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POINT: On attempts to ban books, draw a line between censorship and age-appropriateness

From the column: "Publishers of young-adult novels have been falling over one another in recent years to bring out controversial texts on themes of sexual abuse, racism, domestic violence, gang life, school shootings, and other “realistic” subjects."

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John Cole / Cagle Cartoons

“You’re for censorship! That’s against the First Amendment!”

“Do you believe school libraries should carry ‘Hustler’?”

“No, of course not!”

“OK, so you’re for ‘censorship,’ too. Now we’re just negotiating over where to draw the line.”

A good friend (and staunch libertarian) uses this imagined dialogue to make an important point. Even those of us who consider ourselves near free-speech absolutists have to draw our lines somewhere. I’ve spent my entire adult life in two fields of work, journalism and education, which both have an immune response to censorship. But I’m increasingly sympathetic to the line-drawers.

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Candidly, I don’t find perennial, unresolvable arguments over canonical works of literature all that compelling. We’ve had more than a century to decide whether or not “Huckleberry Finn” belongs in school libraries or English classes, so it’s clear no resolution is at hand. Nor do I expect the next 100 years will settle whether “Beloved,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Catcher in the Rye,” or other frequently challenged works belong on the curriculum.

SEE ALSO: COUNTERPOINT: Parents, don't try to dictate what other parents' children can read

The more challenging front in the censorship wars is over new and comparatively obscure works targeted at readers, from small children to young adults, which cannot claim canonical status. These new works are being published, promoted, and defended on grounds of “authenticity and inclusivity.” To question them — to draw a line — is to risk a charge of ignorance, bigotry or worse.

Publishers of young-adult novels have been falling over one another in recent years to bring out controversial texts on themes of sexual abuse, racism, domestic violence, gang life, school shootings, and other “realistic” subjects, in widely read books such “The Hate U Give,” “Thirteen Reasons Why,” and “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.”

Picture books for little kids are even more discomfiting. I’m old enough to remember the controversies that attended “Heather Has Two Mommies” in 1989 and “And Tango Makes Three” in 2005, which sought to normalize gay and lesbian family structures.

That normalizing impulse now goes to lengths that give pause on grounds of age-appropriateness even to parents who think of themselves as progressive. “How Mamas Love Their Babies,” for example, is described by Kirkus Reviews as an “amazingly inclusive” book and the first to depict a sex-worker parent. An illustration shows a stripper in front of a peep show with the text, “Some mamas dance all night in special shoes. It’s hard work!” The School Library Journal recommends it for “strong consideration” for children in grades K-4.

The School Library Journal also praised and recommended as a “first purchase for libraries” the picture book “What Are Your Words? A Book About Pronouns,” which “models the ease with which our language can adapt to gender diversity and pronoun use.” For toddlers, the familiar children’s song “The Wheels on the Bus” has been rewritten as “The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish.”

“Why is this kind of woke content being pushed so hard in children’s books?” asked conservative cultural critic Bethany Mandel in a recent tweet about the above-mentioned picture books. “In short: Everyone in the pipeline is woke. Book agents, authors, publishers, marketing. Anyone who isn’t is silenced. And who’s buying it? Librarians and teachers. Also infested with wokeism.”

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She’s not wrong, particularly about the increasingly harsh criticism heaped on those who question whether any of this (to use a phrase suddenly conspicuous in its absence) is age-appropriate. This confluence of impulses, the earnest desire to signal to children that everyone is OK and that anything goes makes conflict inevitable.

Instead, we must reaffirm that you’re not a homophobe if you don’t want your child exposed to an explicit illustration of oral sex as in the graphic novel “Gender Queer.” Neither are you a closet white supremacist if you question the wisdom of exposing young children to the racially charged picture book “Not My Idea. A Book About Whiteness,” which concludes, “Whiteness is a bad deal. It always was.”

It just might be where you draw the line. And there’s nothing wrong with doing so.

Robert Pondiscio is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (aei.org), a right-leaning think tank in Washington, D.C. He focuses on K–12 education, curriculum, teaching, school choice, and charter schooling.

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Robert Pondiscio

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