Every other Wednesday in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.

I came across YiLing Chen-Josephson’s “I Censor the Books I Read to My Child. I’m Not Ashamed!” in the same week that I started reading E. D. Baker’s The Bravest Princess in an effort to keep up with my daughter. Chen-Josephson describes the process of what she terms “Reading While Parenting,” an attempt to cope with classic children’s literature that clashes with contemporary values on a personal, familial, or social level. She cites “racist illustrations” as a particular concern, along with bad behavior and words parents don’t want their children using. My husband and I have used some of the same strategies, though we’re more prone to editorialize than censor, offering some commentary on why the example is off than simply omitting it.

At some point, as readers and as people of faith, we parents have to trust (and hope and pray and maybe cross our fingers) that we’ve done the best we can to prepare our children to cope in a broken world on their own.Despite the judgment in the comments section of the article, I think it’s unfair to expect parents to pre-read every single text their children will encounter. And I think it’s fair for parents to make the call on when their children are developmentally ready to handle the nuances that inform parents’ complaints. We’re generally opposed to censorship, but we also support parental responsibility in knowing what kids can handle when. I know generations of children grew up reading literature that’s today considered offensive, and I think there are times to read those books and talk over the issues and times to avoid those texts.

For instance, my six-year-old and I read a chapter from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series every night; we’ve done this for over a year now and we’re working our way through the books for the third time. I love these books. I teach one of them in a college-level course. And there are lots of chapters where we slow down and remark upon the racism in the text, what fuels it and why it’s wrong. Ma regularly voices her hatred for Indians, and there’s a scene in the later books where Pa appears in blackface. I think it would be fair for other parents to choose not to read those books because of those issues. The more recently-produced picture book series omits those incidents entirely.

My goal is not to avoid or omit discomfort but to keep it age-appropriate when possible. My husband and I censor our conversations in front of our children for the same reasons, because as much as teaching resilience is important, so is letting kids be kids when we can. I understand that trauma does not wait until a certain age to burden humans, but there’s a marked difference between realizing that a classic text is racist (and often unaware of its racism because of its time period) and reading a text that actually deals with racism. When the classic texts fall short, that’s when parental interpretive strategies can build a bridge. But, still, I sympathize with Chen Josephson’s approach. I don’t want to read about bratty kids either, even while I realize it’s not the books’ job to teach my children good behavior. And as much as I enjoy and appreciate the cleverness of The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, I don’t want to read the word “stupid” aloud dozens of times either.

I think it’s good to be kind to other parents even when we disagree with them, and I can see Chen-Josephson’s point, even if I don’t wholly agree with it. My timing of reading the article was particularly interesting, though, because my six-year-old started reading Baker’s Wide-Awake Princess series recently, and I’ve never read it. It’s a rare foray for her into a world of literature unknown to her parents. So, I started to read it (though I’m way behind her at this point. Something about having a job…) to see why she’s so enthralled. Frankly, I don’t love the books, but that’s really not the point. They weren’t made for me. My daughter loves them, and while I’m trailing her on this series, I know that trend will only continue. I can’t keep up my own reading list and hers for the rest of our lives.

And that’s as it should be, whether parents choose to change the text when reading aloud or not. I think it’s probably best for parents to mention when possible what we are changing and why; it avoids the literary pitfalls of Jeanette Winterson’s main character from Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, whose mother told her that Jane Eyre married St. John instead of Rochester. At some point, as readers and as people of faith, we parents have to trust (and hope and pray and maybe cross our fingers) that we’ve done the best we can to prepare our children to cope in a broken world on their own. That includes messed up literature and messed up parenting. We train them up and we let them go and we rely on love to cover a multitude of sins—even sins of literary omission.

Image by Pezibear via Pixabay.


2 Comments

  1. You are wrong for censoring these books.

    You cannot filter your children from the reality of a cruel world, and if you censor parts from old or classic novels, you are only hiding the truth and reality from your child.

    Of course Ma hated Indians. She feared them. With good reason. Look at when and where the Ingall’s lived. Do you try to explain that to your child? And Pa used blackface. Hello! 19th century! That was, for them, a great source of entertainment. You don’t have to agree with it, or even like it. But you cannot hide it.

    Do you ignore the trials and tribulations of the Pioneers on the Oregon Trail? Or the history of the Wyoming Valley, or the Ohio Territory. Do you not teach who Washington or Jefferson were because they owned slaves? Will you also stop your child from reading Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn as Twain wrote them. Or authors like Steinbeck because he was married 3 times and some say he was bi-sexual?

    Tell me…where does it stop?

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