Why Children’s Books Shouldn’t Be Sanitized :: NEWS
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Why Children’s Books Shouldn’t Be Sanitized

13 May 2022 Share

Alison Tarrant, Chief Executive of the School Library Association (SLA) stresses why we must stand up against censorship

There’s recently been a petition asking people to “make a stance about sexualised children's contents in books” following the cancellation of an author visit to a school. Ignoring the fact that the quotes in question have been taken out of context – this is a concerning development for a number of reasons.  

Books are media and entertainment 

Books are a form of media, one of the oldest forms of entertainment we have. This sometimes means they get overlooked, but it is what they are at their core. They have developed and changed with the times, and books for children have probably had one of the most significant journeys of progress. At their initiation they were for children to read and learn, moral tales, with a lesson to be learnt. They have developed and changed to be more user-focused (as with all media), more mindful of the audience they’re catering for (i.e. children and parents) and more varied – fiction, poetry, information books, comics and graphic novels. 

Personally, I don’t watch films over a 15 certification (I’m a scaredy cat!) but that doesn’t mean I want to ban all scary films for all people. Some people love a horror film, and as much as I don’t, they deserve to be able to entertain themselves in their own way (permitting it doesn’t hurt others). We need a variety of books to meet the needs and wants of all users – and different books for different purposes. A book that a child chooses to read for themselves, for pleasure, may be a different book to one which is taught in class – and it is right that this is the case.  

Children are in development 

Children are growing, developing, questioning. They are encountering things for the first time, having thoughts they’re not sure if other children are having, and learning about all sorts of things – life, friendships, puberty and beyond. They need, and will seek out, support for this stage in their lives in all kinds of ways. Talking to parents, carers, teachers, TAs and other adults is one way, but it requires a huge amount of courage for some topics, which makes anonymous support easier. And there are multiple avenues for them to seek this support. Books, the internet, magazines, and more.  

A key strength of children’s books is that they are created with the child front and centre, built for a particular attention span, word count, vocabulary level, and with relevant cultural references. Books allow the reader to create the world, be in control of the pace of the narrative, paint the pictures based on their experience and their ability to visualise the scenes or characters in the book. The internet is not built in that way. The internet is not child-friendly, and reduces the control they have of the answers they are getting. Videos and images appear on the first page of the results, sometimes causing more questions and resulting in deeper exploration of elements the child isn’t ready for. We’ve all fallen into a YouTube black hole at some point! To put it bluntly, if a child is wondering what sex is, they are better off reading a book about it – however explicit – than using a search engine, or worse, trying it before they are ready.  

Children start thinking about issues of sexuality and gender younger than might be expected. By 7 or 8 some children know who they are attracted to. All children tend to look up to children who are 3 or 4 years older, and this can be reflected in their choice of book. They don’t just want to read about children their age, in their circumstance, they want to read books about older children – to explore possible futures, or different situations. They want characters they can relate to, learn from (both what to do and what not to do) and adventure with.  

Not all books are for all readers 

Books have to be culturally relevant. To appeal to readers, they have to fit into their world, not be separate, or sanitised. That means some books are written to appeal to a range of tastes, maturity levels and temperaments – much as adult books are. Not all books will suit all readers. They don’t have to, and they’re not supposed to. Children deserve to explore books as they would sweets – an analogy used by our current Children’s Laureate – but even in a sweet shop, there will be some you love (caramels), some you loathe (liquorice), and some in between. This doesn’t mean we restrict the options and, quite frankly, the benefits of reading for pleasure make it imperative that we don’t.  

Getting a child to read for pleasure, and build it into a habit, is proven to benefit them for life – providing better life chances, mental wellbeing and even being paid more. Children are people in their own right, with their own rights, and they have the ability to put a book down. In fact, learning this is a vital part of becoming a mature, independent reader. Chapters don’t autoload and start playing after 5 seconds, and words don’t form stories if they’re not read. The child is in the driving seat. Reading is an adventure, and there will be bits that don’t pan out, books returned unread. Learning to do this is vital. A school library is a curated space – books chosen from the hundreds of thousands out there to fit, appeal to, and widen the knowledge base of the children in that school by someone who knows the children, knows the books, and has the ability to create the best pairings.  

Global society

It comes down to a very fundamental point. We may not like everything printed, but we don’t read everything, and we respect other people’s choices. 

We live in a society full of different viewpoints, and the ability to navigate these and decide what you think is a key skill. When do children learn this if all books are sanitised? Who gets control of what level of ‘sanitised’ is acceptable? How do children visualise their future if realistic scenarios aren’t explored? Recently, Nicola Davies wrote a brilliant blog on why it’s important to explore and discuss difficult topics in children’s books, so you can read that for a fuller picture.

The OECD is developing its vision for education in 2030, and the idea of ‘global competency’ is at the core of it. This is defined as: “the capacity to examine local, global and intercultural issues, to understand and appreciate the perspectives and world views of others, to engage in open, appropriate and effective interactions with people from different cultures, and to act for collective well-being and sustainable development.” 

Education as a whole needs to build the ability to explore alternative viewpoints, generate empathy, and aid understanding.  

In conclusion...

It is truly sad to see an organisation mislead people and encourage the judgement of books and people in this way. Perhaps it is accidental, and they will update their petition with the full context of the quotes and change the headline. I hope they reflect and find the courage to apologise. 

Schools have a duty to educate children to the best of their ability, and enable them to become the fullest person they can be. In this case, the school are happy with the stock of their library, and the decisions made by their staff. That should be enough. Pushing one judgement and reducing books to ‘safe’, ‘inoffensive’ and removing any difficult topic would reduce them and damage the children growing up in today’s world.  

To read our joint statement on censorship and intellectual freedom in school libraries, click here.