Sunday, 23 April 2017

Omitting the F Word: Parental Censorship of Picture Books

This post was originally published on Picture Book Den, a blog about picture books by picture book authors and illustrators.

I sometimes describe writing a picture book as like writing a script, because picture books are often read aloud to a child by an adult. I want the reader to give a good performance, so I think it’s essential that a picture book text reads well aloud. However a good script is only the beginning of a good performance; a good picture-book performer will add a great deal themselves, creating character voices and sound effects and adjusting the timing and delivery of lines to make them funnier, more suspenseful or more dramatic.

It wasn’t until I read a Slate article entitled I Censor the Books I Read to My Child. I’m Not Ashamed! that it occurred to me that a performer might actually subtract something from the script as well. And, as an author/script-writer, I am troubled by this.

The article’s author, YiLing Chen-Josephson, runs The Picture Book Club, a subscription service through which she handpicks books for young children (and their parents). I’m guessing that one of the books she does NOT recommend to her subscribers is Maurice Sendak’s miniature picture book classic Pierre, which she describes reading to her own son in the article.

If you’re not familiar with Pierre then – SPOILER ALERT! – let me tell you that it’s a cautionary tale about a small boy, Pierre, who professes not to care about anything whatsoever. When a polite, but hungry, lion calls at Pierre’s home and asks Pierre if he may eat him, Pierre says, “I don’t care!” So the lion takes the boy at his word and swallows him whole. Fortunately Pierre’s parents are able to extract their son before any lasting harm is done and  – having experienced the trauma of being eaten alive – Pierre now cares about what happens to him. To quote Sendak’s final line “The moral of Pierre is: CARE!”

Maurice Sendak’s Pierre is a cautionary tale of a small boy who is hugely indifferent to everything.

Since “parental censorship” is in the title of this post, you've probably guessed that Chen-Josephson took it upon herself to censor Sendak’s classic. Having read the plot outline above, you might assume that she cut out or re-edited the scene where the small boy is EATEN ALIVE by the hungry lion. But, no, the object of Chen-Josephson's disapproval was Pierre’s absolute indifference. Here’s how she puts it in her own words:
You’ve read enough to recognize what’s at stake here: The child in this book doesn’t care. Are you ready to introduce your own darling boy to the phrase “I don’t care” and, with it, to ennui, to disaffection, to insubordination?
So now, whenever Chen-Josephson reads the book to her son, she rescripts Pierre’s dialogue so that instead of saying, “I don’t care!” he says “I … care!”.

It seems to me that Chen-Josephson has entirely failed to grasp the point of a cautionary tale, which is to show how negative characteristics can have unfortunate consequences for their owners. By turning Pierre into a caring child, the message her son is likely to draw from the story is that bad things can happen to nice children, rather than the message Sendak intended, which was that bad things can happen to children who are dismissive and indifferent.

After explaining how she improved on Sendak’s storytelling, Chen-Josephson goes on to relate how several of her friends censor the picture books they read to their children. She gives three examples of how parents respond when they come across the F word in picture books. NO! Not that F word – I mean "FAT"!
One father I heard from avoided the word fat at all costs, turning even The Very Hungry Caterpillar from a “big fat” insect to a “great big” one. Another parent said she left the word alone when it was used to describe an animal but would replace it when it was used about a person. Another specifically sought out books where fat was used descriptively and without judgment since she didn’t want her child to think that the word should carry negative connotations.
Apparently some parents baulk at Eric Carle's use of F word in The Very Hungry Caterpillar

I suspect that all three parents described above would censor my use of the F word in my picture book story The Santa Trap.

One of Poly Bernatene’s illustrations of brattish Bradley in The Santa Trap.

Über-brat Bradley reveals his plan to trap Santa with the words, “I’m going to catch the fat fool and take every present he’s got.” It’s quite clear that the word “fat” is intended to have a negative connotation in this context. However CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING! Like PierreThe Santa Trap is a cautionary tale. The story makes it clear that Bradley is an irredeemably awful child whose monstrous behaviour leads to his eventual downfall, while Santa, the object of Bradley’s abuse, is the unflappably benign and ultimately triumphant hero of the tale. I think that most children that hear this story will recognise that using the word "fat" to insult someone should be bracketed with the other unacceptable behaviours that Bradley engages in such as stealing tigers from the local zoo. And if a child does not recognise this, then the adult reading the story can use Bradley's example as an opportunity to discuss why this is an unacceptable way to behave.

I think the same principle can be applied to most stories that contain the sort of parental-anxiety-inducing content that parents like Chen-Josephson might wish to censor. And I’d argue that the parent-child picture book reading experience is an ideal setting for a child to encounter such content. Sooner or later, a child will encounter an uncaring character or hear the word “fat” being used inappropriately, on a TV screen or in the real world. Surely it’s better for them to come across these things in a picture book, with a parent on hand to discuss and explain them with, than on their own?

So, if you’re reading a picture book to a child and you’re tempted to censor something, why not try using it as an opportunity for discussion instead? You'll probably be doing your child a favour and I'm sure the author would thank you for it too!

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