It’s not ‘Banned Bookweek‘ but writing about The Five Chinese Brothers in my last post sent me off to check up on the number of ‘challenged’ books that I’ve read. So many of them are written by some of my favourite authors and are the sort of books that open up the world to their readers. The list of the 100 most challenged books of the 1990s even includes Mem Fox’s Guess What? Of course, the list is an American one and so features mostly American and British authors . I wonder if anyone in Australia bothered to keep track of ‘challenged’ books what the Australian list might look like.
One of my books was ‘challenged’ a few years ago by a very outraged mother who wrote to my publisher and accused them of being purveyors of ‘filth’. In Walking Home with Marie-Claire, 12-year-old Marie-Claire and her best friend PJ decide to practice kissing so they’ll know how to go about should they find boyfriends. The angry mother found this particularly pornographic which struck me as tragic. I imagined her explaining to her 11-year-old daughter why she thought the book was immoral and felt terribly sad that the ordinary adventures and misadventures of growing up could be twisted into something dark and disturbing.
It’s hard not to be swayed by censorship, especially when you know it can reduce the number of kids who will have access to your stories, but it’s so important for writers to maintain the integrity of a story. Just before The Secret Life of Maeve Lee Kwong was to be printed, my publisher phoned me to discuss Scholastic Book Club’s reaction to the advance copy. Apparently they wanted to place a large order (which would increase the size of the print run) but only on the condition that I rewrote a scene near the end of the book. It was the closing moment where 14-year-old Maeve, who is staying with a host family in Ireland, is offered a glass of Guinness. Scholastic believed this was advocating under-age drinking. My publisher left the decision to me and I decided to leave the scene as I wrote it. I’d originally included the Guinness detail based on the experience of a 15-year-old girl who shared her memories and photo-album of her Irish adventure with me. From my point of view, the Guinness was simply an additional cultural detail that added to the veracity of the scene. But when I thought about Scholastic’s reaction, I realised that some of the gate-keepers of children’s fiction would like writers to portray the world as they believe it should be, not as it really is or as young people actually experience it. For me, if you can’t tell the truth, if you can’t portray the world as you know and understand it to be, there isn’t much point in writing at all.
“It’s not just the books under fire now that worry me. It is the books that will never be written. The books that will never be read. And all due to the fear of censorship. As always, young readers will be the real losers.” — Judy Blume