Keynote address given by Keith Gray
First presented at the Open Book Festival, Cape Town
Keith Gray Keynote text: “Censorship Today”
When I was 14 I was an outstandingly mediocre student but a voracious reader and a determined wannabe writer. I read many ‘How To’ creative writing guides and even crow-barred some money out of my father to be able to attend a local creative writing night class. And the advice I kept hearing, what seemed to be the golden rule was ‘write about what you know.’ Although I may have broken that rule many times over the years, for the following few minutes I believe I’ll stick to it pretty closely. I write for children and teenagers – this is my perspective on censorship from within the world of kids’ books.
I’d like to start by reading a letter I received a couple of years ago –
I found the language in your book Warehouse most objectionable.
At a time when schools are struggling with literacy standards, do you really have to use language of that sort?
I note from the cover that it is ‘unsuitable for younger readers’. I am 76, how old do I need to be?
Mr. AD Cartwright
Now, I’d love to dismiss Mr. Cartwright as narrow-minded or, at his age, out-of-touch. It would be so very easy to simply ignore him. But I can’t. Because Mr. Cartwright is possibly a grandfather. And as a grandfather, he’s definitely a Gatekeeper.
Despite what you think you may know about the world of children’s and teenage books, we are not all frightened by the big bad wolf or the troll under the bridge (and if you ask me, Lord Voldemort was just given bad press). What keeps us awake at night, what makes us rewrite and redraft and redraft and rewrite, what we’re terrified of finding lurking beneath our beds when the lights go out, are the gatekeepers.
It’s all about access. Young people accessing books – writers accessing their readers.
Unlike many adult readers, the majority of young readers don’t buy books. They are given books as gifts, they have books forced on them in the classroom, or they borrow books from a library. I may write a novel with an ideal reader in mind, perhaps 13 or 14 years old, but before my book reaches my reader it will be confronted, challenged and vetted at several stages – approved or not by the gatekeepers.
There are obviously the publishers and editors – and it goes without saying that all writers need to keep them onside, but they have been known to be a disappointingly timid bunch when it comes to the more provocative children’s books. There are also the librarians, the majority of whom I’ve found to be brilliant, knowledgeable and passionate about children’s books. But then there are those who bring a personal agenda to their shelves… Next are teachers, who often unfortunately have much less knowledge or passion for current children’s books and who can decide against using a particular title in their classroom. And of course there are the parents and grandparents, who on the whole have the least amount of knowledge about children’s books – except for the books they read when they were young. “You know, the nice ones?”
If any one of these people takes the slightest offense, if the book cannot successfully navigate these gatekeepers, then somewhere along the way a gate closes shut. That book shall not pass! And my ideal reader may never discover that book I wrote with them in mind even exists.
It’s also possible I may never discover a gate has been closed either. So often these gates ease shut with a whisper, rarely ever with a clang.
So what is it that the gatekeepers are keeping their beady eyes out for? Which blips on their radar are indecent Exocets primed ready to explode the sweet nature of the nearest unsuspecting youngster? Well, there’s the ‘F-bomb’ for one.
Language is often the biggest complaint – as Mr. Cartwright points out in his letter. And I do, yes, freely admit to using the F-word twice in my 68,000-word novel. But I also feel Mr. Cartwright is showing his age here. I don’t think he’s taken into account that all language, even profanity, evolves. Sexual swear words have lost much of their power with the younger generation. The vast majority of young people don’t give a fuck about the F-word. They don’t use it to offend each other; they use it to offend their elders. So if I cut that word, for whose sake is it that I’m doing censoring? My reader’s, or the gatekeeper’s?
This immediately brings into focus one of the great dilemmas of the teen fiction writer: Do I mirror the lives of my teenage readers no matter how distasteful, or do I attempt to teach them some kind of ‘better way’? Many gatekeepers believe books for young people should be worthy, character building, educational. It’s a flawed argument I’ll come back to.
But from sexual swear words to… Sex. Here’s a topic that can get the gatekeepers not only closing the gate but also melting down the key, as I’ve personally discovered with a book called Losing It.
Losing It is an anthology I put together for Andersen Press in the UK, published in 2010 – 8 different authors, 8 original stories, all tackling the same tricky subject of first sexual experience. Last November I was invited into a school in Scotland to give a book talk to a group of 15 year-old students, and the session had been arranged 3 months in advance, but the week before I was due to visit the school I received an email asking me not to talk about Losing It. I promised I wouldn’t read from the book, I promised I wouldn’t perform it, but I said I’d like to mention it because, you know, it was my most recent book and maybe… But, no.
I called the school up and spoke to the Head Teacher, tried to explain that the book wasn’t a ‘How To’ guide or even a biology lesson. The contributing authors included Carnegie Medal winners, a UK Children’s Laureate – established writers who handled the subject matter with great care and sensitivity. But, no. The Head, who did seem genuinely concerned, read aloud the blurb on the back cover. He didn’t need to; I knew what it said, because I’d written it. He said going by the blurb he didn’t feel the book was suitable for his school. ‘You’ve not read any of the stories?’ I asked. ‘Maybe if you read the stories you’d…’
He told me his biggest worry was the parental reaction to having this kind of book on the school library’s shelves. I asked him, What kind of book did he mean? He read me the blurb a second time. But it hadn’t changed from his first reading. So I gave up and said I felt it best to cancel my visit. He told me he was sorry I felt that way, but after our discussion admitted he agreed. He finished by explaining that they were a Catholic school and as such – and this is where I will quote him directly – ‘we will only teach lessons about love and sex from the moral perspective of the Catholic faith.’
That hurt. Was he calling me immoral? After I’d put the phone down I suddenly wished I’d said: ‘The book isn’t meant to teach lessons. That’s not why it was written.’ I tried to phone him back to say so. But he was too busy to take my call.
I also wished I’d thought to ask about his anxiety over the parental reaction. He hadn’t once said he was concerned how the book may affect his students. His main concern was pissed-off parents. I wish I’d asked, For whose sake was my book banned?
Here’s the rub: If I wrote novels for adults and someone took umbrage at what I’d written they’d call me ‘distasteful’, maybe ‘offensive’. But as a writer for children and teenagers, I get accused of ‘corrupting’ the readers. It’s a strong and worrying distinction.
Since that phone conversation last November I’ve learned of a second school that has banned Losing It from their library – and there are rumours that more may follow suit. This second school, in my home of Edinburgh, is unfortunately another Catholic school. I say unfortunately because these bannings don’t seem to be due to offensive language or the subject of sex itself, but because the book doesn’t conform to a particular world-view or philosophy. Do these schools only want their students to read approved, sanctioned, authorized books? Unfortunately it seems they do. But approved by whom? Authorized by whom?
There does seem to be a stealthy and silent censorship when it comes to children’s books. I’ve always believed reading is about opening your mind, about learning empathy, about looking at the world from stranger’s point of view. All notions I believe should be front and centre when writing for young people. So am I really claiming certain books get banned or censored because they make young people think too much? Are we scared they’ll not think the way we want them to if they read the wrong book? Do we not trust young people who can think for themselves? I mean, it’s one hell of a conspiracy theory…
I recommend you browse the American Library Association’s list of challenged books, you’ll find it on their website. Every year the ALA publishes the top 100 most challenged books and the reasoning behind the challenges.
Bridge to Terabithia written by Katherine Paterson, challenged because ‘death is central to the plot’ and it ‘encourages disrespect of adults’. James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl, challenged because of ‘profanity’ and that it ‘encourages disrespect of adults’. Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, challenged because it ‘teaches children to lie, spy, talk back to adults and curse.’ How To Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell, challenged because it ‘encourages children to engage in anti-social behaviour’ (at a guess, frying worms, and then eating them). A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein, challenged because it ‘promotes disrespect’ and more specifically one of the illustrations ‘might encourage children to smash plates so they don’t have to dry the dishes.’
The list goes on and on. And I’ll ask this one last time, For whose sake would these books be banned?
Somewhere a gatekeeper has become concerned that a book could undermine their implied authority or set a child off along a path of which they do not approve. Meaning, a gate has been closed and there are children who may never know these books even exist. Access denied.
In many of the book protests I’ve encountered the implication seems to be that the supposedly wrong type of book could corrupt, not only the minds of children, but society as a whole. And yet if this were true, wouldn’t someone have spotted the correlation between reading ‘challenged’ books and criminal behaviour? Surely our prisons must be brimming over with the grown-up readers of banned books?
It appears the opposite is true. I’m yet to hear of a convicted criminal who acknowledges with a heavy heart that his unlawful behaviour was influenced by James and the Giant Peach. A survey conducted by the UK’s National Literacy Trust in 2008 discovered that 70% of pupils who have been permanently excluded from school have difficulties in basic literacy skills, while 25% of young offenders have reading skills below those of the average seven-year-old. These troubled youngsters would unfortunately struggle to read any children’s book, never mind a challenging one.
Young people need good books. Actually, they need great books – the best books. Here’s the thing that’s so wonderful for me as a teen fiction author: the readers. Teenagers are such a wonderfully open-minded audience.
Ask yourself, when was the last time you read a book you didn’t want to read? Not only read it but studied it, dissected it, took it apart sentence by sentence and wrote essays about it? It’s so rare for us as adults to read anything we don’t care to. We read novels that bolster our political views and confirm our beliefs and make us feel secure in what we already know we know. It’s not often we genuinely challenge ourselves with our reading. Yet every day at school teenagers may find themselves in the situation where, not only are they forced to read a novel that challenges their views and beliefs, but they also then have to study it with enough discipline to be able to pass an exam.
And here I am, an adult kicking off this debate, but let’s be honest, I don’t expect any of you to change my mind on any part of this subject. As a 40 year-old I’ll argue to change your mind because me, I’m already pretty satisfied with what I think and what I believe, thank you very much. But if I was a 14 year-old, I’d still be figuring out exactly what it is I think I know. I’d be arguing not to change your mind, but to discover my own. Reading at that age is an exploration and hopefully a discovery of who you are, where you fit in and what you aspire to be. What an exhilarating, inspiring, challenging audience to write for!
Perhaps this is the reason some worry that the ‘adult’ literary novel is stagnating. I can’t help but get the impression that in the adult world it’s often a case of writers writing for themselves, and for people just like them. Where’s the challenge in that? We teen fiction writers don’t write for ourselves. Because we’re not kids anymore. We have an audience and we have to be much more inventive with our fiction for them. Please, go read David Almond, MT Anderson, Aidan Chambers, Jack Gantos, John Green, Margo Lanegan, Patrick Ness, Meg Rosoff – a few examples among many. The adult novel may well be in trouble, but the teenage novel is flourishing.
Something I would say about writers for young people is that, always conscious of the gatekeepers, we do a heck of a lot of self-censoring. And perhaps the best kid’s writers are the ones who see it as a skill, as part of the craft. They are able to successfully navigate the gatekeepers without losing any of the power, potency or intention of their writing. And most importantly, without patronizing the readers. I’ve seen teen fiction novels fail to reach their audience because the gatekeepers have barred the way, and I’ve seen others fail because young readers have found the book to be weak or patronizing. I’m beginning to believe self-censorship is a valuable skill or talent a writer for young people needs to attain.
Before I finish I feel I must mention age-banding which has yet again raised its ugly head in the UK – the idea of putting an age certification on the cover of books, similar to movies and computer games. It’s a notion Mr. Cartwright might buy into, at least he’d know exactly how old he needed to be before a librarian or teacher or parent would allow him to read my book. But age-banding is a notion the majority of the UK based children’s authors have fought against these past few years because that number on the book’s cover would just become another gatekeeper by proxy.
I believe young people should be allowed access to books tackling subjects which even we adults find unpalatable. If a child or teenager lives in a world where bullying, racism, suicide, faith, love, sex, terrorism are all everyday concerns, should we really be banning them from gaining knowledge of these issues? If a young reader is granted some access to that world from the relative safety of a novel, it could help them towards getting their heads around the issue long before they are forced to encounter such a thing in real life. These issues never get age-banded in the real world after all. Are we committing a disservice to the next generation under the guise of protection?
Back when I was a 14 year-old wannabe writer I witnessed abuse, I encountered drugs, I lived in a nation rocked and rocked again by IRA terrorism, I was an inventive swearer, I fell in love and I lost my virginity. All the while I was repeatedly told, the golden rule if I wanted to be a real writer, was to write about what I knew. But I didn’t want to distress my parents or displease my teachers by admitting my true knowledge, so I wrote ghost stories instead. I remember thinking there seemed to be little point in writing books that none of my friends would be allowed to read.