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Arts and Culture:
The Controversy over Children's Literature
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The Controversy over Maurice Sendak

"When Maurice Sendak published WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE 40 years ago, both fans and detractors called him a Wild Thing." — Ann Hulbert, "The Not-So-Wild Thing"

Maurice Sendak's Caldecott Award-winning book of 1964 brought him both acclaim and disdain. Called by Tony Kushner in his recent book THE ART OF MAURICE SENDAK an "agent of revolution and liberation," Sendak resists being classified as a children's author. He doesn't write morality tales; instead, he says, "I side with kids all the time." As a result, many have seen his writing as "too dark and disturbing for children." Even child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim felt that WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE was far too frightening for young children.

In his book ANGELS AND WILD THINGS: THE ARCHETYPAL POETICS OF MAURICE SENDAK, John Cech wrote, "One can only try to imagine what the landscape of children's literature would be like without Sendak's fantasies and the characters and places visited in them. These fantasies essentially broke through the relatively unperturbed surfaces of postwar American children's literature, sending his children…on journeys into regions of the psyche that children's books had not dared visit before."

Of course, these voyages certainly have the capacity to frighten. As author Ann Hulbert writes, "His pictures, and also his texts, bring to life what Bruno Bettelheim called the 'id pressure' — the nightmarish fears, grandiose desires, anger — that buffet children."

Sendak's 1970 book IN THE NIGHT KITCHEN has been targeted for censorship by those uneasy with Sendak's illustrations of the main character, a young boy named Mickey, tumbling nude through the pages of the book.

How are such objections handled in schools and libraries? Read on to find out about censorship.

Censoring Children's Literature

With the issue of censorship raging in all corners of the media universe, it shouldn't come as a shock that the issue of censoring books has been around for as long as the books themselves. Likewise, it's not surprising that at the root of many of these controversies are society's most vulnerable — children. Although some would agree with Judy Blume (one of America's most frequently challenged authors of young adult literature) that "Kids are really good at knowing what they can handle," many parents disagree. Blume asks, "what can happen if a young reader picks up a book he/she isn't yet ready for? Questions maybe. Usually that child puts down the book and says, Boring. Or I'm not ready for this."

However, for a number of reasons, parents have historically battled to keep certain books out of classrooms, off library shelves, and otherwise out of their kids' reach. Why are books challenged? The top three reasons cited by the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom are:

  • "sexually explicit"
  • "offensive language"
  • "unsuited to age group"
Technically, a challenge is "an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group," whereas a banning is "removal of those materials." The American Library Association (ALA) has kept a tally of the challenges reported to the Office for Intellectual Freedom between the years 1990 and 2000. Although they estimate that only a fraction of all challenges are reported and only some of these ultimately result in bans, the ALA counted 6,364 challenges over the course of the decade. In addition to the top three reasons for challenges, some of the other reasons objections were raised include occult themes; violence; homosexual themes; and promoting a religious viewpoint.

In one instance in Virginia in 1999, the American Civil Liberties Union prepared to defend a teacher's right not to teach a certain book, but to post a list of banned books on his classroom door. The list, published by the ALA, included such books as THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN, THE COLOR PURPLE, OF MICE AND MEN, and DEATH OF A SALESMAN. The ACLU argued that "Students have a right to access to a broad range of ideas. School officials violate this right when they remove materials with the intention of depriving students of access to ideas with which the school disagrees."

In extreme cases, published material deemed objectionable can lead to book burnings, such as in the case of the Christ Community Church of Alamogordo, New Mexico. In December 2001, Pastor Jack Brock preached a sermon on the topic "The Baby Jesus or Harry Potter?" in which he cited the Harry Potter series to be "an example of our society's growing preoccupation with the occult." "Behind that innocent face is the power of satanic darkness," Brock said. "Harry Potter is the devil and he is destroying people." The anti-Potter sermon was followed by a nighttime book burning, to burn the Harry Potter books as well as any other books that participants "felt to be a personal hindrance to them spiritually."

In "Harry Potter and His Censors," published in EDUCATION WEEK in August 2000, Jonathan Zimmerman argues:

"Slippery-slope arguments…[are not] wrong. Instead they're disingenuous. When it comes to public schooling, everybody is a censor. Even people who rail against censorship want to include certain messages and exclude others, as well they should."
Many who argue against book banning do admit that there is material publicly available that they would not want their children to encounter. According to an official interpretation of the ALA's Library Bill of Rights, "Librarians and governing bodies should maintain that parents-and only parents-have the right and the responsibility to restrict the access of their children-and only their children-to library resources."

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