Paul Collins, successful publisher and author, draws on over 40 years in the industry to share his thoughts on some recent trends in publishing that have consequences on children's access to books. This is the first of a two part discussion that demonstrates Paul's passion and commitment to bring a breadth of reading experiences into the hands of young readers. It also prompts us to pause and think about how outside influences are controlling choice and access to books.
When children lose interest in reading, we need to look for reasons why.
I believe the Internet is the main contributor to this problem. Social Justice Warriors were once dim voices, which 99.9% of the world ignored. Now, alas, due to social media, they have a voice that is growing exponentially louder. Those of us who I like to think of as being the level-headed ones have become so browbeaten that we are losing our voice to combat the censorious pressure groups.
A book can now be whipped off the shelf because of a solitary complaint, as was Matthew Reilly’s Scarecrow at a Tasmanian school I visited. Mind you, we can also blame the downfall of libraries and librarians in schools for this. Parents used to see the librarian about such things, not the principal. They would be directed to the school council approved policy on library acquisitions. With regards to Scarecrow – it’s an adult book and not YA – so it would depend on the school council’s policy on stocking those kinds of books. Secondary schools usually have a committee that deals with these sorts of complaints and a set procedure for withdrawing a book, whereas these days most primary schools don’t even have a librarian, let alone a committee.
Australia’s censorship ‘rules’ are nowhere near as oppressive as those in the US, but when Australian educational publishers have a co-pub deal with a US publisher, they must adhere to their rules, rather than ours.
Take a look at some examples of political correctness and ‘inclusiveness’ that are turning many children’s books into dreary pap.
When I submitted The Vampire Kids to an educational publisher, it was rejected outright. The publisher obviously hadn’t read the book because she didn’t realise it wasn’t about vampires at all, rather it was about kids dressing up as vampires. But never mind that, it was about Halloween and in the US education school system that’s not on. (As an aside, I changed the title to Tricking, but in the US that’s prostitution so when it was finally published it was called Tricksters.) In another book I had children around a campfire, holding their hands out to warm themselves as I had done as a scout. The illustrator had to redraw the picture because the editor felt the kids were too close to the fire.
Meredith Costain wrote four Barbie books and one character was suntanned as she was an outdoor community worker. The US editor crossed that out and wrote in the margin ‘sun abuse’. In Errol the Peril she was told the kids could only set up their tent within sight of their grandparents’ farmhouse on their camping ‘adventure’ for safety reasons, and they weren’t allowed to light a campfire because they might burn themselves. In yet another book she was told that an adult male wasn’t allowed in a scene with kids unless they were related (despite statistics indicating that children are more at risk of sexual abuse from relatives than they are from strangers).
Two well known Australian illustrators were required to alter their work: one was asked to draw a nappy on the bare bottom of a toddler dancing under a sprinkler, while the other had to remove the udder from a cow. One has to wonder what the absurd reasoning is here. Perhaps nudity!
Try writing about dinosaurs and some publishers will point out that this evolutionary theory is controversial. Another no-no is challenging a teacher’s authority in the classroom. This also applies to bullies (definitely no fist fights in educational books!), or anger in general, as these are not positive traits. Some cultures associate owls with death, so stay well clear of our nocturnal friends, and forget Christian celebrations such as Easter and Christmas because not all children celebrate them.
Gone are all the good things in life such as lollies, popular soft drinks, fatty stuff like chips and hamburgers. No, they’re to be replaced with nutritional foodstuffs like yoghurt, kale and fish.
Whereas censorship was once confined to educational publishing, it’s now moved into the realm of trade publishing. Recently, Amélie Wen Zhao’s YA fantasy novel, Blood Heir, received great pre-publication reviews. But now the Twitterverse trolls (and to a lesser extent some Goodreads reviewers) have started in on her on grounds of racial insensitivity, forcing her to postpone publication of the book. There’s no room to go into this here, but you might like to read a critique by AJA Hoggatt, which basically debunks a lot of the criticism levelled at this book.
And all of this is happening in a world where kids can type ‘porn’ into a browser and watch the worst there is to offer. Where large numbers of computer games are all about mayhem and killing and where music from rappers exhorting the values of being anti-social and downright murderous can easily be streamed for free.
Censoring books to the point where children are not interested in reading them is only harming them more, as reading gives kids the skills to determine fake news, be thoughtful, empathetic, and to become more aware of the issues of the world. Without these skills kids are way more vulnerable on the Internet.
It's time to stop censoring reality! Next week discover a powerful force for championing kids' rights to read.
Paul Collins is the publisher at Ford Street Publishing, an independent Melbourne publisher. He also runs Creative Net Speakers’ Agency and is the author of over 140 books for children and young adults.