Censorship Meets Child


Censorship is the fly-paper of the information field. Arguments and issues buzz around it, and get stuck upon it, producing an alarming melee of competing interests and confrontational interactions. Censorship can seem straightforward enough at first glance. It’s about intellectual freedom after all, isn’t it? But no, for intellectual freedom touches upon what it means to be human; what it means to be allowed to think and feel and read what you choose. Engage in a discussion about censorship, and you might inadvertently introduce a Pandora’s box of issues into the air. Suddenly we aren’t talking about intellectual freedom any more. We are talking about lies, and magic, and race, and guns, and family, and fantasy, and communists, and morality, and violence, and reality, and sex. It gets even more interesting when you discuss censorship as it applies to school and children’s library services. Now you are talking about black and white rabbits getting married, penguins adopting babies, tin men and cowardly lions, horcruxes and hobgoblins, and lots and lots of underwear. Many would look at this sticky mess with disgust, and want to ball up the whole wad and throw it in the rubbish bin. However, a look at the past of this issue is valuable for the modern professional in the library field. Understanding how and when the issue of censorship emerged as a hallmark of work with children, and why it seems to become more relevant at different moments, can prove helpful to librarians and others in the field. By looking beyond the quivering wings of dying objections to the contextual framework surrounding instances of censorship, professionals can gain a level of understanding that may assist them with practical decision making in the present.

Censorship meets Child

Censorship has always been an issue in the world of adults. John Milton of Paradise Lost fame was writing against it in a short pamphlet called the Areopagitica back in 1644 (Salajko, 2011). However, it has only been in the years since the 1960’s that this issue has become part of the more insular world of childhood. According to MacLeod (1983), there are several reasons for this, one of which is the insular world itself, another being the united interests of children’s service professionals at the beginning of the 20th century. MacLeod mentions the work of historian Aries, who places the emergence of the concept of childhood as a preparatory period of education and protection before adulthood, at the start of the 17th century. Previous to this, according to Aries, children were integrated into the world of adults by the age of seven, working alongside them and not sheltered from the potentially rough and sometimes bawdy conversation of the older people around them. It is also worth mentioning that this concept of childhood is still part of the world view of several non-western cultures around the world. One of the hallmarks of this change in the modern west was the belief that adults were the caretakers and shapers of the childhood years for their young charges. Adults were responsible for ensuring that children grew into responsible adults themselves. This was accomplished through control of the education and exposure to the ‘outside world’ the child received. What children read was a significant part of this.

Children’s literature as we see it today didn’t become a significant part of the publishing industry until near the start of the 20th century. The growth, development and marketing of books specifically for children was spurred on considerably by the work of four New England women: Caroline Hewins, Anne Carroll Moore, Alice Jordan, and Bertha Mahony. The first three women were librarians, the last the owner of a book store. All of them were passionate about introducing children to what they considered to be quality literature just for them, focusing on the artistry of the pictures and the writing, and the quality of the content. Lists they created of recommended children’s books were used by parents and educators to make decisions about what books to get for their children. One important feature of these lists is that they were selective, only including works that these professionals deemed worthy and fit for childish consumption. “Librarians of all types had always felt a need to be selective,” mentioned Bush (1996) in an article about the influence of these four women. In the library field, selective is sometimes a euphemism for what could be considered censorious. However, this doesn’t seem to have been a problem for most people. As MacLeod (1983) points out, this selection was done for the “good of the child, and the good of society, as adults see both.” MacLeod further states that, “The movement that created special collections of children’s books, housed in separate children’s rooms in public libraries and supervised by specially trained librarians, was very much part of the effort to meet the dangerous challenge of trash literature… The idea of selecting children’s books for their suitability as moral influences on children was built into library service to children from the beginning” (MacLeod 1983).

A Ban for all Seasons: Motivations for Censorship

Reasons why a book is found objectionable for children have remained fairly similar for the last 100 years, though what is objectionable has undergone some changes. According to the National Coalition Against Censorship website, complaints are routinely filed against books that contain sex, violence, profanity, or religious references. Though often, as is the case with Captain Underpants, the content is just deemed unworthy, or silly (however popular it may be).

An interesting case study in the contextual changes to what is found objectionable can be seen in the history of the censorship of one particular book. This book was published in 1900, just as children’s literature was coming into its own. It received criticism then, and still receives criticism today, though for different reasons, and perhaps less vehemently than before. This book was written by L. Frank Baum, and is entitled The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Critics loved it when it first came out, but it had some powerful detractors. One of its most influential critics was Anne Carroll Moore, one of the four New England women mentioned above. She was head of the children’s department at a large Brooklynn library, but she would soon be head of the New York Public Library’s children’s department. In one of the lists she prepared on request as a recommendation guide for a library commission in 1902, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was conspicuously absent. It was, by this time, already a best-seller. She also said of one of Baum’s other works, that it “should be banished from the sight of impressionable young children” (Hearn). His was one of only two works she openly criticized in the list. This type of criticism was elicited by the imaginative non-realistic qualities of the work. It was excluded from many libraries across the nation, or underrepresented for how popular it was. This confused many, a few of whom spoke up in editorials. Criticisms of the ban on the wizard sort began to increase up until the tipping point of censorship discourse in the 60’s. Librarians of the old school were beginning to feel a bit of pressure over the choices they made for the children’s collections in the library. One Detroit librarian in 1957 wrote, “”More than thirty years ago the decision was made that with so many far better books available for children than was the case when the Wizard was first published, the library would simply let the old copies wear out and not replace them…. This is not banning; it is selection.” The official notation on the Wizard of Oz card record was that it didn’t fire the imagination, and so a re-order wasn’t necessary. Some people were beginning to see this as a form of censorship, but to the older librarians, it was still simply a matter of selection.

The public had begun to become aware of how close this selection resembled censorship during the McCarthy era, also known as the second red scare. The first red scare had begun around 1917, and the Wonderful Wizard of Oz did not come out unscathed. In 1938, one writer was told he could not check out the book, because it was banned. He would write, “Good heavens! The land of Oz is a fairyland run on Communistic lines, and is perhaps the only Communistic fairyland in all children’s literature” (Hearn). He was being ironic with this statement, but many missed that fact. During the height of the McCarthy era, many librarians would defend the place some children’s books had on their shelves, despite criticism from outside groups. One librarian confronted criticism from an unhappy man who wanted a picture book of a happy little Russian girl taken off the shelf, because there was no such thing, (as everyone ought to know) as a happy Russian girl. The communists had ruined that (Jenkins). Though this period saw many librarians and members of ALA standing against the removal of materials from their collection, the awareness of the public was being awakened to the influence interest groups had as voices for censorship. When the era of peace, love, and protests arrived, libraries and librarians had a harder time defending their positions in the name of their right and responsibility of selection. Objections came from all sides, some groups focusing on race (removing Huckleberry Finn), others on teen sexuality (Keeping Judy Blume, et. al. on the shelves) (MacLeod).

In all of the above emergences of calls for censorship from outside groups, there was some type of exterior social catalyst. Sometimes it was fear over communism, and other times the struggle for civil rights. More contemporary objections to works have emerged from tragedies such as school shootings, after which collections have been reevaluated in an attempt to purge them from violent references. Religious convictions have also been recent motivators, with objections being raised over books such as Harry Potter, where wizards and witches are portrayed in a favorable light, which those who believe otherwise find offensive. Baum’s book came under criticism again in the wake of this last mentioned attempt at censorship, because it too has witches. By being sensitive to the cultural and social catalysts to calls for censorship, library professionals can be prepared to confront this issue with strength and respectfulness. Understanding this, and the current western notions of childhood, will give them a significant advantage when they formulate their responses to calls for censorship.


Bush, M. (1996, Spring). New England book women: their increasing influence. Library Trends, 44(4), 719+. Retrieved from http://go.galegroup.com.ezproxy2.library.arizona.edu/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA18316254&v=2.1&u=uarizona_main&it=r&p=AONE&sw=w&asid=ee23814020440bafb2f574ffc0333850

Hearn, M. (2001). “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas City anymore—or Detroit—or Washington, DC!”. Horn Book Magazine77(1), 16-34. Retrieved from: http://eds.a.ebscohost.com.ezproxy2.library.arizona.edu/ehost/detail?vid=7&sid=3e093495-4196-4a7f-b5f9-39dc5e2a2df9%40sessionmgr4002&hid=4213&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=eft&AN=502862241

Jenkins, C. (2001). International harmony: Threat or menace? US youth services librarians and cold war censorship, 1946-1955. Libraries and Culture, 36(1), 116-130. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.library.arizona.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/57491250?accountid=8360

MacLeod, A. S. (1983). Censorship and children’s literature. The Library Quarterly, 53(1), 26. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.library.arizona.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1290713005?accountid=8360

Salajko, V. (2011)  Stationers, Authors, and the Creation of Copyright: Copyright and the British Book Trade During the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Retrieved from: http://arizona.openrepository.com/arizona/bitstream/10150/144952/1/azu_etd_mr_2011_0180_sip1_m.pdf


Students have the right to NOT have to defend their choices.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s