Censorship of Children’s Books

The interesting thing about setting up your own small publishing company and jumping straight into storyapp creation is that we are responsible for making every single little decision. I consider our stories ‘different’ from mainstream stories. Middle grade picturebooks are fairly unusual in the first place.

Then I read about some traditionally published illustrator’s experience of the book publishing industry and wonder how our work would change if we were to contract the expertise of the experienced:

“…there is strict censorship in modern American children’s literature of depictions of the naked form — whether of children, adults or even animals. The final illustration in Pija Lindenbaum’s picture book Else-Marie och smapapporna [Else-Marie and her little papas] (1990), which is about a girl with seven tiny fathers, shows the seven little men, Else-Marie and her normal-sized mother all sitting naked, playing in the bath together. In the American translation (Lindenbaum 1991) this picture was entirely cut and nothing was substituted  When the sight of a seated goat complete with udder int he picture book A Squash and a Squeeze (Donaldson and Scheffler 1993) seemed obscene to the Americans, the illustrator Axel Sceheffler had to amputate the udder. Scheffler commented on this process in a humorous drawing. ‘Though such old-fashioned Puritanism may tempt us in this country [Germany] to smile,’ says Susanne Koppe of this piece of censorship, ‘our smiles fade when we recognize that the prudery of the Pilgrim Fathers is stealing into the German nursery through he back door of coproduction. For the goat has lost her udder not just in the American version, but also in the British source text and all other versions involved in the coproduction of the picture book for international edition.”

from Comparative Children’s Literature by Emer O’Sullivan

The first page of Midnight Feast features a sequence of a 6 year-old-girl getting undressed and ready for bed. Although the reader at no stage sees her naked — she puts on her pants before taking off her dress, for instance, I wondered during the production of this page whether adult (or sophisticated) readers might get the feeling they are privy to a scene they shouldn’t be looking at: a little girl getting undressed, to summarise.

Without a marketing team to predict reception, we are instead relying on our own common sense, which may indeed differ from other people’s sensibilities, but nonetheless, we feel that this sequence is appropriate to the story, and not at all revealing. It will be interesting from a comparative literature point of view to see if adult readers agree. From the examples above, I’m inclined to think publishers are overly conservative, and that the general reading public is not as Puritan as predicted.

It would be a mistake for us to try and guess readers’ reception. Even the publishing pros never, ever really know their audience.


At first glance the illustration above appears to be a Japanese woodblock print created around the time microscopes were first introduced to Japan — a geisha investigating new technology. The images is from the Kokkei Shinbun, a satirical newspaper edited by Miyatake Gaikotsu. Gaikotsu lived (1867 – 1955) through two world wars and during Japan’s conservative era, after many centuries of relative sexual freedom. He was thrown in jail a handful of times.

The woman in the picture s examining sperm. There seems no narrative reason for this, other than an editor’s wish to push censorship boundaries to their limits, and relax them.

A small symbol by the woman’s back looks like a tiny stick figure but is a handwritten version of the kanji 墨. From this we know the illustrator’s pen name: 墨池亭黒坊 (perhaps pronounced as Sumiketei Kurobō), which translates roughly to “a shadowy guy in a black-ink pond”. This person illustrated many of the newspaper’s postcards under Sumiketei Kurobō. Their real name remains a mystery.


“The one thing that mildly bothers me is some Mums will say ‘oh that awful Jacqueline Wilson, I won’t let my daughter read her because her books are full of drugs and drink,’” she says.

“But actually – they’re not! There’s nothing like that in any of my books. There’s no real sex in any of them either. I did cause a controversy once by using a very mild four letter word, when some granny somewhere went to the papers about it, which was very difficult [in 2008, the word ‘twat’ in My Sister Jodie was replaced with ‘twit’ after Random House received 3 complaints].


The MPAA’s NC-17 rating, specifically designed to “protect children,” reveals the association’s sexist and patriarchal view of what content is allowable and what is “objectionable.”  The MPAA fails completely to take into account sexism and content that objectifies girls and women, turns them into commodities, employs them as props, represents them as property and prizes, and makes them the target of sexualized and domestic violence as a plot device to demonstrate the hyper-masculinity of male protagonists. And most protagonists are male.

The MPAA’s backwards logic: Sex is dangerous, sexism is fine, Salon

Header illustration: 1906, by 墨池亭黒坊 (Sumiketei Kurobō)