Censoring the Unsaid, OR, Damned If You Do, #%&*@ If You Don't
Semantics. Oh yeah! I said it!
Today we look at the strangest of trends I’ve encountered in a while, but one that is of infinite interest to me. It is not necessarily new, but I find it far more insidious than plain old-fashioned book banning. We are familiar with people censoring, removing, or otherwise restricting books because of what the books say. But from time to time you get the opposite case; people censoring removing, or otherwise restricting books because of what the books didn’t say. Only implied.
Our first case comes from Nick Bruel. Nick didn’t really know what he had wrought when he wrote a Facebook post on Monday chronicling an interaction he’d just had with a library aide. As of this post it has received 1.9K “Likes”, 252 comments, and 849 shares. With his permission I post it here for you now in its entirety:
My name is W. and I am a library aide at L. Elementary in L, OH. Your books are very popular in my library. It was brought to my attention today by a parent that your books contain symbols ( #%&*@ ) in the dialog that most people would interpret as cuss words. This parent was asked by their child what the symbols meant and the parent had no other explanation. Please tell me that this was not your intention!!! If so, I am going to have to pull your books from my shelf and that is going to make a lot of kids disappointed.
Thank you for inquiring. I embrace this opportunity to clarify this longstanding misconception. I was hoping that it would be obvious from the context of the story, but the symbols ” #%&*@” clearly stand for pineapples.
Personally, I love pineapples, but I have a peculiar relationship with them. I love them, but I can no longer eat them raw because they contain bromelain, a natural meat tenderizer to which I am unusually sensitive. If I eat pineapple, my tongue becomes numb to such a degree that I… I…
I’m sorry. I’m deflecting. I’m trying to distract you into a different topic rather than address the one at hand, and you deserve better than that.
I confess— ” #%&*@” are representative of cuss words. Which cuss words? Well, I leave that to the imagination of the reader as has been tradition for many, many decades. The use of ” #%&*@” has been a comic trope used by cartoonists for almost as long as there have been cartoons. Think Beetle Bailey and Sarge. Andy Capp and Flo. Garfield and Odie. I always imagine that if you were to put into words what Donald Duck was actually saying when he dropped a hammer on his webbed foot, it would look a lot like ” #%&*@”.
This brings us to my offense. I sense you are outraged by my use of ” #%&*@”. That is your right, of course, but I confess that I’m a bit bewildered by it. I’m not actually using cuss words. As you point out yourself, I’m using symbols that represent non-specific cuss words. So is it that you’re offended by my implying that cuss words actually exist? They do, but I didn’t really have anything to do with that. And I suspect that your students already know them. My daughter hears them virtually every time I drive on the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey. Have you ever driven it? It’s just… just horrible. No one uses turn signals. Cars enter from the left and the right. There are tolls all over it. The speed limit for much of it is 55, but if you’re not going 70 you’re taking your life in your hands and… I digress. Sorry.
The point is, my daughter knows these words because of my anxiety ridden death slaloms through New Jersey. As for your students, they didn’t learn them from me.
As to my punishment— I’m sorry you feel the need to remove my books from your shelves. I won’t talk you out of it, because those are your shelves and you should do with them what you feel is best. I’m not too concerned, since I’m fortunate and feel reasonably certain that your students can find my books elsewhere if they were to try hard enough.
I regret that your kids will feel disappointed, but not so much that I feel compelled to change they way I write my books. I imagine that your students will feel disappointed because they LIKE the way I write my books, ” #%&*@” and all. I will say that of all the things that will challenge them in their future readings, my symbols will likely be the least of them. But that’s a good thing. How dull our literature would be if we weren’t exposed to those things that bewilder us, perplex us, and possibly even offend us.
I will say one more thing. When you remove my books from your shelves, rather than dispose of them, I do hope you will consider donating them to another school, another library that might have use of them. But if the thought of exposing students other than yours to the crimes of ” #%&*@” concerns you, then you may send them to me, and I will gladly find them a happy home. I’ll even pay for shipping.
Okey dokey. Lots to pick apart here.
First off, he’s dead right about the Garden State Parkway. The one point that I’d like to clarify about that deathtrap masquerading as a road is the fact that if you get onto it and suddenly discover that you’re low on gas, God help your soul. There are no gas stations for a very long stretch of the dang thing.
Seriously. It’s not worth it.
But the more interesting point is that in this particular case a library aide has told an author that if he is using symbols to represent cuss words, he is doing something inherently wrong. Now as many in the comments to this post pointed out, this may be a far more common occurrence in our nation’s schools than many of us would like to acknowledge. As Lisa Gonzalez Newton put it so eloquently, “Most schools don’t have funding for professional librarians and are run by aides. Or they have one district librarian who oversees aides running libraries at several different sites. That means they often receive little to no training-especially in censorship issues.” Too true.
Just the same, I’m actually far more fascinated by the idea that the author is at fault for even suggesting that swearing exists. But reread the email from the aide. It appears that the real impetus for the question didn’t originate with her but with an uncomfortable parent who was asked to explain what the symbols meant.
Now there’s been a lot of talk about discomfort and children’s literature over the years. Heck, I just wrote a review of a book where I talked about my own discomfort talking to my children about death. Other parents might feel that way when discussing race, sexuality, gender norms, religion, etc. What emerges from all of this is a disinclination to engage our children with the aid of literature. A child learns about a truth in the world and naturally turns to their parent for help and an explanation. But that makes the parent feel weird so they blame the book and not their own inability to confront honest truths with their kids.
There’s a dark and sinister side to all of this that goes above and beyond mere Yosemite Sam-type swearing (which is what I, personally, hear when I read symbols like #%&*@). Taking a book to task over what it doesn’t say, rather than what it does say, specifically when we’re talking about language and semantics, is the start of a slippery slope.
On the same day that Nick posted this story on Facebook, a blog post appeared on the Lerner site called Can I Touch Your Hair and the N-Bomb: What Is Appropriate For Children. At the start, we hear that an Amazon reviewer had concerns about the fact that in the book there is a poem called “The N-Bomb”. Now the poem (shown below) does not say the n-word specifically, but it references it. As author Charles Waters writes, “To have not written the poem ‘The N-Bomb’ in Can I Touch Your Hair? would have been the equivalent of erasing my existence as a person of color in this world.”
As in the case with Nick Bruel, the Amazon reviewer wasn’t objecting to the word being in the book, because it wasn’t. It was only being referenced, but that was enough for them to deem it problematic. C0-author Irene Latham then brings up this point:
“I am reminded of an interview with Katherine Paterson, author of the Newbery Award-winning book Bridge to Terabithia, which includes the death of a child and has been criticized as being inappropriate for children. In an interview, she said, ‘I worry about children who still need a fairy tale. Is there a dividing line between children who need a fairy tale and children who need a book that reflects their life? It differs from child to child. And it’s [BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA] a book I really hope parents will read with their children. It gives you a safe place to talk about hard topics.’
I’m proud to have been part of creating a book that’s a safe place to talk about hard topics.”
In another similarity to Nick Bruel’s case, this was a person objecting to a children’s book even acknowledging that curse words exist in some form. Books are our safe spaces, but different people define “safe” differently. For some folks, children’s books exist outside of the real world and shouldn’t touch on complex issues. For others, when children’s books talk about unsafe topics, they give parents and educators guidance and a child-friendly method of exploring something that might otherwise go unsaid and unexplained between parent and child.
To take a page out of these author’s books, I just couldn’t say.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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