Innocent Children and Frightened Adults: Why Censorship Fails

—Philip Nel

Few things upset American adults more than books for children and adolescents. If you look at the American Library Association’s annual list of Challenged and Banned Books, the top 10 titles are nearly always those written for or assigned to young people: J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants series, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. On those rare occasions when the books are not intended for school-age readers or given as homework, they’re on the list because young people are reading them anyway: E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, a favorite target for 2012 and 2013.

Banned and challenged books tell us very little about what is suitable for actual children. Instead, books targeted for censure offer an index of adult fears, reflecting, as David Booth says, “changing ideas about childhood and notions of suitability.”1 Censorship is also transideological, advocated by people of many political persuasions. Progressive censors seek to scrub away racism from Doctor Dolittle and Huckleberry Finn, creating Bowdlerized editions of the books. Conservative censors wish to protect children from knowledge of the human body: as a result, Robie Harris and Michael Emberley’s It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health frequently lands on the ALA’s Challenged-and-Banned Books list.

While censorship will not keep young people safe, censors and would-be censors are right about two things. First, books have power. Second, responsible adults should help guide young people through the hazards of the adult world.

However, like all attempts to safeguard children’s innocence, removing books from libraries and curricula are not only doomed to failure; they are an abdication of adult responsibility and, as Marah Gubar writes of associating innocence with childhood, “potentially damaging to the wellbeing of actual young people.”2 A responsible adult recognizes that innocence is a negative state — an absence of knowledge and experience — and thus cannot be sustained. Shielding children from books that offer insight into the world’s dangers puts these children at risk. As Meg Rosoff notes, “If you don’t talk to kids about the difficult stuff, they worry alone.”3 Books offer a safe space in which to have conversations about difficult subjects. Taking these books out of circulation diminishes understanding and increases anxiety.

Separating children from books also fails to recognize that peril is not distributed randomly throughout the population, but concentrated in groups identifiable by their members’ race, gender, class, sexuality, disability, or religion. Preventing teenagers from reading Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak or Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings impedes them from learning about what survivors of rape endure, and how peers and teachers might better help them. Blocking children from reading Justin Richardson, Peter Parnell, and Henry Cole’s And Tango Makes Three prevents them from understanding that same-sex parents appear elsewhere in the animal kingdom, too. Banning Tim O’Brien‘s The Things They Carried and Walter Dean Myers’s Fallen Angels stops readers from discovering how war shapes a young psyche. Prohibiting Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian impedes young people from learning about the hard realities of life on a reservation, and from getting to know the novel’s resilient, funny protagonist. These books provide mirrors for young people of similar backgrounds or experiences, and windows for those of different ones.

Furthermore, preventing children from reckoning with potentially offensive works ill prepares them for the indignities that life will inflict. They should read books that trouble them, and have serious conversations about those books. For example, while Twain was a progressive nineteenth-century white author, if his Huckleberry Finn doesn’t offend contemporary readers, then they’re not reading it carefully enough. It’s not just the repeated use of the n-word, which should make people at least uncomfortable and at most angry (news flash: it was a racial slur in the nineteenth century, too). The portrayal of slave-owning Uncle Silas as a kindly “old gentleman” (Huck calls him “the innocentest, best old soul I ever see”) offers an apology for white supremacy. Assigning Huck Finn provides an occasion not only to talk about a classic American novel, but to teach people how to read uncomfortably, and to cope with experiences that upset them.

Though the motive is protection, restricting access to books hurts the children and teens who need them most. Young readers in vulnerable populations crave stories that help them make sense of their lives. Denying them access to these books contributes to their marginalization and puts them at greater risk. In any case, children often have experiences that they do not yet have the words to express: reading books can provide them with the words, and help them better understand. As Mr. Antolini tells Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (another frequently challenged book), “you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior.… Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now.  Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles.  You’ll learn from them — if you want to.”4

Young people do want to learn. Concerned adults should acknowledge innocence’s inevitable evaporation, and recognize that the young likely know more than you think they do. So, respect their curiosity. Take their concerns seriously. Let them read. Let them learn.


  1. David Booth, “Censorship,” Keywords for Children’s Literature, eds. Philip Nel and Lissa Paul (NYU Press, 2011), p. 26.
  2. Marah Gubar, “Innocence,” Keywords for Children’s Literature, eds. Nel and Paul, p. 122.
  3. Meg Rosoff, “You can’t protect children by lying to them — the truth will hurt less.” The Guardian 20 Sept. 2013: <>.
  4. J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951; Bantam Books, 1988), p. 189.

Philip Nel has co-edited two books for NYU Press: Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature (2008, with Julia Mickenberg) and Keywords for Children’s Literature (2011, with Lissa Paul). His most recent books are Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (UP Mississippi, 2012) and Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby, Vol. 1 (1942-1943) and Vol. 2 (1944-1945) (2013 & 2014, both co-edited with Eric Reynolds, Fantagraphics). He is University Distinguished Professor of English at Kansas State University.

2 Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Innocent Children and Frightened Adults: Why Censorship Fails (at From The Square: The NYU Press Blog)
  2. Why Censorship Fails Every Time | Comic Book Legal Defense Fund

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.