Books for children are the ones most likely to be challenged based on content. If parents are to decide for their children which books are appropriate, that means that "inappropriate" books can and should be published so all parents have that choice.
A few days ago my 10-year-old showed me the book she was reading. She was nervous because it included a bad word.
The word was hell. The book was When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead -- a book that I had read and found moving and challenging. I thought it might be difficult reading, but I had never thought it was too edgy.
So I told my daughter not to worry. Lots of books have so-called bad words in them. It doesn't make them bad books or not OK for her to read. The author was trying to show the way the world is, and sometimes people use those words.
That doesn't mean that my daughter should use those words herself, but she shouldn't be afraid to read them.
A few days after my daughter and I talked about When You Reach Me, Clean Reader -- an application that removes proscribed words from ebooks -- created a controversy.
I reject the term "clean reading" on the face of it. Children have experiences that aren't deemed "age appropriate" in books, but that happen in their real lives. If we say the books that describe those events and experiences aren't clean, that's what we're saying about the children who live them. So it's not a term I will ever use.
Stead's book won a Newbery Award, but otherwise (and maybe even so)
there are libraries and teachers that wouldn't acquire and use it with their students
because the presence of that word. That is their choice -- there are
millions of books out there, and every librarian, teacher, parent, and
reader is free to choose among them for any reason they wish.
The word in my daughter's book made her nervous. Some parents might
think that means it's not all right for a child to read. But I'm glad
she read it, and glad she came to me to talk about it. A word in a book isn't going to hurt my child. If it makes her nervous, a book gives her a
safe way to deal with it. It's not the first time she's heard it, it
won't be the last, and it won't be the worst. She can hear a bad word --
even say it or do something wrong -- and not be a bad person.
My speech patterns have always been PG. You could count on one hand the times in my life I have said out loud a word that couldn't be said on prime time TV. And yet sometimes my characters use much stronger language than I do, and they certainly do things I wouldn't do. In an unpublished middle grade manuscript of mine, an antagonist says something very vivid and nasty to my main character. But he is a thug and a murderer! He isn't going to sound like Mary Poppins. (This particular bit of dialogue, while something I wouldn't say, is one of the lines I'm most proud of in the book. Maybe I'm proud of it because I wouldn't say it.)
Most of the discussion around Clean Reader revolves around adult books, but adult books are not the ones that are most likely to be restricted based on content -- kids' books are. And it's fine for parents to be able to decide what's "appropriate" in a book for their child. And that means that the books that one parent finds "inappropriate" must be available so that other parents can choose, based on their own judgment.
Clean Reader is not something I would use for myself or my child, but if it allows other kids to enjoy When You Reach Me
when it would otherwise be forbidden, that's not all bad. It's not all
good either, but it's better than publishers, bookstores, or book clubs
editing out content before publication or refusing to publish or distribute them. The original text is not affected by Clean Reader. But in middle-grade fiction, preemptive censorship happens all the time, and it impacts all readers. It reduces the quality, variety, and truth of books published for young people. It means that many children cannot read about the reality of their own lives.
When the time comes that one of my children picks up a mature work, I'm not sure yet how or if I will choose to restrict their reading materials.
But the other day, I told my daughter that she will read about all kinds of things she wouldn't do or say. She will read about things that have actually happened but shouldn't have, and about things that should never, ever happen. When she's uncomfortable with the content of a book or doesn't understand it, bring it to me, and we'll talk about it.
Or close the covers. I do it all the time. Every book is not for every reader, and I can't decide for others what is appropriate. I can only decide for my children and teach them to decide for themselves.
Appropriate Literature: Elana K Arnold on Stacked.com