Monday 17 August 2009

Don't mention it ... (or No sex, please - we're American)

Yale University Press is getting some flak for its decision to remove pictures of the prophet Mohammed from The Cartoons That Shook the World. As well as the cartoons published in Jyllands-Posten in September 2005 lambasting Islam, the book was to have included an engraving by Gustav Dore for a 19th-century edition of Dante's Inferno. (The illustration of Mohammed in Hell here is by William Blake.) They have been removed to avoid offending Muslim readers and so prompting terrorist acts. This type of pre-emptive censorship is hardly news to children's writers. We live with it all the time. And it's not Muslims we can't afford to offend, it's Americans.

A friend (an MP) recently grumbled that he couldn't find a book about evolution for his young son. He sent me a message on Facebook to suggest I write one. I would love to, but evolution is one of many topics that are out of bounds for children's writers. Although most British parents and teachers want their children to know about this important aspect of science, the US market is evolution-hostile. There are enough Creationists to make it difficult for US schools and libraries, and in some places even bookshops, to stock a children's book about evolution because they are worried about complaints and boycotts. This year I even had an adult book about evolution turned down because the UK publisher (who wanted to do the book) couldn't find a US publishing partner to take it on.

Without a US market, many full-colour children's books aren't financially viable. The result is that the reading of UK children is limited by a bunch of nutty Creationists 4,000 miles away who don't even work in publishing. It's insane - as insane as the idea that the world was created by a supernatural being in seven days (or six with a holiday - why would an extra-temporal being need a holiday?) And no, I am not going to 'respect their beliefs' any more than I would respect an adult who believed in the tooth fairy.

It's not just evolution that's out of bounds. Sex and nudity are also ring-fenced - to the extent that it's not possible to show an image of Michelangelo's David in an art history book, or a teenager in a short skirt or a bikini. In 2007, an American publisher precipitated a row with a German illustrator after asking that the virtually invisible penis on statue in an illustration of an art gallery be airbrushed out. The statue itself was only 7.5 millimetres high, so you can imagine how hard you would have to look to find the penis and be offended by it. (In this case the publisher backed down under the ridicule heaped upon it.)

Violence fares no better, despite American children spending most waking moments playing World of Warcraft and watching Terminator movies (or worse) while choosing which gun to buy later. Books on medieval warfare can't show dangerous weapons or violent activity - so no swords, and no bows and arrows. And for later periods, absolutely no guns. (How the West was won - they gently persuaded the native Americans to die off?)

Fiction is no easier than fact. Stories can't feature unfamiliar things such as a hedgehogs, wardrobes and sausages (God forbid the American child would have to find out something about wildlife or bedroom furniture outside the Land of the Free). Witches are often vetoed, too, unless you are JKR (and her books aren't allowed everywhere). It's a bit easier at the upper end of the age range.

It's not just the US that limits what British children can see in books. As more and more books are printed in China, offending Chinese sensibilities has become a new concern. Anthony Browne tells of how he had a book pulped by the Chinese printers after they noticed it showed a Tibetan flag. Other books have any mention of Tibet removed, and even any critical remarks about China's allies in Africa may be censored.

Why do we allow this? Why don't publishers print their books elsewhere (yes, I know China is cheap - but so are India, Russia and eastern Europe), and why do they go along with US nannying? Separate US language editions are produced anyway - it wouldn't be hard, since the black plate is different, to blot out the bits of pcitures that American children aren't allowed to see, and to edit the text. Of course, blotting out would let them know their book has been censored. And they have that thing, don't they, about freedom of speech? As long as you don't use your freedom of speech to say something like - life on Earth evolved over billions of years... (For a confusion of Creationism, evolution, prejudice and gun crime, see this brilliant scene from Mean Girls.)

Some of this nannying is dangerous not only to the intellectual health of children, but to their physical health, too. A book about healthy living for teenagers can't include advice on aspects of sexual health - presumably because teenagers who hadn't thought of having sex might feel encouraged to try it if a book mentioned condoms or health checks or contraception. American children need this information as much as - and perhaps more than - British children (who have other sources, at least). Here's another bit of advice from Mean Girls, this time on sex education.

Enough grumbling - I'm off to sit in the wardrobe in a skimpy outfit, drink some Taiwanese spirits, and write the outline for my book on the evolution of the Tibetan hedgehog. UK market only, of course.


  1. Could not agree more Anne and three cheers to you for writing this. It infects every part of life. Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery now has vast amounts of irritating and facile over-interpretation everywhere, even down to polluting mediaeval artworks with laser displays pointing out what you should be seeing - except when it comes to the huge case full of rather beautiful antique weaponry, which they say NOTHING WHATSOEVER about - no history, no details, nothing.

  2. Makes me sad to be an American.

  3. Interesting. Every science book I come across (including the ones in my house) has information that supports/teaches evolution. And I bought them right here in the United States of America. My kids learn evolution in school, at museums, in movies, in books (both fiction and nonfiction). Evolution is everywhere. As is sex and violence. And not just in the movies.

    I agree that some people tend to go overboard with the eggshell walking, but I don't see censorship as an issue when it comes to evolution, sex, and violence in books (or even nudity in art books--I own some myself and--gasp!--my children have seen them).

    Then again, maybe it IS an issue and I just don't see it because my sheltered, conservative, nutty, creationist American upbringing has damaged my intellect.

  4. Hooray! Well done! Brava! I remember when I was an editor, finding a wonderful new artist who worked in collage. She had a fab series of stories about a little elephant. One of the stories was about said character's birthday. Naturally, as all children do (even if anthropomorphically elephantine), he rushed into his parents' bedroom early in the morning to wake them up to celebrate with him. Oh Horror of Horrors--they were (whisper it not), IN BED TOGETHER! The American co-edition made us change the picture, as 'it was not appropriate to show adults in a bedroom situation'. I wanted to fight it and tell them to go to hell, but I was overruled. And that was in the 1980's. I can't even remember how many times I have told that story to illustrate the evils and ridiculousness of PC publishing. Makes me sweat with rage even now.

  5. Rebecca, I wonder if UK publishers selling into the UK market have to be more cautious than 'indigenous' US publishers? I don't think it's that, though - I see emails passed on from the US editors, it's not just what my UK editors tell me the US editor requires/won't have.

    Lucy, that is pretty amazing. I have a friend who - working as an editor - had to have an illustration redrawn because the US editor rejected it. It showed a little girl mouse, in a dress, sitting on a fence with her legs apart (to balance, presumably), and her hands in her lap. She was told it was not appropriate because there was ambiguity as to what the (clothed, remember) mouse was doing with her hands between her legs!!! It was a picture book for 5-year-olds! It makes you wonder what kind of people these editors are, doesn't it? A UK editor/reader/illustrator would not even think of that possibility!

  6. Brilliant posting, Anne, although the main sensation it provokes is one of depression. To continue hearing so much evidence that the creationist (and morally retarded) tail is wagging the dog so effectively is infuriating and frustrating. (And forgive that awful, mangled metaphor.) I have many American friends and, without exception, they're as baffled by and embarrassed about their less evolved compatriots as we are. And yet the politicians (and the publishers) still bow to their wishes. I suppose reason will prevail in the end (and magic, too, for that matter) but it seems a long time coming.

  7. P.S. I forgot to mention that I've recommended your blog for a Kreativ Blogger Award. (Forgive the spelling of Kreativ - not my idea.) Details are on my own blog at

  8. well said, Anne. I can't stand fundamentalism of any kind. It is the ultimate in arrogance - I'm right everyone else is so, so wrong. Its also about who shouts the loudest. If we who have a mature attitude don't speak louder then nothing will change. Who's the Bill dude? Does he have good taste or what?

  9. Inclined to agree with your point about foreign writers having to be more careful than indigenous ones, but also, don't you think Americans seem more strongly differentiated than we are? I have delightful intelligent and kind American friends who nonetheless seem absolutely loony in their blinkered, stupid ultra religious conservatism. Alas, you can't brush aside their gay-hating, anti-evolutionary extremism, because they have powerful, smart, rich and influential friends who share their views. But slide a thousand or two miles westward and some of my American friends are, well they're so... Californian. THey too are rich, powerful, influential, etc. And so they seem to bash it out. And I am not sure what publishers do to deal with the strong feelings on both sides but my guess is that you might get a different response from Chronicle Books than the one you get from Zondervan

  10. Hi Anne
    Sorry to piggy back the comments but I couldn't see an email address. I needed to contact people who've linked to me and say that I've changed my blog address so now your link to it won't get to the new one. Could you possibly (when you have time) change it to:

    If you want to confirm that this is actually me, do go to the old blog at through your existing link, and see the message I have left there.

    Thank you!

    Best wishes

    Nicola Morgan