Book Banned, Author Bemused

I’ve previously written about my books being edited so that the vocabulary, punctuation and spelling make sense to overseas readers. However, I didn’t mention another issue, which is that different countries often have very different cultural values. Contrast, for example, attitudes (and legislation) in Australia and the United States regarding gun ownership, capital punishment and universal healthcare. And also, book banning.

'The FitzOsbornes at War' North American editionEarlier this year, I was interviewed by Magpies (an Australian journal about literature for children and teenagers) and was asked about the reaction of US readers to the epilogue of The FitzOsbornes at War. As the book hadn’t yet been released in the US, I talked about reactions to the previous two books. I said I’d always expected some US reviewers and readers would object to my gay and bisexual characters, but that I’d been surprised by some of the things they’d also deemed ‘controversial’ – for example, that some of my characters were atheists or socialists, that not all of the married couples were happily married, and that there was a brief discussion of contraception. One US reviewer of The FitzOsbornes in Exile complained at length about the “sketchy moral questions that permeate the book” and hoped that there’d be some signs of moral improvement in Book Three. Um . . . well, not really.

But I suppose it depends on how you define ‘moral’. I think The FitzOsbornes at War is all about morality, but I quite understand that some readers won’t approve of some of the characters’ actions. It’s a novel full of conflict and drama and people in extreme circumstances making difficult (and occasionally stupid) decisions. But reading about characters doing things that you regard as against your own personal moral code is not the same as doing those things yourself. For instance, teenagers reading about a gay character will not suddenly turn gay (unless they already are gay, in which case what they read will make no difference to who they are, but might possibly make them feel less alone). Will reading about such ‘immoral’ behaviour make the behaviours seem more ‘normal’, more ‘acceptable’? Well, maybe. The US librarian who’s pulled The FitzOsbornes at War off her library shelves certainly seems to think so.

Note: Sorry, I’m going to have to include plot spoilers for The FitzOsbornes at War here. If you haven’t read the book but are planning to read it, you might want to skip the next seven paragraphs of this post.

I’m not going to link to the librarian’s review, because I don’t want anyone to go over there and hassle her. (Not that you would – I know the people who regularly visit this blog are always respectful and courteous, even when they disagree with a post – but just in case someone else does.) Still, I found the librarian’s reasons for removing the book really interesting, so I would like to quote from her review, which awarded the book one star out of five:

“Does it not bother anyone that this novel seems to have characters that are entirely amoral? I was wondering whether to overlook the PG13 content and language because of the educational aspects of this well researched historical fiction World War II novel, but really–I just have to wonder about everyone being okay with the gay king living with his wife and his wife’s lover and their children in happy wedded bliss (This was a recommended book in the Parent’s Choice awards!)…Sorry this one is not staying at our library.”

Firstly, as far as I know, the book isn’t recommended in the Parents’ Choice awards. A Brief History of Montmaray was, several years ago, but The FitzOsbornes at War hasn’t been.

Secondly, is it just me or does it read as though it’s okay to have a gay character in a book, but only if he’s utterly miserable? Heaven forbid that gay people and their children could ever live in “happy wedded bliss”, either in books or in real life. Oh, wait, some people’s version of heaven does forbid it . . .

Thirdly, if the “content and language” is regarded by the librarian as PG13, doesn’t that mean that this book should be okay to shelve in the Young Adult fiction section? Shouldn’t it be suitable for readers over thirteen, with some parental guidance if necessary? Can’t teenage readers and their parents decide for themselves whether they want to read this book?

Fourthly, does this librarian truly believe the characters in The FitzOsbornes at War are “entirely amoral”? The word ‘amoral’ doesn’t mean ‘disagrees with my own moral values’. It refers to someone who has no understanding of morality, no sense of right and wrong. I’m assuming the librarian is referring to Toby, Julia and Simon, given the reference to the “gay king” and his family (although, who knows, perhaps Veronica and Sophie are included in the condemnation, for having had sexual experiences outside marriage). Really, these characters are “amoral”? In a novel that also contains Hitler, Stalin and Franco? So, should all books with amoral characters be banned from libraries? I’m guessing that particular library doesn’t have a copy of Richard III or Macbeth, either. (Not that I’m for one moment suggesting that my novels approach the literary quality of the works of William Shakespeare. But it seems ‘literary quality’ isn’t a factor in determining which books are stocked at this library, anyway.)

(Fifthly, and quite irrelevantly, did the librarian really describe Simon as the “wife’s lover”? Poor Toby! You’d think he’d have more of a claim as Simon’s lover than Julia, after all those years.)

This is where the cultural difference thing comes in, because I am trying, and failing, to imagine a librarian in an Australian public library taking The FitzOsbornes at War off her library’s shelves – not because a library patron had complained, but because the librarian herself thought the book ‘amoral’. Australia has a long history of banning books, but it would be very unusual for a book in an Australian public library to be challenged or banned nowadays, particularly if the only objection to the book was that it contained a gay character who was happy.

Still, I’m in pretty good company. Here are some of the books that were most frequently banned or challenged in US libraries between 2000 and 2009:

The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Giver by Lois Lowry
Bridge To Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
Beloved by Toni Morrison
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle
The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451? Seriously, a novel about books being outlawed in America is on the US banned books list? I can only shake my head and turn to John Stuart Mill, who’s quoted on the American Library Association’s website:

“. . . But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

16 thoughts on “Book Banned, Author Bemused”

  1. Not all libraries in the United States are like that, and I can vouch for that firsthand, as I work as a part-time clerk in a small town library in New York, and I have never heard of a book being removed from our shelves because of content. It awes me that people would want to remove books from a libraries shelves just because they disagree with something within the book. If you don’t like the message a book is giving, or certain themes within the book, don’t take it out of the library. If you don’t want your kids to read it, monitor what they check out. I gave a persuasive speech on why books shouldn’t be banned in my Speech and Debate class during my Senior year of high school; one of the points I made was that if you removed every book that offended someone from a library’s shelves, there would be no books left on the shelves. Everybody is going to be offended by something they read, but just because something offends you, doesn’t mean you should have it removed so that nobody else can view it. Stage a protest, write a letter to the editor of your local paper, write to the publisher or the even the author of the book explaining your displeasure, but don’t censure what everyone else reads or sees. I’m quite an activist for the keeping of books on shelves, as you can probably tell; now having said what I came here to say, I will get off my soapbox and put it away until it’s needed again.

    By the way, I would also like to say, that I quite enjoyed The FitzOsbornes at War, and am currently trying to get a copy purchased for the library where I work, to complete our Montmaray trilogy (which is in the Young Adult section).

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Elizabeth, and I agree entirely. People should be free to express their dislike of a book, but that doesn’t mean they have the right to stop other people reading the book. I’m guessing most US librarians feel the same way you do, and I know the American Library Association is a strong advocate for freedom of expression.

  2. I do hope you don’t think all Americans are like that! (Although thinking about it, book banning does seem to be more common in the US. A mother at my high school is trying to ban Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits for promoting violence and misogyny, which is absurd.) But these people are definitely on the fringe of American society, and the majority of us do not want to ban books. I’m sorry that librarian banned The FitzOsbornes at War.

  3. Still reading The FitzOsbornes At War. Remind me next September to do a virtual readout of this book for Banned Books Week. 😉 I’ve loved the first two, which I got for reviewing. Unfortunately, it’s hard to persuade kids to read straight historical fiction these days, but perhaps when I tell them one of this series was banned/ challenged… :-b

  4. What I find curious is that librarian has conflated “not being okay with something in a book” with “removing said book from the library selves”.

    There’s a difference between liking a book and agreeing with absolutely everything in it. I can love stories in spite of elements which may bother me or characters making choices with which I disagree. It can be good to be ‘bothered’ and challenged – and made to think about one’s on values and so on.
    And while sometimes I disagree, or am uncomfortable, to the point where I cannot like the story, it still seems like there’s a leap from that to actively preventing others from encountering the story.

    But perhaps this is just cultural differences. I cannot imagine an Australian librarian banning a book (and for such reasons) either…

    1. Yes, I think books that challenge your viewpoints can be good prompts for discussion (either in your own head, or with others). Banning the book means you remove that opportunity for discussion.

      And yes, I think Australians are a lot more laid-back and tolerant about these sorts of issues.

  5. I have never understood banning books from a library – unless it’s something like “How to make a bomb” that shouldn’t be available to everyone. Yes, some books are not appropriate for children, but libraries have different shelves for different age groups don’t they?

    (I went looking for the review – it doesn’t say any more than is quoted here – but no-one can annoy the writer because it says the “Profile is Private” and you can’t get in touch. Not that I would anyway, I promise 🙂 – I wanted to see her reviews of other books)

    1. Ah, I’d forgotten my readers have excellent Google skills . . .

      But yes, I was curious about her opinions of other books, too. I remember reading a review of A Brief History of Montmaray a few years ago by a youth librarian who disapproved of the gay characters in that book. When I looked at her other reviews, she also heartily disapproved of The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate (a Newbery Honor book) because, yes, the book discussed the theory of evolution. As far as I know, that librarian didn’t ban either book from her library, though.

  6. I saved this in my feed reader, waiting for me to actually finish the book (which I did last night) before I could read it!

    But, like the other Americans who’ve commented before me, I hardly think her actions can be chalked up to cultural differences– unless it’s just that the “culture” of the US is so chock FULL of subcultures, and the craziest voices are usually the loudest.

    What’s funny is, I think it’s possible an innocent, sheltered soul (I’m referring to myself as a young teen) could read that epilogue and TOTALLY NOT REALIZE that’s what was going on (if it wasn’t spelled out in the family tree at least). After all, maybe the kid has Simon’s eyes because Simon is related to Toby! And maybe they’re all just happily living together, so what? It was very sweetly dealt with! My PERSONAL squiggies got raised far earlier in the book with the abortion issue, but even then, you KNOW I wouldn’t do anything but FORCE THIS SERIES IN ITS ENTIRETY on people NONETHELESS. Some people are just… some people.

    1. Thanks, Rockinlibrarian. Yes, I’m sure some readers read the epilogue without seeing all the implications (especially as the Australian edition doesn’t even have the final family tree), and that’s fine. The books are written in layers, and readers can ignore some layers and still follow the story. The abortion issue is also something where I think readers can decide for themselves how they feel about that character’s decision – they can judge her harshly for her actions, or feel sympathy or sadness for her, or regard her as making a sensible decision under the circumstances – just as they’re free to judge all the other characters for the things they do in the book.

      I do think there are cultural differences, though, especially to do with religion. (For example, our Prime Minister is an unmarried woman who lives with her partner, doesn’t have children and identifies as an atheist. How likely is it that the US would elect a similar President?) It’s just not possible – in fact, I’m pretty sure it would be illegal – for an Australian librarian to remove a book from a taxpayer-funded public library, simply because the book offended the librarian’s own morals. But maybe it’s just that I’m judging American culture from a distance, based on biased media coverage, and, as you point out, it’s only the loudest, craziest people being heard! (And also, you’ve just had an election, and that often highlights the extreme views held by certain people.)

      1. I was in Australia when Julia Gillard became Prime Minister and my cousins and I were far more amused and bemused by how much more attention the color of her hair got.

  7. Personally I found the supposedly “sketchy” morality refreshing in a period novel and based on the list of challenged books you provided these critics apparently don’t read any good books. For myself, I love reading banned books!

    1. Thanks, Leandra. Yes, some of my favourite books were on that Banned Books list. A lot of the time, I couldn’t even figure out what was supposed to be ‘controversial’ about the book.

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