Hey folks. Perhaps somewhat late to the regatta, this post is going to wade into the discussion taking place around the age restriction review (and interim ban) of Ted Dawe’s book Into the River. The mainstream opinion is that the book should not be banned, nor have an age restriction. There are countless reasons why this course of action, in 2015, is like paddling upstream.
There have also been confusing messages surrounding why the review has been called for, but generally the contentious topics seem to be sex, drugs, bullying, and use of the ‘c’ word.
Either way, you can’t protect people – children or no – from their own realities. And thus our two bloggers’ explore the murky waters of banning books.
It should come as little surprise to you that I work at a library. The other day I got to feel the joy of removing a book from our stack room to the main collection as the age limitations were removed. However, this was quickly replaced with despair as less than 24 hours later I had to remove it again to its new home – my desk. If you’ve been following the news you would know that this is 2013 New Zealand Post Margaret Mahy Book of the Year, Into the River.
First things first, I need to admit that beyond a few choice paragraphs I have not read this book but I am terribly opposed to the banning of it. To me the complaint is wholly down to the depiction of sex. I did skip to those parts and the sex is used to advance the story so was neither exploitative nor gratuitous.
Throughout my life as a New Zealander I’ve been encouraged to partake in New Zealand media, be it movies, music or books. The reason being, I thought, was to both see and embrace my people and culture and be able to relate to people and places like my own. This isn’t a new rhetoric for our country, but to me it now seems hypocritical. It feels to me like the censors decision has told our kids that it’s alright to read New Zealand stories as long as they aren’t too close to reality.
How naive are we are as a country to think our youth aren’t engaged in sexual acts? I know I was, my friends were, even my parents and grandparents. It’s a tale as old as time. Sometimes even teachers and students engage in unprofessional relationships, it actually happened at my school. I don’t understand why this should be our dirty secret, that people talk about in whispers and behind closed doors. We should have more books like, Into the River that openly talk about the New Zealand teenage experience, because maybe if more people saw themselves in our books this sorts of situations would become a minority instead of the norm.
I haven’t read Into the River either. Normally, I wouldn’t consider someone who had not partaken in the consumption of a medium to comment, but I feel that our experiences with the book is reason to indulge. Last year at the LIANZA Conference I attended a talk about censorship – much of which discussed this very topic. It was insightful, infuriating, but also entertaining. The speakers did a great job of explaining the situation, what efforts had been made to ensure it remained accessible in some way, and why having a censorship body in New Zealand is important.
Not long after that we started this blog, and I thought maybe I would get it out from my local public library and write about the experience – that of having to ask permission, as an adult, so borrow teen fiction. But I never wrote that post. Because I never got out the book. Because I didn’t know what kind of reaction I would receive. I didn’t want to get a lecture, or a reproachful look, which I’m sure would have marred the experience.
Whether we like it or not, librarians have to power to censor too, through disapproving looks, the curation of book displays, or purchase decisions. People trust our judgement and our opinion. I experienced this as a child. The exact details escape me, but I remember hearing about and wanting to read George Orwell’s Animal Farm. I think I was probably intermediate aged – I’ve always been a big reader. So my mum took my to our public library. She asked the librarian, who looked me up and down and told her that it would be too adult for me, I wouldn’t understand it, and would I like a child’s version instead. Of course I didn’t, so I left empty handed.
I still remember to this day the anger and embarrassment she made me feel. What was this book that I’d requested to read? Was it really that bad? Or was she just being a typical adult and assuming she knew me because of a uniform? I ended up reading it a few years later in English. I probably wouldn’t have understood all the concepts when I was younger, but there was nothing offensive in it either. I still can’t understand what made her think she had the right to deny me this book, and I’ll never forget it.
So let’s take this latest saga with Into the River as a chance to reflect on our own practices.
As this topic has been well covered in listservs, in the news and around the water cooler, we’d love to see comments instead about books you read when you were young that maybe weren’t so appropriate, we’ve all been there and turned out just fine I’m sure!
As always if you would like to contribute please write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org – write a post, ask us to write about something, or give us feedback!