I don’t think one ought to worry too much about corrupting children, so long as one’s books are honest. It has always seemed to me (and this may sound unduly inspirational) that what is honestly intended, and done as truthfully as the author is able to do it, cannot intrinsically be regarded as harmful. On the whole I am inclined to think that children will pass unharmed over what they do not understand. The objection to the heavy sex novel is not that it is going to corrupt them, but that it is going to bore them stiff — by elaborating on experiences that are beyond meaning for them.
The certainty of story that allows a child to add it — with delight — to the category of ‘things that are so’, also lends to its content the slight implication that this is how things ought to be. We cannot be told ‘Once there was a prince’ without also being told (on some level and in some part) that it was right that there was a prince. What knits together out of nothing, and yet is solid enough to declare that it is so, recommends itself to us, although we don’t receive the recommendation straightforwardly. In this lies the power, and the danger, of stories.
I’m not arguing against age censorship. Like pants sizes, consumers need a guide. But I am constantly surprised at the ways in which we can’t predict a child’s response to a story. Our five year old watched Terminator 2 last week and slept like a log all night. Several days later I showed her The Polar Express and she woke several times from nightmares. Not that frequency of nightmares can be used as any indicator of longterm effects, I guess, but my husband woke from a rare nightmare last week — our chickens (plus one extra terrifying bird) hid in his sock drawer, then jumped out and pecked his arm off. I pointed out that he’d spent the afternoon watching 127 Hours, then sitting at his Apple Mac in the kitchen area, where our chickens have developed the super annoying habit of pecking on the window for scraps. While I can completely understand the trauma of watching 127 Hours (I couldn’t watch it past the inciting incident — my ears actually started to ring) there is nothing inherently terrifying about our freerange chickens.
All of this goes to prove, naturally, that little red hens should come with a PG-13 tag attached to their skinny wee legs.
This morning Cosmopolitan reports that UK authors are pushing for children’s literature to include sex in fiction for kids. That’s quite a headline grabber. Of course, reading the actual article offers a less sensationalist request:
Malorie Blackman says that including sex in fiction for kids will expose them to it in a shame-free, healthy and positive “safe setting”
Philip Pullman agrees, and says that kids can benefit from seeing sex in a “moral context” where “actions have consequences”.
They’re not asking too much, are they?. Bear in mind that in the publishing world, ‘children’s literature’ includes the young adult category.
I wish them all the luck in the world and, given the current attitude towards nudity in picturebooks, I think they’ll need it. Things haven’t changed all that much since Maurice Sendak’s most controversial book In The Night Kitchen was released in 1970. In that book is a picture of a little boy with no clothes on. We can see his penis.
I haven’t seen anything quite like that in picturebook since. Maybe illustrated eBooks and self-publishing will offer writers opportunities to push the boundaries a little more? After all, not everyone is on board with the censorship of innocent nudity in picturebooks, and I count myself among them. However, distribution of our work relies on bigger powers, and here are the developer guidelines from Apple:
I recently saw a picture from a fellow developer who’d had his 4+ rated app rejected by Apple. The screenshot depicted a very innocent, almost inhuman looking, smooth-bodied creature. The advice from Apple was to ‘put some clothes on it’.
So, regardless of my personal attitude towards censorship, the real decision makers are standing at the gate of that walled garden.
Sales of digital comics have soared in the past three years. Readers love the look of comics on the iPad screen and they also love the convenience of in-app purchasing, which allows consumers to buy and store their comics within a single app. So it’s a big deal when Apple bans a comic—usually because of sexual or mature material or nudity—and it has happened to at least 59 comics this year.
You may think that creators of picturebooks for the iPad have less to worry about, but in fact the innocent nudity of bathtime and related day-to-day activities is banned equally by Apple. I have seen children’s apps rejected which feature only the vaguest representations of human creatures. If nudity offends you, you’re safe with Apple. If, on the other hand, you think there should be more normalised nudity in children’s media, your bookshelf will need supplementation, because Apple does not distinguish between ‘nudity’ and ‘nakedness’.
Perry Nodelman explains why Apple employees, when working under deadline to accept or reject app submissions, might have trouble with such a distinction in his book Words About Pictures:
In Ways Of Seeing, John Berger suggests that the characteristic poses of nudes in paintings imply the superiority of the viewer, presumably male and dressed, and the subservience of the person they depict — inevitably female, totally exposed, and apparently delighted by her vulnerability in the face of superior power. While the naked human body is not as significant a subject of picture books as it is of conventional painting, its depiction in picture books deserves some discussion. Not only does it reveal much about the kinds of narrative information implied by the depiction of postures and gestures — above all, the communication of attitudes toward characters — but also it suggests how even cultural assumptions we believe we have outlived survive in surprising ways in literature and art.
As Berger defines it, nudity can be distinguished from mere nakedness by means of gestures. Naked people simply have their clothes off; nude people take on certain postures that suggest their availability, their passivity, their willingness to be vulnerable and to put themselves at the disposal of a superior viewer who has the right to survey them. They tend to be supine, relaxed, smiling sensuously with an implied consciousness of a viewer or with their eyes closed. If such poses and gestures represent nudity, then the unclothed children of picture books are, surprisingly often, nude — and not, surely, because artists with to suggest the sexual availability of young children but more likely because the gestures of nudity are so conventional and so interiorized that artists use them unconsciously when they depict naked bodies.
– Code, Symbol, Gesture
Nodelman offers some examples of such nudity in picturebooks:
The Water Babies, illustrated by Jessie Wilcox Smith
And that, folks, is how we end up with a blanket ban on nudity in the App Store. Meantime, I did wonder if Midnight Feast would be accepted, due to the bathtime pages. Fortunately the app has made it through twice so far. Fingers crossed it keeps making it, though I will wonder every time we submit an update if a naked female back may at some stage not pass muster. Nodelman does point out that although female nudity in picturebooks is rare due to its close connection to sexuality, ‘the rare female nudes in picture books tend to sit in bathtubs or hold towels around themselves or hide behind trees; they almost always take on the traditional gestures of nudity, and they almost always smile out at viewers’.
Isn’t it interesting, that even when clothed, female characters — in picturebooks, not just in comics — ‘almost always take on the traditional gestures of nudity’.
While I understand the line must be drawn somewhere, I am reminded of a documentary I watched recently about young British naturists, who were joined for afternoon tea by a female friend who felt uncomfortable with complete nakedness, but equally uncomfortable fully clothed, so she thought she’d achieve a happy medium by eating afternoon tea in her underwear. As pointed out by one of the naked young men, her underwear had the uncanny ability to make the young woman appear more naked than if she were wearing nothing at all. Female underwear is highly sexualised; as for nakedness, not necessarily.
Censorship is a murky, muddy, ever-shifting beast, but I do wonder if the emphasis on nakedness in apps for children isn’t completely misplaced when the female characters who do appear in children’s media are so often striking the ‘nude pose’.
Nodelman writes, “In fact, pictures of naked boys almost all show them clearly doing something–moving, active, not posing.”
I would suggest from all this that it’s not the nakedness per se that offends certain censors*, because we get ‘clothed nude’ in spades; it is in fact naked female agency.
*Censorship technically only refers to government restriction. A company who decides not to allow something is technically making a business decision rather than imposing censorship in the truest sense.
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.
“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.