Sideline censorship and engage children in books with difficult themes

  • Sideline censorship and engage children in books with difficult themes

Ban them, bury them, just don’t let kids read them! Actually, side-lining censorship and sensitively engaging in difficult themes can be doubleplusgood, says Lloyd Burgess...

Horrific grim reeper illustrations By deb on 21 Mar. 2015. not suitable for children at all, our local library threw the book out when i found it yesterday. enough to tertify children, illustrations horrific

This one-star Amazon review of Eric Maddern’s Death in a Nut is an, admittedly hilarious, representation of the sort of moral hysteria that often surrounds children’s education. It’s the words of The Simpsons’ sanctimonious Helen Lovejoy brought to life: “Won’t somebody please think of the children?”. Not to pick on one person’s opinion, but ‘horrific’ images of the ‘grim reeper’ shouldn’t ‘tertify’ your children half as much as the spelling and grammar of this review.

Finding the right time in children’s lives to introduce difficult concepts will always be an issue. But at some point they will need to move on from the ‘happily ever afters’. Do you responsibly introduce ‘difficult’ themes to children before they’ve formed any strong opinions on such matters? Or, do they need sheltering from sensitive issues for as long as possible? Either extreme seems unhealthy. No one is suggesting you pretend war doesn’t exist, nor are they suggesting you screen an Apocalypse Now/ Full Metal Jacket doublebill in your classroom. But we do have a duty to prepare children for life to come. It should be done sensitively, safely and appropriately, but it should be done; stories have long been a tool we’ve used to make sense of the world in all its complications.

Why difficult themes?

In recent years, many studies have focused on the benefits of reading both in terms of academic progress and social development. In June this year The Reading Agency’s report highlighted that reading improved children’s knowledge of themselves and of other people and cultures, and helped them develop self and social identities.

Kumschick et al (2014) found that discussing books with emotional content increases children’s emotional competence, vocabulary and understanding.

“It’s important that children are exposed to issues of contemporary relevance, in school, Difficult with professionals, because where else will they get that opportunity?” says Nikki Gamble of the Just Imagine Story Centre. “It allows for reasoned, thoughtful discussion on controversial or difficult topics that they would not necessarily get in the big wide, unfiltered, world. There are many ill-judged or unhealthy attitudes that can be unwittingly picked up from any number of sources.”
Similarly, John Boyne, author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, says: “We can’t shield things from children these days – it’s simply too easy for them to access information anyway – but we can control the manner in which they learn about these subjects. I think it’s crucial that children are given access to stories with historic, moral and political content from an early age. There is no story that you can’t write for a child, it all comes down to the way the one writes it.
“With The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas I made a decision not to portray graphic violence on the page,” says Boyne. “In fact, whenever something terrible happens, Bruno can’t find the words for it and so it is left to the reader to figure out what has taken place. I don’t try to frighten or upset children with my stories, but I do want them to engage with the subject, to think about what it was like to be a child during those times, and connect this to what it is like for children who are currently living in such terrible situations.”


Why literature?

Controversial books are, of course, nothing new. There will almost certainly be someone, somewhere objecting to stories on some level. Even the Harry Potter books and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy are often challenged on religious grounds for use of magic and atheist themes respectively. Or, at the other end of the scale Salman Rushdie famously had a fatwa ordered against him in 1989, calling for his death, for his novel The Satanic Verses. The fatwa remains in place to this day.

So, what is it about literature that can cause such a stir? Why are novels such a powerful tool? “There’s something about books where you own the stories you read in a way that you never do with stories you watch on television,” says Katherine Rundell, author of Rooftoppers and The Wolf Wilder. “They not only get under your skin, but into your heart. So it’s important that that’s where we are wise and careful and inspiring with books for that age. If you can get the right book at the right age, it’ll stay with you forever. If you know the kids you’re teaching, my guess is that you can find a moment in their lives when you think they’ll be ready for that book.”

One of the many beauties of literature is the time it takes to read most books. Short tales are ideal for discussing, analysing and re-reading, while longer books offer suitable stopping points that force the reader to reflect, to distance themselves from the story and, in the school setting, to delve deeper into the text and its themes, getting differing perspectives and insights from teachers and classmates.


Why the classroom?

“That’s something else that’s worth talking about: what do you have on the bookshelf for open access, and what do you have as a guided read where you can talk sensitively about those issues with your class?” says Nikki Gamble. “Children are often underestimated in terms of what they can deal with. They can sound very grown up at top primary. They have a strong sense of justice for one thing. I do think they can surprise you.”

Gemma Malley, Director of Marketing, Communications and Engagement at Book Trust, and the award-winning author of seven YA novels, oversees all of the selections for the company’s free book packs. These lists include topics ranging from dementia, autism, disability, cancer and the Holocaust. “What children can take in does depend on the individual, but it also depends on the way things are presented to you,” she says. “With very young children, life is completely black and white, right and wrong. I have a four year old, and there are goodies and baddies, and there’s always a happy ending. Whereas my eldest is eight and he’s beginning to understand that there isn’t always completely right and wrong, and he’s starting to think in more sophisticated terms. He loves Michael Morpurgo, for instance.

“It’s really important that you enable them to think, because they’ve got to start making their own decisions. You want them to start getting a bit more independent, being able to dress themselves in the morning and pack their school bags. With that independence comes ownership and responsibility, the understanding that they are a citizen as well, and books are such a wonderful way of reinforcing that, letting them raise questions that they might otherwise feel they couldn’t ask.”


Why create distance?

One of the other great benefits of fiction for approaching difficult topics with young children is the distance that can be created through various literary techniques. David Miller’s Refugees, for example, addresses its main theme through the tale of two ducks, while David McKee’s Tusk Tusk looks at racism and intolerance through elephants with different-sized ears.

“I do think that you have to have a bridge, a way in to a topic, and the thing about literature is that it takes it away from the personal so you’re able to address those issues without them being directed necessarily at you,” says Nikki Gamble. “That doesn’t mean you should shy away from the really topical, though. Once you know your class, you can decide whether you’re able to present a topic very directly, or if you need that extra distance.”

“Distance also allows you to get a good perspective on things,” adds Gemma Malley. “And that’s good for developing children’s empathy, making them think about what things would be like for those who face various challenges in life.

That’s why we are also a great advocate of books that are out now, because they will introduce these things in a way that is current, that speaks to them now. When they get older and understand more about the world, they can go back to the classics that have different standards and issues.”


Live to tell the tale

Stories and narratives were created to help us make sense of a world that doesn’t have neat character arcs, moral messages or a formal structure. They teach us, entertain us, inform us and connect us as individuals to the whole human experience, letting us delve into the minds and worlds of other characters for a while.

You would hope that children will never have to face the issues that are dealt with in ‘controversial’ books. But, the reality is that many do. For those lucky enough to have a childhood free from bullying, the death of a loved one, mental health issues, alcoholism, then what better way than the safe, sensitive, guided discussion of a novel to help them understand and empathise with friends, family, or even total strangers. It’s these children who will grow up with a greater sense of empathy, who will care for those around them, and who may be able to do something to help spread those positive ideals throughout the world. So give our young pupils the opportunity to read tales of war, and of death. Show them what it’s like to live with illness, and poverty. Let them experience heartbreak and tears. Please, won’t somebody think of the children?


Never judge a book

A brief timeline of banned books in recent history, and the unusual reasons behind the objections

1859: George Eliot’s Adam Bede was dismissed as the “vile outpourings of a lewd woman’s mind”, and withdrawn from British libraries.

1931: General Ho Chien in China banned Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland on the grounds that it would be “disastrous” if talking animals taught children to regard animals and humans on the same level.

1932: James Joyce noted “When at last [Dubliners] was printed, some very kind person bought out the entire edition and had it burnt.”

1960: During the trial against publisher Penguin in England of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the prosecutor asked: “Is it a book you would wish your wife or servant to read?”. Penguin won the case.

1970: “I remember the night a woman phoned, asking if I had written Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” said Judy Blume. “When I replied that I had, she called me a communist and slammed down the phone.”

1980s: The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny was banned from London schools for portraying only “middleclass rabbits.”

1983: The Alabama State Textbook Committee called for the rejection of The Diary of Anne Frank in part because they felt it was “a real downer”.


Pie Corbett