The earliest reference to “censor” appears as “one of two magistrates of ancient Rome” (Oxford English Dictionary [OED]), who in addition to taking the census (that is, the registration of citizens, originally for tax purposes), supervised public morals and censured the population (Columbia Encyclopedia 2008). The English words “censor” and “census” are from the Latin censere, which means to appraise, value, judge, consider or assess; “censure” is from the Latin censura, meaning judgment. During the era in which these terms originated, Cato the Elder (234–149 b.c.e.) undertook a vigorous campaign to stem the infiltration of Greek culture (Knowles 2006).
According to the OED, the first modern use of “censor” applied to people whose job it was to ensure that “books, journals, plays, etc.” were free from anything “immoral, heretical or offensive to the State,” and arose in relation to the theater. That is when the “Lord of Misrule” or the “Abbott of Unreason” evolved into the Stage Censor (c. 1555–83). A related term, “bowdlerize,” also arising out of censorship of theatrical productions, commemorates Thomas Bowdler (1754–1825), who published a book of Shakespeare’s plays—with all sexual or vulgar references removed (McArthur 1998).
The earliest use of the word “censorship” in the context of children’s literature developed in tandem with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s eighteenth-century concept of “the natural child” as innocent and in need of protection. The only book Rousseau allowed his hypothetical boy protégé in Émile (1762) was Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719); ironically, Sarah Trimmer, in her Family Magazine (1778–89), attacked bawdy passages in Defoe’s novel, as well as those in Perrault’s fairy tales, as inappropriate for children. Over the last two hundred years, children’s books targeted for censure reflect changing ideas about childhood and notions of suitability. What constitutes “censorship,” and whether limiting access to a book violates children’s right to read or protects them from danger, has been a longstanding matter of debate.
In dealing with sensitive and complex issues, there is no simple resolution to the dynamic tension between the need to protect children and the willingness to trust the relationship between a writer and a reader. British psychologist Nicholas Tucker, in The Child and the Book (1990), notes that occasionally a child may respond adversely to a story, but, while “situations like this are bound to happen sometimes, they can best be modified by discussion afterwards rather than censorships before.” Similarly, Kornei Chukovsky (1963), in his study of Russian children “protected” from myths and fairy tales, says censorship does not work because children create their own fantasy stories and worlds in place of literature.
Attempts to suppress dime novels in the United States in the 1860s or penny dreadfuls in Britain (which later evolved into series books) were unsuccessful despite claims that they would encourage children and working-class youth to engage in criminal behavior. Foster’s Education Act of 1870 was also opposed by some on the grounds that encouraging mass literacy would lead to crime and madness (Mullin 2003). Dr. Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent (1954) attacked comic books as a negative influence.
Prior to the rise of “new realism” in the 1960s, the general consensus about children’s literature was that difficult topics such as death, racial conflict, or sexual permissiveness were taboo and therefore simply did not appear (Postman 1994). Topics often censored include sexual content, language, violence, homosexuality, race, and religion (Whelan 2009). By the twentieth century, censorship of children’s literature developed a specialized vocabulary of its own, including words such as “challenge,” “quiet-censorship,” “covert-censorship,” and “self-censorship.”
“Challenge” takes the form of an official written complaint to a school or library (Hopkins 1996), though the American Library Association (2009) estimates that the number of challenges reported represent only a quarter of the actual total number, and also reports that the Harry Potter series ranks as the most challenged book series of the twenty-first century.
“Quiet censorship” refers to publishers of children’s literature who, in anticipation of negative reaction or unwanted pressure from the public, exercise censorship outside of the public eye (Hunt 1997). Publisher censorship can occur at any stage of the process: prior to acceptance, in the final negotiations prior to publication, when the book is re-released in paperback, when illustrations are changed, or when the book is translated. Twice Beatrix Potter was pressured to delete material: in The Tailor of Gloucester (1903), a rat drinks from a black bottle (it was censored), and in The Tale of Tom Kitten (1907), Tom’s clothes come off (she refused the changes).
Other actors in the quiet censorship arena include individuals, groups, or communities, who, once a book is published, may pressure publishers, public institutions (such as libraries or schools), or even commercial enterprises (such as book and video stores) to suppress, remove, or limit access to material (Hopkins 1996). These unofficial censors may attempt to enforce certain values by purging schools and libraries of “controversial” books or circulating lists of “objectionable” books and authors. Many librarians attest to acts of rogue or “covert censorship” in which angry readers white out, black out, tear out, razor out, or ink out what they deem to be offensive portions—as in copies of Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen (1970) where such readers cover up the young boy’s genitals.
Authors also practice self-censorship, making decisions about what might be acceptable in a children’s book—sometimes, as Craig Howes (2004) says, “working against free expression [and thus becoming] self-silencing.” Three children’s book writers—Lois Lowry, Gillian Rubinstein, and Erik Haugaard—confess to occasional self-censorship, sometimes out of economic concerns or fear of publisher’s remarks or possible attacks from pubic censors. As Lowry put it, “I began to consider each bad word that appeared from my… word processor, and to question whether it needed to be there” (Nilsen and Bosmajian 1996).
Conversely, children’s literature has historically provided a venue for resistance to censorship. During the McCarthy era in the United States, writing for children became a safe refuge for creative people on the left who were able to work under pseudonyms and evade censorship (Mickenberg 2006). In The Day They Came to Arrest the Book (1988), Nat Hentoff highlights censorship issues by examining The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), which he believes is a useful tool for educators (in part because of its language) in exploring racism, slavery, and the moral dilemmas of its era.
Since librarians or teachers can easily be fired for censorship reasons (Kantor 2007), often a single complaint can frighten them into removing an item immediately. In addition to the fear of receiving a complaint or of corrupting children, teachers censor material to avoid frightening or saddening children, or to avoid introducing controversy into their classroom, thus steering clear of Eve Bunting’s Fly Away Home (1991) (dealing with homelessness), or Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach (1991) (a family struggles for financial security) (Wollman-Bonilla 1998). One of the most common objections to children’s books is “inappropriate language,” often labeled obscene or pornographic. On these grounds, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1937), J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (1951), and Katherine Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins (1978) have all faced censorship.
While censorship of a book based on its gender bias, sexism, or racism is more accepted by society, this approach has led to certain books being censored for embodying “outmoded” attitudes representative of the period in which they were written. For example, Helen Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo (1899), Travers’s Mary Poppins (1934), Hugh Lofting’s The Story of Dr Dolittle (1920), and Hergé’s Tintin au Congo (1931) have all been banned due to negative representations of Africans or African-Americans (MacLeod 1983). Books attacked for their political message include George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945; communism) and Michael J. Caduto and Joseph Bruchac’s Keepers of the Earth (1988; environmentalism, native spirituality) (Karolides 1999; Zimmerman 2000). Stories like these are attacked because of perceptions that, even within a sociohistorical context, negative attitudes toward multiculturalism, the role of women, the physically challenged, racial, social, or sexual minorities, or religion are no longer acceptable.
Some have sought to ban children’s literature on moral grounds. Books targeted for promoting antisocial behavior include Dav Pilkey’s Adventures of Captain Underpants (1997; bad behavior, toilet humor), Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy (1964; lying and window-peeping), Paul Zindel’s The Pigman (1968; lying, swearing, drinking, drug abuse, disrespect for authority and property), Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (1974; mob rule, masturbation), S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (1967a; gangs), Alice Childress’s A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich (1982; drug addiction, swearing, Black militancy), Trina Schart Hyman’s Caldecott-winning Little Red Riding Hood (1983; there is a bottle of wine in Little Red Riding Hood’s basket), and Isabelle Holland’s Heads You Win, Tails I Lose (1973; drug abuse). Safety concerns have also resulted in objections to books depicting young children engaged in dangerous behaviors such as turning on a stove, climbing a ladder, or walking alone. Books that have been banned due to depictions of violence include Fitzhugh’s Bang, Bang You’re Dead (1986) and R. L. Stine’s Wizards, Warriors and You series (1985). Those opposed to these works argue instead for the use of ethical heroes (see Chetwin in Lehr 1995).
In a 2009 survey of librarians (Whelan 2009), 87 percent said the main reason they avoid certain books is because they include sexuality or sex education. This content seldom appears in literature for young children but is constantly surfacing in works for young adults and includes controversial themes such as: masturbation and sexuality, as in Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (1970), Deenie (1973), and Then Again, Maybe I Won’t (1971); teenage pregnancy, as in Josephine Kamm’s Young Mother (1968); conception, as in Norma Klein’s Naomi in the Middle (1974); nonmarital sex, as in Klein’s Mom, the Wolf Man, and Me (1972); infanticide, as in Lois Lowry’s The Giver (1993); abortion, as in Klein’s It’s Not What You Expect (1973); contraception, as in Blume’s Forever (1975); AIDS, as in Mary Kate Jordan, Abby Levine, and Judith Friedman’s Losing Uncle Tim (1989); and, of course, premarital sex, as in Blume’s Deenie and Forever, Klein’s It’s Okay If You Don’t Love Me (1977), and Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat series (1989–2005). Teachers and administrators are often pressured to remove these books from schools. In a related but less sensitive topic, nudity or body parts are sometimes labeled as “obscene”; recently, for example, there have been objections to Susan Patron’s Newbery Medal winner The Higher Power of Lucky (2006), in which a rattlesnake bites the main character’s dog’s “scrotum.”
Homosexuality, often a focus of censorship, was cited by 47 percent of censoring librarians in the aforementioned survey (Whelan 2009). Books cited for this reason include John Knowles’s A Separate Peace (1959), Michael Willhoite’s Daddy’s Roommate (1990), Aaron Fricke’s Reflections of a Rock Lobster (1981), A. J. Homes’s Jack (1990), Deborah Hautzig’s Hey Dollface (1978), and Anne Heron’s Two Teenagers in Twenty (1993).
Some images or references in literature may inspire a hostile reaction from people with particular religious convictions. Pullman’s The Golden Compass (1995) was pulled from Catholic schools when the popular film adaptation was released in theatres (Abley 2007). One of the most contested issues in educational circles today is the labeling of Wicca, native spirituality, and other earth-based approaches to spirituality as witchcraft, the occult, or satanic worship (Barry 1992; “Books Involving Witchcraft” 1994). Due to their “occult” themes, Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia (1977) was once the most frequently challenged, and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books quickly became the most protested ever with 472 complaints. Some groups believe that any teaching about non-Western religions (Buddhism, Taoism, etc.), or even yoga or meditation, equate to witchcraft, cultish activity, or attempts to convert children to a religion (Shariff and Manley-Casimir 1999). Others believe that devils and witches are a real force for evil in the world, and argue against any literature featuring them; stories that feature magic, fairies, and ghosts have been attacked for similar reasons. In recent decades, despite strong opposition (Blair 1996), groups of self-declared witches have begun to defend their right to expression and have criticized authors of stories where witches do not appear in a favorable light, including Roald Dahl’s The Witches (1983) (Barry 1992).
Today, questions of who can write or speak for whom often lead to charges of censorship. Many censors on the left either are sympathetic to or come from embattled cultural or racial minorities who feel they are already threatened—sometimes physically, sometimes socially. Concern about negative stereotypes leads naturally to the question of “cultural appropriation”: should a non-Chinese interpret Chinese folktales? Should Europeans or their descendants try to retell native legends? Lissa Paul (2000), for example, attacks books such as Jan Bourdeau Waboose’s Morning on the Lake (1997) for “boutique multiculturalism” (to use Stanley Fish’s  term), to explain how ethnicity is watered down and designated as “too foreign” for children. The difficult questions in censorship come to the fore more forcefully when children are given books written for adults, with mature themes and difficult choices. For example, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936) and David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars (1994) were both written with adult audiences and sensibilities in mind. Also, it is important to note that banned books often become even more attractive to readers. As Peter Hunt (1997), who gets the final word on the subject, notes: “The censorship of children’s literature is a texture of paradoxes: between benevolent control and fearful repression; between common-sense attitudes to words and meanings and necessary freedom of interpretation; between a ‘trivial’ subject and a far-from-trivial reaction to it—and, as we have seen in contemporary Britain, between the overt and the covert.”