle with the issue of censorship daily. My own parents were loosey-goosey about my reading; they didn't seem concerned about it at all. I mean, my first sex education happened when Mom walked into my bedroom and handed me Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask and said, "Here. Read this. You might learn something." I was all of ten years old.

I'm less comfortable with tossing any book to my children — especially the one who is in elementary school but reads at a senior-high-school level already. I worry about her hitting certain subjects before she has the emotional maturity to handle them.

Being anti censorship is fine and good in the abstract. But when I'm facing an innocent child who doesn't know about sex or cussing or perverted violence, well I'm less cocky than I was before having kids.

Books for younger readers have changed dramatically from the days of Oliver Twist and The Secret Garden. I know. I just spent the last few months engulfed in YA lit. (I'm not talking Junie B. Jones or Captain Underpants here; my kids graduated from them years ago) 

There is an incredible range of language and topics in these novels. I applaud the experimentation and tackling of controversial issues.  But do I want my younger child reading some of them? Not yet.

However, I do what I've always done. I talk with my children about their literary choices. I'll tell them if I think the material is too adult for them. (I do the same when young readers ask about my books.) I'm not so much worried about language as I am about emotional violence — rape, incest, mutilation, extremely graphic murder scenes . . .

But I don't censor. That's my decision and I'll accept the consequences. Believe me, I've had some close calls. When my younger child was reading a fairly explicit book about the Holocaust, I was uneasy inwardly. Outwardly, I made sure to check in with her often, to help her understand and to make sure she wasn't having nightmares.

Though it was a difficult read, I can't imagine ripping that book from her hands.

The thought of tearing out the offending pages makes me nauseated. {Did you know there's a term for that? It's bowdlerizing.}

Back to the story at New Rochelle:
It doesn't end with the first article. If you haven't clicked through already, go to this link. Apparently the community — and far beyond — was outraged with the school board's decision. New books were ordered. Ah, a happy ending.

When my parents died, my husband and I took the planks of wood that graced my childhood home and installed them in our own. They're filled with books once again. Our children have the right to look at any volume they want — though I do have some on the highest shelves so that they're more difficult to reach.

I know we've discussed censorship on Murderati before, but I'd like to hear your views when it comes to children who may not have the same ability to stand up for themselves, to judge what may or may not be appropriate.

What were your own childhood reading experiences? What were your parents' attitudes toward reading?
Have you ever taken a book away from your child?
Are there books that are inappropriate for children or am I just too old-fashioned?

38 thoughts on “Reading Interruptus: Censorship and Children

  1. Margaret A. Golla

    As a mother of a 2nd grader, my daughter naturally gravitates to age-appropriate or maturity-appropriate books–Junie B., Katie Kazoo, and the new faeries books. I do feel parents need to pay attention to what your child is reading so you can answer questions, calm fears, etc. This is simply responsible parenting.One of my daughter’s classmates is reading Twilight, with her mother’s permission. Do I have a problem with it? You betcha, I do. I wouldn’t let my kiddo read it. Not at this age. I think it’s written far beyond the understanding of a 7 or 8-year old.So I guess I would censor my daughter’s choice of reading material–at least until I felt she was mature enough to choose books responsibly and ask questions when she picks up the more difficult subjects.

  2. Jim Winter

    My fourth grade teacher was visibly nervous reading us THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE.

    My mother also professed some guilt over enjoying Stephen King’s work.

    I pretty much could read anything I wanted.

  3. OSG

    My parents believed that reading was good, and as long as I was reading, it didn’t matter so much WHAT I was reading.

    At age 10, I read Stephen King’s Christine. I’m pretty sure most of that subject matter was beyond me, but the writing was wonderful and I couldn’t put it down. I also couldn’t go into our garage for at least a month afterward. In fact, my heart still races a little bit when I remember standing in the doorway, knowing the light switch is aaaaalllllllll the way over there.

    Should you censor reading material for your kids? I say no, but I think you have to be as involved as possible in helping them process what they’re taking in.

  4. J.D. Rhoades

    ” I also couldn’t go into our garage for at least a month afterward. In fact, my heart still races a little bit when I remember standing in the doorway, knowing the light switch is aaaaalllllllll the way over there.”

    Heh. I have memories like that after reading SALEM’S LOT. Now, here’s a question: how do you regard that memory, as positive or negative?

  5. Stephen D. Rogers

    When reading to my daughter (7), I skip over certain dialogue that I fear will underscore negative self-image. Yes, I realize kids (and some adults) will say, “Girls can’t do that.” We discuss those issues when they come up. I just don’t want my daughter hearing those words coming out of my mouth, even if some character is saying them.

  6. Beth

    My husband and I allowed our daughter to read anything. We encouraged her to ask questions if she came across something she did not understand. As a preschooler my husband read her Romeo and Juliet (she still loves it!) Now she is a 21 year old college senior looking to teach!

  7. pari

    Margaret,Thanks for your comments.

    I’ve just started reading Twilight and think quite a bit of it would be too old for a 2nd grader, no matter how mature.

    I remember when my youngest was in that grade and she told me about girls in her class who were already obssessed with their weight and looks.

    They weren’t readers; they mainly watched television.

    So, this censorship thing can rear many heads.

    I think each parent needs to do what he/she feels most comfortable with. If you don’t censor, then I think you’ve got to be much more aware of what your child is doing.

  8. pari

    J.D.,That’s generally my theory but sometimes my kids stick with something on principle. That’s why I DO have to check in and discuss with them.

  9. pari

    Jim,Why would a 4th grade teacher object or worry about anything in the Narnia books? My kids went through those in 2nd grade.


    I don’t know what they’d think of Stephen King. Maybe I should suggest some of his books.

    Which would you start with for a kid?

  10. pari

    OSG,Thanks for your perspective.

    Do you have kids? Do you practice this rule?

    I’d love to know how they respond and what choices they’re making.

  11. pari

    J.D.,I think you raise another important issue:Do the choices kids make about their reading stay with them into adulthood?

    I wonder about that sometimes. Will the Holocaust book affect my child for years to come or will she have forgotten it in two?

  12. pari

    Stephen,I do the same thing. But less so with my older child.

    Both of my kids are natural prudes so they don’t like me saying the words. With the older one, because she’s in middle school, I spend half of the time we’re reading — explaining.

    Thank goodness no one has a recorder to hear my brilliant explanations.

  13. pari

    Beth,My younger one also adores Shakespeare. I’m waiting for her to internalize some of those insults. When she does, she’ll have a wonderful repetoire for dealing with smart-alecks in her school!

    I think one of your points is that young readers usually remain enthusiastic readers for life.

    What an incredible gift.

  14. pari





  15. Allison Brennan

    I believe that it’s parents responsibility to regulate what their children watch and read. I’ve never heard of a parent with a problem telling their kids they couldn’t watch a specific television program why would we have a problem telling them they can’t read a specific book?

    The problem comes when others decide what our children should not read. Or ripping pages from books (what kind of lesson is that to teach kids? Geez.)

    I read widely when I was young and Dusty said, if it was something above me I likely shelved it. At the same time, I did read stuff I shouldn’t have–and there are images and ideas that were stuck in my head that shouldn’t be. I’m not talking Judy Blume (I remember sharing FOREVER with my two best friends when we were 11 or 12) because though it was about a teen-agers first time having sex and felt “forbidden” it was written FOR kids like us who knew some things but didn’t know others and it spoke TO us. I’m talking about reading adult books with explicit sex and violence.

    My kids can’t read my books. Not yet. I told them they can read Nora Roberts if they want because Nora, though she writes with sex, isn’t as explicit as many and her female characters are almost all universally strong, smart characters with a backbone.

    I had an acquaintance who told me that she let her two kids, boy and girl, look at as much sexually explicit material as they wanted. Porn, whatever. She figured if it wasn’t forbidden they wouldn’t have an interest in it. She thinks her plan worked. I can’t imaging allowing my 7 year old son to look at pictures of naked women let alone two people having sex. Yes, I’d censor it.

    I agree that Twilight is far too mature for a 7 year old. Sorry. My daughter is nearly 13 and she read it and loves it and it’s written for the 12-16 year old group. It’s perfect for her. Kids age so quickly between 7 and 12 . . .

    Anyway, I censored television and I censor books for MY kids. I didn’t let my 9 year old oldest daughter–very smart, very mature–watch CSI or other crime shows because they were too visually graphic for her (though she really, really wanted to see them!) Now, she can watch them, I don’t care. But I still vet Rated-R movies before I take them to see one . . . I want to know why they’re rated-R. There’s still some that are wholly not appropriate for kids for whatever reason.

    Once they’re 13 or 14, I’ve let them read almost anything they want. Except my books. Maybe it’s just because they’re mine . . .

    Anyway, they’re my kids, my decision. It’s when that decisions is FORCED on me that my hackles get raised.

  16. pari

    Allison,I like the distinction you raise between the child’s parents making the decisions and external folks — such as uptight school boards more worried about cya than true content — making decisions.

    I just let my 13-year old read my books, but am not letting the younger one do it yet. Even though I write in the traditional tradition (did I just use those words?), I still feel that some of the ideas might be a bit advanced for the younger one.

  17. kim

    I agree with Allison “it’s when that decision is FORCED on me that my hackles get raised.”

    My parents never censored any of my reading and whatever I found on the shelf, I would read. I think it gave me a wider perspective on the world than many of my classmates shared at that time. Like others have stated – if something was too far over my head I just put it back and found something else to read.

    One of the things they do at my daugters’ school is limit them (even in the library) to reading only the books that are in their reading level – meaning they aren’t allowed to read books that are too easy or too hard. The literacy teachers are quite proud of this rule – so no student is “bored” or “frustrated” and “reading is fun!” I disagree completely – sometimes even I enjoy reading Dr. Seuss (am I going to get a literacy demerit?) or a young adult book – and I also think reading beyond their ‘level’ helps my girls learn new words/ideas and that experience itself expands their capacity.

    I limit what they watch on TV – shows with adult themes that I’m not ready to explain to a 6 year old (House comes to mind) – and I don’t let them watch any of the Law & Order/CSI type shows because I think they are too graphic about violence for them.

    I think the same is true of reading – but so far it has not been an issue. What they enjoy reading hasn’t led me yet to intervene and say “not yet” to them. I learned more about sex from reading inappropriate books than I’m sure my parents had any idea about. Even though I did that I’m not sure how I feel about my daughters doing the same – uneasy is the word that comes to mind. We aren’t there yet at any rate.

    One thing I have done, when reading outloud to them, is skip the overly sexist sections…I always loved the Mushroom Planet books and that magic series by Edward Eager when I was a kid – but as an adult reading them through 2008 eyes – I find a lot of the presented perspectives very sexist.

  18. Louise Ure

    As a child who got her sex education by sneaking peeks at Gray’s Anatomy (yes, Virginia, it was a book about human anatomy before its name was swiped for a TV show) I appreciate the advice to “read anything you’re told is not fit for you.” But it’s a difficult question for parents at any time, isn’t it?

  19. pari

    Kim,I liked your examples very much.

    I do remember being appalled when the library at my children’s elementary school had the same rule you’re talking about. However, my kids’ teachers always made sure the librarian and parent volunteers knew to let them read whatever they wanted. But still . . .

    And I do find myself doing oral editing on books that have those atavistic sections — though I’ll usually talk with the kids about why I’ve changed a phrase — sometimes we end up talking more than reading when we’re using older books.

  20. Cornelia Read

    My reading was NEVER censored as a child, except once. I’d bought a mass-market copy of THE EXORCIST in the airport on the way to my grandparents in New York, at age thirteen. I was nearing the last chapter of the book when my grandmother read some of it and took it away from me, saying it wasn’t appropriate reading.

    “But I’ve already READ the part in the middle where there’s the objectionable stuff,” I said. “Now I just want to know how it ends…”

    She threw it out anyway. Pissed me right off.

  21. pari

    Yeah, it is a difficult question, Louise.

    I wonder if our parents struggled with so many grays. I seem to remember the world as being pretty black and white when I was growing up.

  22. Fiona

    I like to think I guide more than censor. We have all kinds of books all over our house. Medical reference books abound, as do dictionaries and other reference books.

    I keep the more “adult” mysteries and what little horror we have in our bedroom. My kids have full access to everything else. They are teen and tween and could read at a HS level at mid elementary school.

    They read lots of history, classics (my tween’s favorite book is MOBY DICK) and just about anything YA that comes in the house. Since they are both good readers, we often have a book that the whole family reads and discusses.

    My oldest just read MAUS. I think it should be required reading in middle school. I will be opening the rest of our books up to him soon. He checks out anything he wants from the school and local libraries.

    Like Pari’s parents, we don’t allow TV on school nights, and we don’t have any game systems, so reading and board games are what we do when homework is done and we’re in for the evening.

  23. Fiona

    I like to think I guide more than censor. We have all kinds of books all over our house. Medical reference books abound, as do dictionaries and other reference books.

    I keep the more “adult” mysteries and what little horror we have in our bedroom. My kids have full access to everything else. They are teen and tween and could read at a HS level at mid elementary school.

    They read lots of history, classics (my tween’s favorite book is MOBY DICK) and just about anything YA that comes in the house. Since they are both good readers, we often have a book that the whole family reads and discusses.

    My oldest just read MAUS. I think it should be required reading in middle school. I will be opening the rest of our books up to him soon. He checks out anything he wants from the school and local libraries.

    Like Pari’s parents, we don’t allow TV on school nights, and we don’t have any game systems, so reading and board games are what we do when homework is done and we’re in for the evening.

  24. Jake Nantz

    As a high school literature teacher of seniors, I have only had one complaint from a parent in seven years. Their daughter, who had a 71 average because she was never there (so enabled she got an excused note every time she overslept…the kid told me this with a smile), found a passage in John Gardner’s GRENDEL that upset her. GRENDEL is the story of Beowulf from the monster’s perspective, and is an excellent existential work. But it is from the monster’s perspective, 1st person. He picks up Wealtheow (King Hrothgar’s wife) by the ankles and considers tearing her in half, then considers setting her on fire, starting with a certain part of her. Finally he decides to do neither, because in the long run it won’t make any difference, but to leave her unharmed would go against their expectations of him.

    Mom freaked. How dare I put thoughts like this into her poor innocent baby’s head (unwed daughter gave birth to a bouncing baby boy 7 months later…so she didn’t ‘get’ those ideas on my watch, but anyway). Said I should be fired, book should be banned, etc.

    Personally I think a senior in high school needs to stop being coddled before they go out into the world and it smacks them in the face with a meaty dose of reality, but that has more to do with enabling (which I see WAAAYYYY too much of everyday) than it does censorship. Rarely if ever do I hear of complaints about required readings, but I know there are other things kids are reading where it might be better if they weren’t. But that’s not my realm, so I let the parents figure that part out…every one of them is supposed to be qualified for and good at it, right?


  25. T

    I was a voracious reader growing up and my mother didn’t much notice what I read (and by that I mean couldn’t even keep up with what I read). In general I read books that had no real objectionable content until I traveled by myself for the first time and bought a skanky book at the bus station…lol

    I don’t have children, but if I did I would definitely have to ok their choices. This comes as a result of the fact that I have immersed myself in YA books as research for my own work, and am aghast at what is considered appropriate for young teens. One book had a girl trying to offer a guy oral sex in the hallway of a boarding school. I think the days are over when you can simply point your kid to the children’s and teen’s section and say β€œgo for it.”

  26. Laura Benedict

    My parents were not big readers and their bookshelves were slender and of not much interest to me. Then I found a Harold Robbins novel, The Lonely Lady. I think I was eleven and I was definitely not mature enough to handle the sexual situations in it. My mother handed me a rather cartoonish book that was supposed to explain sex to me soon after. It was a peculiar sort of education. Still, they often proudly stated that I was welcome to read any of their books at any time.

    I’m similarly unrestrictive, but I have a much closer relationship with my kids. We talk about difficult subjects all the time, and they, too, will re-shelves books if they feel they’re not ready for them.

    I think many people who object to the contents of libraries do it out of fear–they can’t handle the material and certainly aren’t prepared to discuss it with their kids.

  27. Allison Brennan

    OMG, Laura, when I mentioned above the book that I read when I was way too young to handle it, it was THAT BOOK!! THE LONELY LADY. And then LUCKY (I think that was the title) and there was a brutal rape and torture scene of the heroine in that book. Or one of them. I was 11 too. My mom had it on her shelf and she never said I couldn’t read anything, but she probably should have put some of those books away . . .

  28. Catherine

    I remember reading Tess of the d’Urbervilles at 12 and Lucky. Which did sort of do my head in for a bit about perceptions of female sexuality re:enjoyment would then lead to->shunning/punishment. Well more in a how little things had changed in a hundred years or so, regardless of the 1960’s…When I looked about my own community I could still see these attitudes played out.Disturbed the heck out of me but also very enlightening.

    I wish I could remember the mystery book I borrowed when I was about 9 from the library in the junior section. There was a lot of family angst and civil war backstory. A large part of the protag’s motivation was to find out why a rage filled ghost would try to grasp hold of the progtag’s legs as he/or she would try to get into bed. Totally freaked me out.Still does a bit.

    My eldest used to compulsively read Goosebump books and now as an adult tells me they were totally unsuitable for

    My youngest had more issues with E.T lurking in her cupboard.

    I didn’t censor with my girls so much as be open about discussing what they were reading and pointing out that they had the power to put down the book it if it was too much for them, and to come talk about it. Which they did…at the time of reading the Goosebumps reader would say how they terrified her, but she liked it.

  29. Stacey Cochran

    I have a vivid memory of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn having the “N” word marked out with a magic marker… that would have been about the 4th or 5th grade.

    Still though, they had the book on the shelf.

  30. pari

    Hey all,Sorry to wimp out on the conversation. First there were the toilets that broke, then buying the new ones, then getting them installed. There’s a big snow storm in NM and I had to shop — the cupboards were bare — and pick up our weekly veggies from the CSA. Then there was picking up one child from school and getting said child to the cello lesson. Then making dinner (Calzone tonight) and, well, I’m pooped.

    I’m still enjoying the comments so far.

    I do remember the first more advanced book I read: The Agony and the Ecstasy. (I think I spelled that right even though it doesn’t look it.) I loved the passion of the book but didn’t understand half of it.

  31. OSG

    J.D. — I remember that garage experience fondly, really. Because, first of all, what a thrill! The tricks my mind played on me in that dark garage were better than any scary movie. But also I remember the thought process of overcoming that fear. I remember telling myself it wasn’t real, and working through it. It was cool.

    Pari– I don’t have kids of my own, and I’d feel like the bad influence to suggest any one else’s young kids should read Stephen King (although I still love his writing).

  32. Kim Harrington

    My father and I read Stephen King’s PET SEMATERY together when I was about 9 years old. He’d read one page and then I’d read the next page. I skipped the curse words. πŸ˜‰

    My parents never restricted me from any books, and I’m doing the same (so far) for my child.

    What I find interesting, though, is that I strongly censor television and movies. I’ll let my 6 year old read a Goosebumps book, but I won’t let him watch The Simpsons. There’s a strange dichotomy!


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