Censorship and book banning are back in the news, and some children’s librarians especially are under pressure from literary vigilantes to remove materials that may upset the delicate sensibilities of their young borrowers, or rather their parents. Leaving aside the question of whether children really have delicate sensibilities — I never did — and leaving aside the echoes of Orwellian totalitarianism that the word censorship evokes, this conjured up a memory that made me smile. When I was a child, delicate or not, we had the most liberal and even libertarian local library in London. This was the 1940s, just after the end of World War II.
Our local branch had been hit by an incendiary bomb before I was old enough to get my first library card. Most of the books were saved, although some were slightly singed, and had been moved across the street to an old Victorian house that had belonged to our family doctor, who had succumbed to a fifty-a-day cigarette habit. This house was never designed to be a library. It was full of tiny rooms and twisting staircases, with lots of polished wood, brass door handles, and even some stained glass windows. There was no special children’s room and books were everywhere, even on the stairs. It was a librarian’s nightmare, but a curious child's dream. We could find anything — and we did — especially things that were not “suitable.” Readers are readers and,once we have that miraculous skill, we can read anything. This is exactly what worries some parents.
Some books are certainly in bad taste and some are too strident in a particular cause, but that’s the first amendment for you. The self-appointed citizen censors seem to care mostly about sex. To judge by the present battles over sexual education and sexual identity, some adults care about little else. They certainly care less than they should about violence. Television and social media offer a continuous twenty-four hour festival of murderous violence and destruction, which every child carries in his or her school bag in the form of a smartphone. Anything they could find in a library is harmless compared with what they can quickly find on the small screen.
The belief that children should be shielded from unpleasant truths is natural enough and children’s books have always been censored to some extent. Growing up is confusing enough already without being exposed to the full hurricane of adult neuroses and fears. This protection was traditionally provided by fantasy and metaphor, starting with fairies and bunny rabbits for the youngest readers and scaling up to serious literature like Alice in Wonderland or Gulliver’s Travels which are more like the real world. This is what makes many classic children’s books are so appealing.
I enjoyed the illusions of childhood and like to revisit them occasionally. But, you know, they’re not all illusions, that’s the point. My wife and I have been re-reading Kenneth Graham’s 1908 tale The Wind in the Willows — one of the most charming of all children’s stories. It is thoroughly realistic as long as you understand that the animals are people we know, like Ratty and Mole, and the admirable Mr. Badger and perhaps even people we have elected, like the narcissistic Mr. Toad. Books like these are a real liberal education because they are full of metaphors and moral stories that every child can understand. They allow their meaning to creep up on the reader gently and stay in memory for a long time.
Free reading is the key to growing up, learning to think for yourself, and to understand the complexity of things. Censorship is the last thing we need.