Author of Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, Blubber, and
many other teen classics
When I began to write, I didn’t know if anyone would
publish my books, but I wasn’t afraid to write them. I was lucky.
I found an editor and publisher who were willing to take a chance.
They encouraged me. I was never told what I couldn’t write.
I felt only that I had to write the most honest books I could. It
never occurred to me, at the time, that what I was writing was controversial.
Much of it grew out of my own feelings and concerns when I was young.
There were few challenges to my books then, although I remember the night
a woman phoned, asking if I had written Are You There, God? It’s
Me, Margaret. When I replied that I had, she called me a Communist
and slammed down the phone. I never did figure out if she equated Communism
with menstruation or religion, the two major concerns in 12-year-old Margaret’s
But in 1980, the censors crawled out of the woodwork, seemingly overnight,
organized and determined. Not only would they decide what their children
could read, but what all children could read. Challenges to books quadrupled
within months, and we’ll never know how many teachers, school librarians,
and principals quietly removed books to avoid trouble.
I believe that censorship grows out of fear, and because fear is contagious,
some parents are easily swayed. Book banning satisfies their need to feel
in control of their children’s lives. This fear is often disguised
as moral outrage. They want to believe that if their children don’t
read about it, their children won’t know about it. And if they don’t
know about it, it won’t happen.
Today, it’s not only language and sexuality (the usual reasons
given for banning my books) that will land a book on the censors’
hit list. It’s Satanism, New Age-ism and a hundred other “isms,”
some of which would make you laugh if the implications weren’t so
serious. Books that make kids laugh often come under suspicion; so do
books that encourage kids to think, or question authority; books that
don’t hit the reader over the head with moral lessons are considered
Censors don’t want children exposed to ideas different from their
own. If every individual with an agenda had his/her way, the shelves in
the school library would be close to empty. I wish the censors could read
the letters kids write.
I don’t know where I stand in the world. I don’t know who
I am. That’s why I read, to find myself.
Elizabeth, age 13
But it’s not just the books under fire now that worry me. It is
the books that will never be written. The books that will never be read.
And all due to the fear of censorship. As always, young readers will be
the real losers.
The critically acclaimed author of The Chocolate War.
SOME THOUGHTS ON CENSORSHIP
I sympathize with the
parents who want to have control over their own children. What their children
should do, see, read. My wife and I exercised those kinds of controls.
If [parents] object to their children reading The Chocolate War,
I don’t protest. But when they forbid other children from reading
it, then I strongly object. This, in fact, is the censorship problem in
its most basic concept. Telling other people what they can do, see, or
read. Invading rights of individuals in a free country.
I try to write
realistic stories about believable people, reflecting the world as
it is, not as we wish it to be. I think there is room in the great
halls of reading for this kind of book. The hundreds of letters I
receive each year from both teachers and young people are what sustain
me at moments when censorship threatens my work. I owe a great debt
to the many teachers, librarians, and parents who support my work.
The blessing is that in doing so they also strike blows for freedom.
Freedom is what our nation stands for and what makes our country special.
The irony of book-banning
attempts is that the publicity often causes people to read the books for
the wrong reasons. If a book is controversial, perhaps the best place
for it is the classroom where, under the guidance of a teacher, the book
can be discussed and evaluated, where each student will be free to proclaim
how he or she feels about the book and, in fact, can even refuse to read
the book. The point is that free choice must be involved.
There are many victims
of the censorship problem. Often, the children themselves suffer. There
was a case in Massachusetts where the parents of a girl strongly objected
to The Chocolate War and insisted that their daughter go to the
school library when the book was being discussed in the classroom. A classmate
of hers wrote to me of her dilemma. In his P.S., he added that she had
read The Chocolate War a year earlier on her own. You see how
impossible it is to protect young people from the world even when it is
done by parents with the best of intentions? The world intrudes, whether
through classmates or books and movies and television.
The esteemed author of The Giver, Gathering Blue, and
The Messenger, published in 2004
In my early years as a writer for young people, I occasionally received
letters from people who wondered why I had used a “bad word”
in a book. I always wrote back, explaining that an author tries to reflect
reality, and so book characters have to speak the way real people would
speak; it didn’t mean, I always explained, that the reader should
speak that way, or that the author does.
When I wrote The Giver, it contained no so-called “bad
words.” It was set, after all, in a mythical, futuristic, and Utopian
society. Not only was there no poverty, divorce, racism, sexism, pollution,
or violence in the world of The Giver; there was also careful
attention paid to language: to its fluency, precision, and power.
The reaction to the book was startling. It was startling in the number
of letters and responses I received almost immediately, but it was even
more startling in the degree of differences in the responses.
A Trappist monk wrote
from his monastery that he and his brothers were reading the book as
a Christian metaphor and finding it profoundly significant as a message
At about the same time,
a parent in California demanded that it be taken off the library shelves
of her child’s school because of its immorality.
A private school in
Michigan made it required reading not only for all the upper-school
students, but for their parents.
At the same time, a
teacher wrote to me that the Newbery committee should be chastised for
their awarding the 1994 medal to a sensationalistic piece of trash.
The children of Belgium
and France chose the book, in translation, as their favorite of the
A parent wrote to me
that I should be ashamed for exposing children to “messy data.”
What’s wrong with this picture? I found myself thinking.
I went back and re-read the book myself. I tried to figure out whether
these disparate people were, in fact, all responding to the same thing:
whether there was actually a theme in the book that people found either
uplifting or terrifying, or maybe both. And I discovered that it was the
concept of choice. The Giver is about a world where those decisions
are made for them. It seems very safe and comfortable, and I bet a lot
of parents—later to object and censor—liked the book until
they were two-thirds of the way through it.
Then it got scary. It got scary—and they decided to take it away
from their own kids—because it turned out that it wasn’t safe
and comfy to live in a world where adhering to rigid rules is the norm.
It turned out, in the book, that such a world is very, very dangerous,
and that people have to learn to make their own choices.
I sympathize with the fear that makes some parents not want that to be
true. But I believe without a single shadow of a doubt that it is necessary
for young people to learn to make choices. Learning to make right choices
is the only way they will survive in an increasingly frightening world.
Pretending that there are no choices to be made—reading only books,
for example, which are cheery and safe and nice—is a prescription
for disaster for the young.
Submitting to censorship is to enter the seductive world of The Giver:
the world where there are no bad words and no bad deeds. But it is also
the world where choice has been taken away and reality distorted. And
that is the most dangerous world of all.