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.