In Defense of Words: “Censor”

A recent School Library Journal article stated:

“Don’t expect to see Lauren Myracle’s new book Luv Ya Bunches (Abrams/Amulet, 2009) at Scholastic school book fairs this year. It’s been censored—at least for now—due to its language and homosexual content.”

This statement was thoroughly backed up:

“But Scholastic says the book, released on October 1, failed to meet its vetting process because it contains offensive language and same-sex parents of one of the main characters, Milla.”

“The company sent a letter to Myracle’s editor asking the author to omit certain words such as “geez,” “crap,” “sucks,” and “God” (as in, “oh my God”) and to alter its plotline to include a heterosexual couple.”

“Scholastic defended the move. “Authors are often given the opportunity to make changes in the books to meet the norms of the various communities that host the fairs,” adds Kyle Good, a Scholastic spokeswoman, explaining that the title will, however, be available in the Scholastic Book Club catalog.”

Scholastic responded to this article quickly. Their response gave the impression that they were having a very visceral reaction to having been called out for censoring a book:

“School Library Journal inaccurately stated that we censored the book. We review thousands of books each year and only a limited number can be carried in our channels.” – Kyle Good commenting on the SLJ article and the same comment was repeated verbatim on the Scholastic blog with pictures of their Book Club catalogs featuring the book to reinforce the statement

“Scholastic does not censor books. We review thousands of titles each year for our book clubs and book fairs, and we are committed to a review process that considers all books equally regardless of their inclusion of LGBT characters and same sex parents. In an interview with School Library Journal, Scholastic stated that we are currently carrying Luv Ya Bunches by Lauren Myracle in our school book clubs. We also said we were still reviewing the book for possible inclusion in our book fairs. Having completed our review of Luv Ya Bunches, Scholastic Book Fairs will carry the title in our spring fairs for middle school. Scholastic is proud of our long history of providing books that will appeal to the wide range of interests and reading abilities of children in the many diverse cultures and communities we serve. Luv Ya Bunches is just one example.” – On the Scholastic blog later, after much outcry arose in response to the SLJ article

The controversy over the book has been covered all over the internet, so I’m not going to go into it. Besides, as much as I wholeheartedly agree that it’s a really important issue, I don’t think that the reasons the book were censored are the most interesting part of this whole thing. I think that Scholastc’s knee-jerk reaction to a word is the most interesting part.

Scholastic repeated and vociferously claimed that they do not censor books, that they did not censor this book. But they have not countered or refuted any of the specific claims of the article, despite being repeatedly asked and given the chance to do so. Given that, it’s hard not to assume that they are, in fact, true statements concerning what occurred. And if that is the case, than Scholastic needs to dig out their dictionary (they publish several, so they must have some laying around they could check).

The word “censor” has a few meanings, but two particularly apply to how it is being used in this context. Seeing as I don’t happen to have a Scholastic dictionary on hand, I’ll provide examples of definitions from multiple other sources. The first is it’s meaning as a transitive verb.

- “to examine and expurgate” (American Heritage)
- “to examine and act upon as a censor or to delete (a word or passage of text) in one’s capacity as a censor” (Dictionary.com)
- “to examine in order to suppress or delete anything considered objectionable or to suppress or delete as objectionable” (Merriam-Webster).

The second is one of the word’s meanings as a noun.

- “an authorized examiner of literature, plays or other material, who may prohibit what he considers morally or otherwise objectionable” (American Heritage)
- “an official who examines books, plays, news reports, motion pictures, radio and television programs, letters, cablegrams, etc., for the purpose of suppressing parts deemed objectionable on moral, political, military, or other grounds” (Dictionary.com)
- “an official who examines materials (as publications or films) for objectionable matter” (Merriam-Webster).

So now that we’ve got a good definition, let’s look back at the evidence stating Scholastic was censoring Love Ya Bunches.

1. The publisher has a “review process”, which rejected Love Ya Bunches on the grounds that it had “offensive language and same-sex parents”. According to our definition, any “review process” that rejects a book on the basis of “offensive” content of any kind, whether it offends them or not, is censoring.

2. Scholastic says “authors are often given the opportunity to make changes in the books to meet the norms of the various communities that host the fairs”, which implies that they want the author to “expurgate”, “suppress”, or “delete” whatever it is that the “review process” determined needed fixing. Again, that matches our definition of “censor”.

If a censor is someone who “examines” media “for objectionable matter” (such as offensive language and same-sex parents) “in order to suppress or delete” said objectionable material (like, for example, asking the author to change it or refusing to carry it in a certain venue), then it seems that Scholastic has no leg to stand on in their claims of not censoring. In fact, it sounds like Scholastic censors everything they carry, it’s just that not everything is found to have “objectionable material”.

Words matter, and as as publishers and proponents of education Scholastic should know that. In fact, they should be among the first to stand up and defend language and encourage proper usage and respect for words. You can’t pick and choose – if you’re going to be a champion of something, you have to defend it even when you don’t like it. That means that even when you come up against a word you don’t like, if you claim to care about language the way Scholastic tries to through it’s educational publications and programs, then you have to accept and even defend it anyway.

That’s not to say that review processes and boards don’t have their place, because they do. But don’t rail against it when someone accurately calls them on being censors. Being a censor doesn’t have to be a bad thing A mom censors a TV show when she decides her three-year-old shouldn’t watch The Sopranos and changes the channel, but that doesn’t make her wrong for having done so.

Words are important and it’s worth defending them, even the ones you don’t like.

2 Comments

  1. Terri said,

    October 28, 2009 at 11:14 pm

    This post reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend, after walking out of the movie Fahrenheit 9/11.

    me: “That was a pretty impressive piece of propaganda.”
    him: “That wasn’t propaganda!”
    me: “You don’t actually know what the word propaganda means, do you?”

    Turns out he really didn’t — he basically thought it couldn’t be propaganda if there was some truth in it. It was a very gut reaction to negative connotations on the word, when applied to something he’d found interesting. But just because you like something doesn’t mean it isn’t propaganda.

    On the bright side, I got to improve his vocabulary that day. ;)

  2. Eva said,

    October 29, 2009 at 10:07 am

    Scholastic is kind of trapped between a rock and a hard place. They’d probably rather use any word but censor since it has such overwhelmingly negative connotations relative to books, but as you say it is fundamentally the truth based on their actions. I think part of the problem is that the context they’re working in (publishing, books, etc.) has such a long and emotionally charged relationship with that word. Where it might be considered more rationally in another field, Scholatic may rightly feel that they can’t afford to defend it in theirs, because no matter what they say, their public will interpret it as purely negative rather than the way the dictionary defines it (and quite possibly rip them to shreds even more than they already are).

    I think your argument is the morally right one (and very well articulated), but Scholastic’s is, sadly, the pragmatic one given their position. It’s disgusting that they are censoring books in the way that they are (forcing authors to make changes to books once they’re in print to cater to society’s norms is in my mind a cardinal sin), but given that they’ve done that and can’t go back in time to fix it, they’re going to have to deal with the PR somehow.

Post a Comment