Monday, 10 April 2017

Omitting the F Word: Parental Censorship of Picture Books • Jonathan Emmett

I sometimes describe writing a picture book as like writing a script, because picture books are often read aloud to a child by an adult. I want the reader to give a good performance, so I think it’s essential that a picture book text reads well aloud. However a good script is only the beginning of a good performance; a good picture-book performer will add a great deal themselves, creating character voices and sound effects and adjusting the timing and delivery of lines to make them funnier, more suspenseful or more dramatic.

It wasn’t until I read a Slate article entitled I Censor the Books I Read to My Child. I’m Not Ashamed! that it occurred to me that a performer might actually subtract something from the script as well. And, as an author/script-writer, I am troubled by this.

The article’s author, YiLing Chen-Josephson, runs The Picture Book Club, a subscription service through which she handpicks books for young children (and their parents). I’m guessing that one of the books she does NOT recommend to her subscribers is Maurice Sendak’s miniature picture book classic Pierre, which she describes reading to her own son in the article.

If you’re not familiar with Pierre then – SPOILER ALERT! – let me tell you that it’s a cautionary tale about a small boy, Pierre, who professes not to care about anything whatsoever. When a polite, but hungry, lion calls at Pierre’s home and asks Pierre if he may eat him, Pierre says, “I don’t care!” So the lion takes the boy at his word and swallows him whole. Fortunately Pierre’s parents are able to extract their son before any lasting harm is done and  – having experienced the trauma of being eaten alive – Pierre now cares about what happens to him. To quote Sendak’s final line “The moral of Pierre is: CARE!”

Maurice Sendak’s Pierre is a cautionary tale of a small boy who is hugely indifferent to everything.

Since “parental censorship” is in the title of this post, you've probably guessed that Chen-Josephson took it upon herself to censor Sendak’s classic. Having read the plot outline above, you might assume that she cut out or re-edited the scene where the small boy is EATEN ALIVE by the hungry lion. But, no, the object of Chen-Josephson's disapproval was Pierre’s absolute indifference. Here’s how she puts it in her own words:
You’ve read enough to recognize what’s at stake here: The child in this book doesn’t care. Are you ready to introduce your own darling boy to the phrase “I don’t care” and, with it, to ennui, to disaffection, to insubordination?
So now, whenever Chen-Josephson reads the book to her son, she rescripts Pierre’s dialogue so that instead of saying, “I don’t care!” he says “I … care!”.

It seems to me that Chen-Josephson has entirely failed to grasp the point of a cautionary tale, which is to show how negative characteristics can have unfortunate consequences for their owners. By turning Pierre into a caring child, the message her son is likely to draw from the story is that bad things can happen to nice children, rather than the message Sendak intended, which was that bad things can happen to children who are dismissive and indifferent.

After explaining how she improved on Sendak’s storytelling, Chen-Josephson goes on to relate how several of her friends censor the picture books they read to their children. She gives three examples of how parents respond when they come across the F word in picture books. NO! Not that F word – I mean "FAT"!
One father I heard from avoided the word fat at all costs, turning even The Very Hungry Caterpillar from a “big fat” insect to a “great big” one. Another parent said she left the word alone when it was used to describe an animal but would replace it when it was used about a person. Another specifically sought out books where fat was used descriptively and without judgment since she didn’t want her child to think that the word should carry negative connotations.
Some parents baulk at Eric Carle's use of F word in The Very Hungry Caterpillar

I suspect that all three parents described above would censor my use of the F word in my picture book story The Santa Trap. Über-brat Bradley reveals his plan to trap Santa with the words, “I’m going to catch the fat fool and take every present he’s got.”

One of Poly Bernatene’s illustrations of brattish Bradley in The Santa Trap.

It’s quite clear that the word “fat” is intended to have a negative connotation in this context. However CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING! Like PierreThe Santa Trap is a cautionary tale. The story makes it clear that Bradley is an irredeemably awful child whose monstrous behaviour leads to his eventual downfall, while Santa, the object of Bradley’s abuse, is the unflappably benign and ultimately triumphant hero of the tale. I think that most children that hear this story will recognise that using the word "fat" to insult someone should be bracketed with the other unacceptable behaviours that Bradley engages in such as stealing tigers from the local zoo. And if a child does not recognise this, then the adult reading the story can use Bradley's example as an opportunity to discuss why this is an unacceptable way to behave.

I think the same principle can be applied to most stories that contain the sort of parental-anxiety-inducing content that parents like Chen-Josephson might wish to censor. And I’d argue that the parent-child picture book reading experience is an ideal setting for a child to encounter such content. Sooner or later, a child will encounter an uncaring character or hear the word “fat” being used inappropriately, on a TV screen or in the real world. Surely it’s better for them to come across these things in a picture book, with a parent on hand to discuss and explain them with, than on their own?

So, if you’re reading a picture book to a child and you’re tempted to censor something, why not try using it as an opportunity for discussion instead? You're probably doing your child a favour and the  author might thank you for it too!

Jonathan Emmett's latest picture book is Prince Ribbit, illustrated by Poly Bernatene and published by Macmillan Children's BooksWARNING: This book contains graphic images of interspecies osculation which some parents may find objectionable.

Find out more about Jonathan and his books at his Scribble Street web site or his blog. You can also follow Jonathan on Facebook and Twitter @scribblestreet.


  1. Crazy! I sometimes 'edit' when I read overly lengthy picture books to my kids and it's not an enjoyable read-aloud or listen. Also I occasionally cut out repetition of phrases when I get utterly sick of it and none of us are finding it enjoyable. I suppose I censor in that I might flick through a book at the library before deciding it I think it's suitable/any good or not, but I don't think I've ever changed a necessary plot point! Really enjoyed this post, Jonathan.

  2. Thanks, Michelle. I think what you're describing is abridging rather than censoring, which is slightly different. And I think everyone filters books according to taste.

  3. Great post! I hope that Sendak book is still in print, I want it. The illustrations look just like The Sign on Rosie's Door, which we love. Hmmm, do I censor? Like above, yes, I shorten when I am tired but the only other example is at the end of The Day The Cow Sneezed, when the little boys dad takes him into the barn to punish him. At first I left the line out, then I read it and explained spanking. Either way, my kids loved the book. Now that I think about it, it wasnt the spanking that bothered me, it was the closed barn door that has so many scary connotations these days.

    1. I have Pierre as part of this lovely miniature Sendak book set that is coming back into print in September 2017"

  4. The parent's proud censorship of Maurice Sendak's story was extraordinary as it completely reversed the sense of the book - and I had no idea that people would do what the other parents did too. This was such an interesting post. Thanks so much - and I would love to see the Sendak book now.

  5. Great post! Censoring in that way, just negates the whole point of the book. As a child I remember Little Black Sambo where the tigers go around and around a palm tree and eventually turn into butter. I think children know how to suspend belief from a very early age. I never for one moment believed they really did turn into butter. But I still thought Black Sambo very clever to devise such a trick. The racist aspect of this book is for another discussion.

  6. Oh, my! Sometimes the most 'caring' parents are the worst! A great post, Jonathan.

  7. Thanks for your kind words, Anne, Dianne and Pippa! :)

  8. Wise words. When my kids were little, I occasionally "edited for time" with very long stories (haha), but I never edited for content.

  9. My daughter had a phase where she liked to choose the gender of the protagonist according to how she was feeling that day. This meant I often had to swap every he for she or him for her - and if I got one wrong she squealed in outrage and made me change it! It kept me on my toes...

  10. re- the F word. I once had a digital picture book text with one of those tiny companies that go bust very quickly. It was about a little boy who would eat nothing but chips, and who eventually turned into one, and was covetted by a fat girl in a supermarket. The F word had to be changed into 'greedy'.

    I never edited any book I read to my children because I have far too much respect for words well written. Seems to have done them no harm as they're both well-rounded and very literate adults. Americans are obsessed with the weight problems initially caused by their over-active food marketing industry which they've now exported to Europe and elsewhere, to our detriment. Maurice Sendack, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain etc etc are MUCH more valuable exports. Oh, and 'FAT' actually means just that, as the Very Hungry Caterpillar would agree. Incidentally, I believe some Muslim countries have started to do the same thing with the little pigs etc, so watch your back, Peppa.