Should any topics be off-limits for children’s books?

should any topics be off-limits for children's books?

I’ve been seeing a lot of articles lately about books getting banned from schools and libraries after parents complain about the content. It always makes me sad, but usually because I disagree with the specific complaint. But I’ve been racking my brains wondering should any topics be off-limits for children’s books, and in the end, I’m not so sure. What do you think?

One of the books that particularly caused a stir this year was the latest Captain Underpants novel, which included a gay character. The reference to his sexuality was minuscule: when the two protagonists see into their own futures, one sees himself with a wife and kids, and the other sees himself with a husband and kids. should any topics be off-limits for children's booksThat’s literally all it says.

The fact that parents got up in arms about this seems ridiculous to me: how can a child be too young to understand a man marrying a man, but old enough to understand a man marrying a woman? It’s not like children are born with an inherent and unshakeable belief that men typically marry women in our society (when I was little, I thought “girls should marry girls and boys should marry spiders”); traditional Western marriage is a construct that we teach them about. So let’s just…not teach them that, and teach them the truth instead?

Of course, it’s easy for me to say this, because I believe in marriage equality. So what if a children’s book included something that I don’t support? What if, for example, a children’s book included a casual reference to a romantic relationship between an adult and a young child? Hmmm.

should any topics be off-limits for childrens booksAnother book that pissed parents off this year was the “graphic” Muppets book For Every Child, A Better World, which teaches children that food, shelter, access to clean water and healthcare are privileges that not all children have. Is an illustration of a child living in a box in the rain too upsetting for young children, or is important that they are exposed to this?

What if a children’s book tackled rape? Murder? At what point does it stop being educational and become overwhelming?

I’ve never had a child, so I can’t talk about the best way to raise one—but my gut instinct at the moment is that honesty is the best policy. Terrible things do happen, so perhaps it’s easier for children to learn about them right from the start. Children have a wonderful and non-judgemental way of making sense of the world, so perhaps they could offer a perspective on these topics that even we had never thought of before.

What do you think? Should any topics be off-limits for children’s books?

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  • Sarah

    Hmm that’s a tough one. I’ve never had kids either. There isn’t an outright rating system like with movies, so I guess it has to come down with the parents and teachers to decide. You have to trust that your child’s teacher won’t assign anything they can’t handle yet or is beyond their understanding. And if as the parent you do disagree, you have a right not to have your kid exposed to it., but not the right to ban it from other children.
    I agree with honesty is always the best policy. It’s a big world out there. Children only know their immediate bubble and books help to open them up to the outside.

    • Yeah I agree – it’s unfair if one parent’s views ban the whole class from reading something. Maybe a rating system for books would be a good idea!

  • Katy Goodwin-Bates

    This is such a good post. I have a three year old daughter and liberal politics (for example, I traumatised my in-laws on Christmas Day when they made a joke about showing my daughter’s nativity play to her boyfriend when she’s older and my response was “or her girlfriend”). I think there are two different issues here; in the case of same-sex couples, I don’t see why this shouldn’t be in a children’s book. It is reality and, honestly, I’d be thrilled to find a children’s book in which the main character had two mummies or two daddies, in order to ensure my little girl grows up knowing that this is totally normal.
    The other things you mention, like rape and relationships between adults and children, are very different because they are illegal and obviously awful; they are not things I would want my daughter to find out about until she is much older. But, when she is old enough, I would want to be able to read books with her which explain these situations; it’s a bad example because it’s a book for young adults, but Louise O’Neill’s ‘Asking For It’ is a really good example of how topics like the ones you bring up here can and should be dealt with in literature. I also recently read a book called ‘Orbiting Jupiter,’ which is aimed at younger teens, in which the narrator was only 12; his parents fostered a boy who had been in a juvenile detention facility and the writer (Gary Schmidt) was really clever in making the narrator allude to things he was too young to understand, but which an older reader would get.
    You’re completely right in saying that honesty is the best policy; when the Paris attacks happened last year, my daughter was asking questions about what she saw on the news and I did have to answer them in ways which were honest but not scary.
    Sorry for this epic long comment – your post has really got me thinking!

    • I LOVED Asking For It – it was brilliant wasn’t it?! But yes, not exactly something you’d want a three-year-old reading! Thanks so much for your comment, really great to hear the perspective of someone who actually is a parent and so has more insight on it!

      • I was thinking about some way I could express my thoughts correctly on this post because it’s such a good one! Because I agree that difficult topics should be adressed even in children’s book, but how do we decided which topics might be too difficult? Why adress sexuality and not murder or rape? They’re all realities of the world.

        This is why your response is so amazing! I wouldn’t want my child to read so early on about awful things that are illegal and so… crude. But something normal like two people of the same sex forming a family, to show these kinds of families exist!

        Ultimately, I agree with Sarah. Each parent has the right to decide what is best for their children, but not for other people’s children, which is why I absolutely hate when a book is banned. You don’t like a book, don’t read it, don’t let your kids read it, but leave the rest of people alone!

  • Nicole Hewitt

    As a mom, I get the complexities of these issues. It is hard sometimes to decide where to draw lines and decide what your kids are old enough to understand. Like you, I wouldn’t be horrified by my young kids seeing a brief depiction of a same sex marriage. And my kids have known about poverty since they were little (my youngest was adopted from Haiti, so it’s something we talked about). I don’t think the Muppets picture you show is anything people should complain about. But there are certain topics that I wouldn’t want mentioned and LOTS of topics I wouldn’t want anything more than a casual mention about. I guess the most important thing is just to be involved in your kids’ lives and KNOW what they’re reading so that you can discuss it with them. That way, if there are topics you’re worried about, you can talk to them. Of course, we can’t monitor everything our kids see – we have to face the fact that there are going to be outside influences that we’ll have to deal with. All we can do is prepare our kids as well as possible!

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

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  • Codie Louise Austin

    “girls should marry girls and boys should marry spiders” – This really made me laugh out loud! Great post and so much I would have to agree with x

    • Thank you! Haha you know what, I still think boys marrying spiders would be a good idea sometimes!

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  • Charlie Anderson

    Children ARE very non-judgemental and make sense of everything in their own way. If they get stuck, they always ask. Like my sixth grade boys who, when taking a test on one of their books, asked what “stillborn” was because it was in one of the answer choices. How many times have little kids asked where babies come from? Children are so much stronger than we give them credit for, and they have a larger capacity to absorb and process because all of those religious and cultural values and norms have not fully solidified in them. They are still making sense of the world and how it works, from a child’s perspective. I agree with your question regarding marriage equality: how can a child be too young to understand a man marrying a man, but old enough to understand a man marrying a woman? Who would like to be the kettle, and who would like to be the pot? Because they’re both black! Let’s be real and honest with ourselves. I think the Muppets book is a wonderful book. Look at all the raging children – and adults – who did not get the materialistic item they wanted under the Christmas tree. I’m making my creative writing students write about materialism. Just because we as a society don’t want to face that aspect of our lives, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. There are those who ride both that side and the side of “it’s about giving, not receiving”. We can’t have it both ways, and nobody likes to look in the mirror, and worse yet, have these flaws (?) pointed out for them. I teach 10 and 11 year olds. They are all wired to their electronics, and we have to talk all the time about right vs. privilege. Children today need to be taught these lessons, otherwise there will be 16 year old kids running around killing people and using the excuse “I grew up privileged. I wasn’t taught this” to a judge – and getting off scott free! (Yes, this actually happened in Texas a few years ago.) Everyone today who has those basic things, and other luxuries, should be extremely thankful they do not live in certain other cities or countries. The entire concept of Me Me Me has made people so introverted they don’t even realize people live so differently in other places of the world because it’s not about them, so it never crosses their radar.

    I’ve seen a children’s book tackle the concept of putting loved ones (especially the elderly) in nursing homes or other such facilities. It was approached beautifully and the way it was worded – intended for children – was done perfectly. It even provided additional resources for parents to foster those conversations with children and answer their questions.

    I’ve also seen a children’s book approach and explain death. Like the book I mentioned above, it was done extremely well and as an adult we can pick out the euphemisms, but it is written on a child’s level with their level of understanding and their emotions in mind.

    I don’t think there is any topic that could be off-limits in a children’s book, as long as it is written in the correct way, like the two examples I mentioned. If nothing else, some topics could be more of a PSA than true children’s literature. They can teach children from a young age things that are normal, and things that are not. Stranger danger, find an adult, report to an adult, avoid this kind of person, etc. could all be taught through a children’s book.

    • Thanks for such a thoughtful response! I agree, as long as something is tackled sensitively then ANYTHING should be open. While children are forming their worldview, it’s important that we give them all the tools to understand it properly!

  • this is a very…heavy question. I mean I totally agree with you. I think that books shouldn’t be banned nation wide. If you don’t like what’s in a book, ban it from your child, but don’t drag the rest of the tiny tots with you. For me personally, if I ever have children, I will let them read just about anything. There are sad things in the world. There are different opinions and cultures. I think it’s good for a child to learn about those things. HOWEVER I would definitely shelter my children from books, and tv shows, dealing with rape and murder. Those topics are so… I mean they don’t teach anything a child needs to learn right away. With the book on poverty, a child learns to be generous and be thankful for what they do have. It’s a good lesson for them at that age. But rape and murder? I feel like those are so incredibly adult for a child (the child I’m imagining is like 7 xD). Children should be allowed a childhood- to be innocent and not weighed down by such sad sad topics. I don’t want to read about sexual assault to my child and then say, “OKAY GOODNIGHT!” I don’t want to put that burden on my kid. I want to keep the dimpled, unburdened grin on my babies for as long as I can, but I also don’t want them to be ignorant, ya know? It’s a hard balance, and I think I should be the parent to figure that out. I don’t want other parents deciding it for me.

  • Wendy Gassaway

    I’m a parent and a middle school teacher so, hoo boy, is this a topic I’ve thought a lot about! We had a parent get a book pulled from our school library last year. I was pretty ticked. Some of the justification from my principal for caving in was along the lines of “Well, my 4th grade daughter reads at a 12th grade level, but I wouldn’t want her reading this book just because she’s capable of it.” I strongly believe that kids are able to SELF CENSOR. I think it’s rare for a kid to randomly choose to read a book they aren’t ready for. My own kids (ages 9 and 11) are quite matter of fact about saying, “I don’t think this is appropriate for me” about books, TV, and movies, and then walking away. I don’t read horror, because I don’t want those images in my mind. Kids can make the same kind of decisions. I agree that books shouldn’t be required if they are likely to be too “adult” for the majority of the class, but I am completely in favor of books being freely available for whoever wants to read them. Would I put 50 Shades of Gray in an elementary school library? Of course not. But I’d put a “middle school” book in an elementary school, and a “high school” book in a middle school, and in high school, I don’t think anything should be off limits.

  • Holly Pocket

    This is such an interesting post. I really think it depends on how certain things are portrayed and on the age range the book is aimed at, depending on the topic. I don’t see any harm in portraying same-sex relationships as with your example but other more harrowing topics such as rape etc. should be left until a later age. Having said that, books and reading are one of the safest ways for children to be introduced to new ideas and perspectives so I don’t think anything should be totally off limits, as long as it is done in a way that is sensitive to their age.

    • Yes exactly – there’s not necessarily a list of “off limits topics” – they just need to be introduced more sensitively!