Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Don't Mess with Kids' Culture!

© Jeff Smith, 2006

There have been quite a few important developments of late within kids' culture that I've been meaning to comment on-- particularly around issues of representation and access in children's literature. We all know that kids' culture is a hotbed of controversy: frequently mobilized as a site of moral panic and censorship on the one hand, and used as a tool for hegemonic discourse and other forms of political expression on the other. Media scholars trace this phenomenon back to chapbooks, dime novels and the like, but there are earlier examples (games, toys, etc.) as well. While most of my work looks at how the same controversies resurface around videogames, traditional media forms such as books and comics remain a key locus/target for these types of debates. Book banning, for example, is still a shockingly common practice, and everyday children's librarians, authors, parents, and young readers become embroiled in complex negotiations about censorship, access and cultural rights - often with little public attention or outside support.

The recent development that I want to draw attention to involves an attempt led by a parent in Minneapolis-St. Paul to ban BONE graphic novels from the school libraries in her district. Making misplaced accusations that the series--specifically BONE: The Dragonslayer--contains depictions of "drinking, smoking, gambling and sexual situations between characters," her action made headlines...I think in large part because of how beloved & acclaimed the BONE series is, but also because of creator Jeff Smith's response. In addition to speaking out quite strongly against the ban and the complaints, Smith wrote a formal letter to the school board review committee and followed up on the story on his blog Boneville. My favourite part of his letter is the closing paragraph, which reads as follows:
Many, many children have learned to love reading because of BONE. I know this from meeting and talking to kids and their parents, teachers, and librarians at hundreds of book signings and school visits. I suspect that there are members of the review committee who can attest to this. Since the mid 90’s, millions of parents all over the world have read BONE with their children. This is the first time I have ever heard it suggested that it was age inappropriate. It is hard to imagine that any bad behavior could be seen to be encouraged in these stories. Frankly, I believe it is just the opposite.

The best part about this story is that the review committee voted 10 to 1 against banning the series, with one of the committee members commenting to the press that "educators should be careful what books they ban from the classroom" (read more here).

The BONE decision represents a tiny, but nonetheless important, victory for kids' rights (specifically Article 13*) in the ongoing battle to control what gets into kids' culture. This battle is not limited to conflicts over what constitutes as protectionism and what constitutes as censorship, however, but also involves more subtle forms of control...such as the homogenization and corporatization of content. These issues are often treated as distinct, but they ultimately push toward the same result - a cultural spectrum that is reduced to a narrow range of themes, images, and ideas that best reflect and reproduce a deeply conservative status quo.

Perhaps that's why the BONE story reminded me immediately of another "tiny" controversy that unfolded earlier this year, around Trenton Lee Stewart’s Mysterious Benedict Society book series. This time, it was readers and children's librarians who coordinated a public complaint to the series' publishers (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers) for "whitewashing" the book covers, i.e. depicting all of the books' main characters as white on the covers, including a character who is described & depicted as having "light brown" skin within the text and illustrations of the books themselves. Check out children's lit blog Bookshelves of Doom for a comprehensive overview of the discrepancy. According to Rocco Staino, writing for School Library Journal, this is a surprisingly common practice in the children/youth book publishing world. For instance, over the past year, Bloomsbury USA has had to change the covers on two different books following public complaints that non-white characters were depicted as white on the books' covers. As with BONE, this story too has a happy ending - Little, Brown agreed to reprint all three books in the series with amended cover images. Go children's librarians!!!!

For more info/resources on these issues, be sure to check out:
Freedom to Read Week (CDN)
Kids' Right to Read Project (US)
Banned Books Week

*Article 13 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child states: "The child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child's choice."

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