How much should we censor books for kids?

Should we censor our kids’ books – or give them the freedom to read whatever they choose? Andrea Mara turns to the experts

Judi Curtin: "I think teenagers should really be encouraged to read as widely as possible." Picture: Leon Farrell/Photcall Ireland

Should you censor your child’s reading material, or let them try anything that catches their interest? It’s something I’ve been battling with for a number of years now, particularly with my eldest child, now nine, who will read anything she finds in front of her – it might be the latest Jacqueline Wilson book but it could just as easily be a newspaper or my copy of Grazia (a recent feature on naked restaurants springs to mind).

Unable to keep up with her reading – one library trip a week with three young kids is as much as I can manage – we bought her a Kindle last summer. We set up a child account on Overdrive, the fantastic app that lets you borrow ebooks from your local library, and all our problems were solved. Or so we thought. Then she figured out how to search for free books on Amazon, and everything was thrown open again. Most recently, looking over her shoulder, I found her reading a book about a murder at a wedding, in which the chief suspect was the groom’s “ex-lover” – a “brassy blonde” if I remember correctly. I asked my daughter some questions about the book and read through a few pages myself – it probably wasn’t ideal reading material, but as far as I could see (apart from the irritating “brassy blonde” reference) there wasn’t anything that would generate either worried questions or nightmares for a nine-year-old. A year ago, I’d have taken it from her, but having read various online discussions about why we shouldn’t censor our children’s reading, I try if I can to let her make her own decisions. The theory is that if kids come across something they don’t understand, they’ll gloss over it or ask a question. So rather than being censors, we should give them freedom to read what they choose.

Of course this doesn’t mean stepping away – I need to know what she’s reading, and I need her to know she can come to me with questions. Curious to find out how others view it, I asked children’s author Judi Curtin how she feels about my approach.

“I’m very much with you on that – the important thing is to keep an eye on them. But yes, censorship is like a dirty word! I’m a parent and a teacher too, so I’m censoring myself as I write,” says Curtin, whose Alice and Megan series is popular in our house.

“I know the age group that’s going to be reading the book, so it’s not going to be about sex, drugs and rocks and roll because that would be completely weird for the characters I’m describing!”

I tell her about an incident a couple of years ago, when my daughter was reading The Illustrated Mum by Jacqueline Wilson. I read some of it myself and realised it was about a mother who was an alcoholic – I decided it wasn’t suitable and agreed with my daughter that I would take it away until she was older. In hindsight, I wish I’d left it with her.

“Yes,” says Curtin, “Some people are living that life with alcoholic parents. Of course, there’s certain stuff that would be distressing and scary and you have to steer clear - if there’s something very graphically sexual or very frightening for example.”

Short of reading every book first, how can parents monitor this? “A good books seller or good librarian will give advice, and teachers are great for advice – they’re around children all the time, they know what engages children and they’ll also know if there’s an issue with a book.” My current problem however is with the internet – when my daughter searches for “free books for kids”, the net is cast very wide. “Yes, with print books you have lots of info on the blurb,” says Curtin.

“Downloads are a different story – you’re not getting the same cues as you get from a physical book. That’s where parents need to take responsibility.”

On balance, I think with most books, my daughter will gloss over any parts she doesn’t understand - just as I did as a child when I took books from my parents’ shelves. Children’s author Anna Carey recalls making her own interpretation of a borrowed book when she was young.

“My parents were pretty liberal when I was a kid though I do remember The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole was off limits until I was about 11. By the time I was a teenager there were absolutely no limits at all. The book in question was the first of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City books, which I read aged 14 and which my older sister had borrowed from a friend. In it, the eccentric landlady Mrs Madrigal tapes a joint to the door of her new tenant’s flat. And I was so naive I assumed it was a joint of meat and couldn’t understand how it could be held up by some Sellotape!”

And it doesn’t seem to have done any harm to the bestselling author of The Making of Mollie. “Many years later I interviewed Armistead Maupin and told him this story - unsurprisingly, he was very amused. The Tales of the City books are set in swinging 1970s San Francisco so let’s just say they opened my eyes - and my mind - to a lot of things and I’m glad I read them. I think teenagers should really be encouraged to read as widely as possible - I was much more adventurous in my reading when I was a teen than I am now!”



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