CChildren’s writers and performers say rising censorship, institutional shyness and online backlash are causing stories about diversity, sexuality and even contemporary world events to be deemed inappropriate for younger readers.
“It feels like we’re living through a second Section 28, but one that the UK government has outsourced to an anonymous Twitter lobby,” says one cast member.
When acclaimed gay author Simon James Green was banned from attending schools by the Catholic Church in southern England last month, it drew attention to a trend that many believe reflects escalating censorship of children’s reading in the United States, which is emerging in Art Speigelman recently called it “a culture war gone haywire.”
Savita Kalhan was expecting to hold a recent school assembly with a group of teenagers for World Book Day. She planned to address themes of respect and approval, which appear in her young adult novels That Asian Kid – about institutional racism in schools – and The Girl in the Broken Mirror – which involves a sexual assault. But the event was canceled because the deputy director deemed her work “inappropriate.”
“Since then, I’ve received messages from many school librarians telling me they believe the situation is getting much worse and more widespread, with backlash on certain issues from school leadership and parents,” says Kalhan. “There seems to be a fear of something that may or may not happen, and it unnecessarily interferes with children’s reading choices.”
“Young adult books that cover diversity, sexuality and even current world events are now considered inappropriate for teenage readers,” she adds. “This is totally out of context with what teenagers actually read and watch, and the expertise of librarians themselves is completely overlooked.”
Juno Dawson — author and former teacher whose acclaimed handbook on sexuality for young people, This Book is Gay, is the subject of removal requests in the US — agrees there is a “shift in sentiment.”
It’s part of a broader culture war, she suggests, now gaining traction in Britain. “You can’t stop a kid from being trans or LGBT, but you can stop a book. Many of these attempts to withdraw books or cancel readings feel galling, so kudos to the librarians and teachers dealing with angry parents and activists.”
Elle McNicoll joined Simon James Green on the platform for the Bristol Teen Book Awards in the week after his ban, which she describes as a “painful message to young gay students”.
“I’ve seen the absolute power of goodness that Simon is when he’s in school and I’m only sorry that some children are denied that joy.”
McNicoll’s latest book, Like a Charm, features a dyspraxic protagonist; Her debut featured an autistic heroine like McNicoll herself.
“Diverse writers deal with much more than plot and story issues,” she argues. “Often we are also expected to solve social problems or defend ourselves outside of our work.”
Hazel Plowman, Director of Creative Learning at the Bath Children’s Literature Festival, says there has been a “distinct shift” towards more inclusive stories in children’s and young adult books since she started working there ten years ago.
“We’re programming our fall festival and while there’s still work to be done, we’re now getting all sorts of voices as commercial books rather than being pigeonholed as, say, a ‘theme book’. There are LGBTQ+ books for all ages, picture books with two mothers, British-Indian detectives and neurodiverse authors and characters.”
Jodie Lancet-Grant is one of the contributors to the Plowman List. Her first picture book for 3-7 year olds, The Pirate Mums – a swashbuckling adventure about a boy named Billy who happens to have two mothers – attracted some trolling earlier this year. “The idea that anyone would think this story was not appropriate for children is incredible. It’s just another family circumstance, but it’s incredibly important for kids to see that represented.”
“There is a worrying trend of censorship of LGBTQ+ authors and books as a result of the more polarized world we live in,” she says, suggesting that Section 28 – the 1988 legislation “prohibiting the promotion of homosexuality” – enforced by local authorities and only abolished in 2003 – still has an effect. “Many adults have not been read about these issues because of Clause 28 and now assume they are unacceptable because they accepted that absence as children.”
Drag performers have been particularly controversial, with a number of schools being caught out in recent years after booking a performance that was described as not being child-friendly or had an online presence. Sab Samuel aka Aida H. Dee, children’s book author and founder of Drag Queen Story Hour UK, is aware that “not all drag acts are educational” but believes that schools and local government are increasingly realizing the potential for Become aware of backlash, and therefore avoid anything that could be considered risky.
Adam Carver, whose children’s drag performance Palaver! Complaints to local authorities and Arts Council England over the past year are blunt: “It feels like we’re living through a second Section 28, but one that the UK Government has outsourced to an anonymous Twitter lobby.”
Carver’s company Fatt Projects is working on a model to support arts organizations facing similar attacks and offers advice on how best to respond to criticism.
“There’s a resurgence of the idea that queer people shouldn’t be around children,” he says. “There’s a perfect storm now in place with venues and organizations fearing such backlash that they’re not taking chances. But there is still demand from children and families for work that explores differences.”