Parents complain about “offensive” children’s books.
A recent report shows that Public Libraries in the UK have chosen to withdraw many popular children’s books following complaints from anxious parents. Stories have been found to be racist, blasphemous, feature “coarse” language, reinforce stereotypes or be too violent.
As a teacher and a parent aspects of this infuriate me; on the whole the books featured in the report are fairly popular books enjoyed by millions of children, for example Horrible Histories and Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes. However some libraries are acting on complaints and removing books that have been criticised by a tiny minority of parents.
Rudeness and violence in books are often what attracts children to them in the first place; children can read about characters behaving in a way that they know is inappropriate and that is part of the fun. Would Roald Dahl’s The Twits be as popular if the main characters were demure, polite and treated each other kindly? Would Horrid Henry be as enjoyable if he was just like Perfect Peter?
As for Horrible Histories, I am very sorry to break it to some parents, but actually history does feature an awful lot of violence and brutality. Horrible Histories conveys this in a humorous way, giving children a good idea of what people were like in the past without overwhelming or scaring them. It has succeeded in making history appealing to many children which should only be commended.
Some books caused offence because they were seen to be racist, both the Babar and Tintin series were accused of reinforcing unacceptable ethnic stereotypes. This is a more tricky area, as clearly books written many years ago can often convey the attitudes that were acceptable in the era that they were written and would never be published today. As society progresses these books can contain themes which are unacceptable to parents and children today.
Whilst staying at my mother’s house, my daughter found a very old book, published in the late 1950s. We began reading it together and soon found that one story had racist overtones. My daughter commented on this and we had a discussion about how attitudes were different in the past and sometimes there was discrimination. She goes to a very multicultural school and has not really encountered racism so it was quite useful to make her aware that some people do have racist attitudes but it should not be tolerated. However if a child came from a background where racism was commonplace, would such books serve to reinforce negative attitudes?
One book was criticised for portraying a negative image of obesity.
As levels of childhood obesity spiral I would actually find a book that gave a positive image of obesity more worrying. Obesity in childhood is unhealthy and causes many problems in later life. This book features 2 characters who are inactive and constantly watch TV. Consequently they become overweight. When they begin to eat more healthily and be more active , they become fitter and healthier. Some parents felt this may give children body image problems. I don’t see the problem with trying to get a healthy lifestyle image over to young children.
In some cases complaints about books may be justified. Older books especially can use outdated vocabulary that is found offensive in today’s society. In my very first teaching job, I found a book for SEN children in the dark recesses of my stock cupboard. Printed in 1953, it was called “Exercises for Retarded Children” That one went straight in the bin but illustrates how what was acceptable in a book 50 years ago can be totally unacceptable today.
However in many cases libraries are clearly bowing to overprotective parents and denying other children the right to enjoy certain books. No doubt these are the same type of parents who don’t read their children fairy stories because they are too frightening. Much as we would like to, we cannot wrap our children up in cotton wool, sooner or later they are going to encounter the real world. At least if they have encountered some of the less fluffy aspects of it in a fictional context, they may be better equipped to cope with it.