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Censorship of Children’s Literature – an Argument Against

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Some of the greatest novels for children and young adults are under attack. Due to what some deem as “inappropriate” language or certain topics, countless books have either been censored or banned entirely from schools and libraries. This is not just something that happens abroad, but in America as well. That’s right. America. This is home where freedom of speech is one of our oldest and most highly held ideals. An all too common pastime in the United States these days is banning books.

This is truly unfortunate and happens far too frequent.

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Angry letters and pressure from objectionable parents have forced libraries, schools to ban certain types of “harmful” literature from their shelves and curriculums. Even today, school boards, local governments, religious fanatics and moral crusaders (of what they consider moral) attempt to restrict the freedom of children’s right to read. Impressions is a widely used book series by David and Jack Booth whose books are used by educators are “widely viewed as a modern, imaginative language tool for stimulating the minds of children ages 5-12” (Clark).

This fifteen book series is a compilation of folklore that has been in use in 1,500 schools in 34 states during the last ten years. The books that consist of the compilation are from several different authors big name authors such as Lewis Carroll and C. S. Lewis (Clark). While these are clearly a valuable resource for educators to use, certain Christian parents, as well as those who are what Clark refers to as “educational traditionalists” don’t see it that way. Christians view most of the books as promoters of witchcraft.

Opponents also claim that the series can have a profound effect on children’s ability to sleep, and claim that the series promotes insomnia with some of wording in the stories (Clark). The interpretations of the material and the stance opponents are taking against the Impressions series have made them “the most frequently attacked set of schoolbooks in the country” (Clark). According to People of the American Way, five of the fifty-five schools that have been confronted by these groups of people have folded under the pressure and have banned the series from being taught in their school (Clark).

Henry Reichman defined censorship as “the removal, suppression, or restricted circulation of literary, artistic or educational materials on the grounds that these are morally or otherwise objectionable in light of the standards applied by the censor,” in his book Censorship and Selection, Issues and Answers for Schools (qtd. in Cromwell 2005). Based on this definition, when school boards or libraries make a decision to either not incorporate, or to remove a work of literature from their campuses, they are in fact censoring them (Cromwell 2005).

Books can be censored or banned by a variety of different institutions: Federal or state government, local bureaucrats, or by community pressure (Foerstel 2002). When a book is censored or banned, it’s basically imposing one person’s (or a group of people’s) ideals onto a larger group, especially in the case of community pressure. Student’s first amendment rights are also important to take into account so that students cannot be excluded from meaningful literature.

In a free an open society children simply should not be told that they cannot read a certain book, and the very principle seems to violate the First Amendment. It’s not just the student’s First Amendment rights that are being trampled on by the censorship of certain books, but the teachers’ as well. One example occurred in 2000 was when a high school principle in Virginia told teacher Jeff Newton that he must remove two lists from the Office for Intellectual Freedom (or OIF) from his door (Foerstel 2002).

Robert O’Neill, director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression is quoted as saying “We felt that constraining a public school teacher’s choice of materials, not simply in the classroom, but in this case, materials on the classroom door does in fact abridge a teacher’s First Amendment rights. ” (Foerstel 2002). Even when the ACLU looked into the case, and trying to get them to see that banning him from having the list up was a violation of Mr. Newton’s First Amendment, the school board took no action.

Newton promptly resigned (Foerstel 2002). The most common causes of the censorship of books in junior high and high schools are sexuality, teaching evolution (without reference to creationism), showing women behaving in nontraditional ways, and literature that shows disobedience towards authority figures such as parents (Cromwell 2005). On the flip side of just outright banning these books based on first blush one ought to think about and consider that there are positives to exposing children to these topics.

Profanity can serve a literary purpose, topics of sexuality interwoven into a great literary work can provide answers to unanswered questions adolescents have about their own sexuality. The Color Purple, by Alice Walker is one example of this. Violence can be “justified if it portrays historical events or current social conditions” (Brinkley, 1999, p. 128). Even non-fiction books about drug and sexual education are banned (Cromwell, 2005). Cromwell argues that drug education books are banned as well.

It would seem that those banning these types of books would rather have their children learning about these real world topics through experimentation, which almost always proves to be disastrous without some sort of education about the risks involved. Types of censorship can fall into several different categories: religious, sexual (as previously mentioned), social, and political. Private, Christian based schools certainly censor more material out of their curriculum than do public schools due to the strict moral codes they want to instill in the students that attend their school.

But just because these schools are private doesn’t give them the right to ban books. Just because a parent is paying for their child to get a private, religious education doesn’t automatically mean they approve of censorship or banning of books. And even though the First Amendment prevents public schools and libraries of censoring literature based on religious ideals through the separation of church and state, there are still religious groups that have gotten books banned in based on religious grounds (Bald 1998).

Burning of books has also been done (and is currently being done) by members of Christian churches. According to the Landover Baptist Church website, burning a book is “one of the most loving things a Christian could do for a person they really care about” (Landover). It’s amazing how people can rejoice in the burning of books that they personally don’t agree with. This site also credits the destruction of works of the like of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle to Christians. The Harry Potter books are one of the targets of religious groups due to the use of sorcery and the occult.

According to the Forbes. com website on the topic, David Serchuk writes that two Pastors in Michigan burned Harry Potter books in what they deemed a stance against sorcery (Serchuk). He goes on to say that there have been around six book burnings of the same nature of the Harry Potter series. The First Amendment provides “no apparent justification for suppressing material because of socially objectionable content” (Sova 1998). While the First Amendment does regulate profanity on the airwaves, there is no such documentation for literature.

Censoring or banning a book just because of what one or more individuals feel is offensive or something that they don’t agree with is simply unconstitutional. Proponents of censoring books because of “inappropriate language” or profanity are quite simply trying to impose their own views and opinions onto others, and is simply not right. In a country with freedom of information, children really should not be kept from reading such American classics such as Huckleberry Finn and Catcher in the Rye.

Censorship of children’s literature compromises freedom of expression, which is protected by the 1st Amendment of the Constitution. Members of the Supreme Court have written that freedom of speech is “the matrix, the indispensable condition of nearly every other form of freedom” (Nakaya 21). This essentially means that without freedom of speech and expression other fundamental rights disappear. If every member in society is able to express their thoughts and communicate freely with other members of society, that will acknowledge each person’s worth.

The protection of this liberty must be continually defended and above all respected at all costs. However, the Government also has a history of encouraging the censorship of literature. In the 1950’s, a committee was established by Congress due to the belief that certain books were “a serious moral threat” to the United States (Burress 1). The Gatherings Committee (as it was named), proposed a specific bill that would put into place a board for federal censorship. The purposed bill was that that for any book to move across state lines it needed approval by this special board (Burress 1).

Severe fines and penalties would be standard punishment for anyone who violated this order. The book that was specifically targeted by the proposed bill was The Amboy Dukes, a book that portrayed members of adolescent gang life as youths harassed by society and lacking parental advisory due to the war effort (Burress 1). The bill never made it into law, but the very notion that members of Congress would propose such a bill is preposterous, as it directly violates rights protected under the First Amendment.

However, the political issues brought up by the Gatherings Committee impacted discussion about censorship in the academic world for following decades. Between 1950 and 1980, scholarly research on censorship increased exponentially (Burress 52). In the 1940s, 871 research works on censorship appeared in professional journals. In the 1950s there were 1,544 articles, in the 1960s, 2,787, and finally in the 1970s, 3,876 (Burress 52). While there is no proven correlation to the Gatherings Committee and the number of research works into censorship, it certainly appeared to have an impact.

This was all due to people getting together and trying to decide what is appropriate for others based through their own judgments and perceptions on what’s considered right and wrong, and has no place in a free society. It’s not just secondary education where books are censored, but happens at the elementary level as well. This is a different kind of censorship however, and is essentially done by a teacher simply not including a certain book in his or her curriculum.

One view is that the teacher is in fact practicing self-censorship, and thus imposing his or her viewpoints onto their students. Teachers are also afraid they are going to be challenged by angry parents or even communities as a whole. What happens is, instead of allowing a book into the classroom to begin with, a lot of teachers are simply not including them in their curriculum for fear of backlash by parents, or even the community at large (Simmons 96). But even books that teachers allow in are being censored for fear of backlash by disapproving parents.

For example John Simmons writes “I once walked into a third grade room after school hours and found the teacher drawing on a book about Benjamin Franklin—a book that I knew she planned to use in a literature-study group the next week. The teacher is an extraordinary artist, so I thought perhaps she was embellishing on one of the illustrations in the book. When I asked her what she was doing, her reply really surprised me. One of the illustrations portrayed Benjamin Franklin as a young boy swimming naked in a river.

The teacher was drawing swimming shorts on little Ben in each of the thirty-five student copies because she did not want to risk any repercussions from parents” (Simmons 96). If that example doesn’t prove just how ridiculous all this censoring is getting I don’t know what will. And do we really hold our children in such a low regard that they won’t be able to see that they’re being treated foolishly? I remember when I was reading Huckleberry Finn and Catcher in the Rye in about 5th grade and all the swear words were etched out with a ball-point pen.

It absolutely insulted my intelligence. If we don’t respect our children, they tend to lose their respect for us. Due to “political correctness”, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn has recently been re-written to get rid of the “N” world and replace it with “slave” (Hotchkiss). Craig Hotchkiss is Education Program Manager at the Mark Twain House and Museum. He goes on to say that it was Twain’s intention to use the crude language (especially the racist ideas) present in Huckleberry Finn to capture what life was like during the end of the nineteenth century.

He explains that Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn to not only come to terms with his own past widely held belief of justified racism, but to offer a way for others to come to grips with theirs. This book was written during a period in our nation’s history when a lot of American’s ideas about race were starting to regress back to thoughts held before and during the civil war, and he sought to offer the book up as a sort of cautionary tale of sorts (Hotchkiss).

It is an absolute travesty that this was allowed to be done, and the watering down of such a great literary work is a disservice not only to Mark Twain, but for those children who will read this version. There are those who do believe that censorship of children’s literature is a good idea. Obviously if there weren’t, books wouldn’t be banned or censored in the first place. In Kevin W. Saunder’s book, Saving our children from the First Amendment, the author argues that certain types of censorship are necessary to teach children good values.

He goes on to say that “society should be allowed to limit the access of children to materials not suitable to their age” (Saunders 28). But who decides what’s “suitable” to specific age ranges? He actually tries to make the argument that where children are concerned, the rights should be significantly weaker. How can we expect our children to fully believe in the first amendment when only adults are the ones who seem to benefit from its full implications? The argument used by those who say that the protection of children is a valid justification for limiting free speech is simply erroneous.

And does censorship really prevent children from being exposed to or “harmed by” vulgarity? Just walking down the street of Middle America, or even on your average school playground, one can hear a variety of “non-censored” vocabulary words that were unlikely picked up by any school textbook. Books like Huckleberry Finn have been attacked for its usage of the “n” word, but removing it would deprive children of understanding the history of the time period in which the book was written.

Andrea Nakaya writes that “too often we have lost the ability to distinguish between what’s inappropriate for kids and what is actually harmful to them. And, acting on fear and suspicion and assumption, we have, with the best of intentions, created situations that are potentially more harmful to kids and teens than what we want to protect them from” (Nakaya 34). Even if books were allowed to be censored without opposition, censorship does not actually protect children, but rather damages them.

If one is to sterilize children’s reading material, and not expose them to real life situations, children are left unprepared for life as an adult. For example, books whose characters deal with drug abuse, alcoholism, divorce, abortion, sexuality, homosexuality, aids, death and dying, hopefully enable the children to face real situations as they might arise. Books like Daddy’s Roommate and Forever and Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret by Judy Blume exposes children to controversial and “hush hush” topics in a healthy way.

In today’s literature, characters deal with issues that aren’t just black and white, but many shades of gray. Uncensored literature represents a variety of ethnic groups, alternative lifestyles, and a variety of vernacular language usage, all of which any child will eventually encounter. As a nation that is seeking more than ever to become multi-cultural and truly understand each other, instead of the divisive mindset of our past, our children should be exposed to topics outside their parent’s comfort zones. When we shield our children from the world around hem, we are truly doing them a disservice for when they become adults of their own. It’s well documented that bigotry and old frameworks of thinking can be passed from generation to generation, and sadly they usually are. We need to allow our children to think for themselves, and not try to cram our own view of the world down their throat by force. Censorship not only doesn’t safeguard children, but it also hinders teaching and learning. If materials used in schools are homogenized, kids will find the texts are lackluster compared to what they may read on the internet or in their own personal time.

We need our children to be focused and interested on materials that will help them to understand our culture and the world we live in. “Schools should be the great agencies of social and intellectual equality. This they cannot be unless they can give all children access to great literature and teach them the joy of reading. Reading is the key to future success” (Lankford 50). Literature teaches us about our common humanity, and does so by “speaking candidly to our souls, not by censoring what we read” (Lankford 51).

When we only allow our children to view material that has lessons for “approved values”, we are in fact stunting our children intellectually (Nakaya 39). Literature offers us common ground for understanding other people. We are able to see each other across space and time. Literature shows us that all men and women are essentially equal, despite apparent differences. We can learn a lot about each other by a free exchange of ideas and broaden our focus of humanity. It shakes us up and makes us think.

Reason and intelligence must be formed by extensive and meaningful study of literature, history, and cultures of our own country and other civilizations (Lankford 52). If we censor books mercilessly then we deprive our children of potential learning and understanding. To dilute the book to a more watered down, politically correct form destroys the book’s potency as great historical literature and a valuable teaching tool. I believe that great works of literature such as Huckleberry Finn hold in it lessons not only about our nation’s history, but about how we have overcome some of those ugly parts though a realization of our common humanity.

Cite this Censorship of Children’s Literature – an Argument Against

Censorship of Children’s Literature – an Argument Against. (2017, Mar 12). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/censorship-of-childrens-literature-an-argument-against/

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