The book-banning controversy around Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl isn’t an intellectual freedom issue, but one of legacy and privacy. As we make decisions about what materials to include in which lessons and which libraries, it’s important to remember and honor the author’s wishes.
On June 12, 1942, Anne Frank’s parents gifted her a red-checked diary for her thirteenth birthday, roughly one month before the family went into hiding from the Nazi Occupation. Anne, her family, and 3-4 others lived in a set of attic rooms above her father’s business office from July 1942 until August 1944, when they were discovered, arrested, and sent to Auschwitz. Anne’s mother Edith died at Auschwitz, and Anne and her sister Margot were transferred to Bergen-Belsen, where both died of typhoid fever. Their father, Otto Frank, survived and published a version of the diary; his former secretary, Miep Gies, had helped hide the family and saved Anne’s writing after their arrest.
Historical and Literary Merit
The Diary of a Young Girl is one of few documents that makes clear the lived experience of Jews hiding during the Holocaust. While invaluable as a primary historical document, Anne’s diary is also remarkable for its description of a young woman’s growth and self-reflection while held captive in an isolated world of constant fear and tension. The unrelenting threat of discovery, need for silence, and close quarters had occupants of the “Secret Annex” continually bickering and stressed. Outwardly-cheerful Anne discovers a more reflective, quieter side of her personality that gives her a kinder and more nuanced perspective. She learns to identify and express her emotions clearly on paper with an adult’s capacity for self-knowledge, and she yearns to use her talents to do good in the world despite circumstances that make it all but impossible.
Though well-spoken, Anne’s voice is unmistakably that of a teenager, and the emotional struggles she describes — boredom, angst, frustration, confusion, fear, and ecstasy — resonate with teens and adults alike. She serves as a relatable narrator that helps bridge the Holocaust and contemporary times.
Diary of a Young Girl has been challenged on multiple grounds, most frequently for sexual content. As Anne matures, she describes her growing understanding and acceptance of her changing body – awaiting menstruation and celebrating its importance. In one entry, she recounts a time before her sequestration when she kissed a girl friend and asked to feel her breasts (the friend declined). She also has several candid conversations about male and female sexual anatomy with Peter, a teenaged boy also hiding in the attic with whom she begins a relationship.
Some notable challenges include in 2010, when Culpeper County Public Schools received a parent complaint that the book contained “explicit material and homosexual themes.” The district kept the book in its library, but changed the curriculum to instead use an earlier, less explicit version of the book. And in 2013, a Michigan parent filed a formal complaint against the unedited version, calling it “pornographic” and too explicit for middle schoolers.
While the term “diary” implies a raw, unedited work, Diary of a Young Girl is an amalgam of literary processes. At its start, Anne treated her diary as a confidant, addressing her thoughts to a fictional friend named “Kitty.” Over time, she came to treasure her diary (written across multiple notebooks after the red-checked gift was full) as the only place she could express her deeper self.
In March 1944, Anne and her family heard a radio broadcast where a Dutch Cabinet Minister called for the collection of wartime diaries and letters after the war, to preserve documentation of the day to day experience under German occupation. Anne hoped to contribute her diary, and with this goal in mind, rewrote many of the entries, removed some parts and added new ones from her recollection. Her revisions toned down or omitted many of the discussions of sex, sexuality, and menstruation, and softened or left out harsh critiques of her Mother.
Working extremely quickly, Anne managed to revise her diary entries up to four months before her capture in August 1944. After his liberation, Otto Frank worked to fulfill his daughter’s wish to publish the diary. As an editor he pared the length to meet publication requirements and made judgment calls to integrate the source material. The original diary notebooks from 1943 were lost, and there were no rewrites available after March 1944. But for the other times, his decisions guided what was kept, omitted, or combined. Much of the sexual content was (presumably) removed by Anne in her revisions — I infer this because there is hardly any sexual talk during the 1943 entries, for which the originals were never recovered – and some by Otto Frank after March 1944.
Where he had both versions, Otto Frank occasionally added back some of Anne’s original writing, including the entry of January 5, 1944 where she remembers the experience with her girl friend. In a private letter, he explains these choices: “Anne made an extract of her diaries in which she deleted and changed a great deal of material.… But I thought that much of the deleted material was interesting and characteristic … so I made a new copy in which I reinserted passages from her diaries.” This “original” version of the diary was first published in 1947 in Dutch, and an English translation first published in 1952.
Anne’s voice is unmistakably that of a teenager, and the emotional struggles she describes — boredom, angst, frustration, confusion, fear, and ecstasy — resonate with teens and adults alike.
Upon Otto Frank’s death in 1980, his will gave the manuscripts to the Netherlands State Institute for War Documentation. In 1987 the Institute published The Critical Edition of the diary, which showed the original text, Anne’s revisions, and Otto Frank’s revisions separately for comparison. A common version in use today is the Definitive Edition published in English by Doubleday in 1995, which contains 30% more material than the original edition and includes much of the elided sexual content, including mentions of contraception, sexual organs, and menstruation. The Definitive Edition is the version most often challenged, particularly for a specific passage in which Anne cheekily muses on how she would describe the appearance and layout of her own genitals to a person unfamiliar with female anatomy.
I expected to write this post angry at those who have called for this work’s removal. Now, I think a more thoughtful approach is warranted.
On one hand, I find it hurtful to call this work pornographic. It is an honest depiction of a young woman’s thoughts and observations that are “age-appropriate,” in the sense that a girl of that age (13-15) had them and wrote them.
However, Diary of a Young Girl is not the work of a sole author. Portions of it are a literal diary containing private thoughts written by a minor who did not have full editorial control over what was eventually published. Even Anne may have been conflicted on how much she wanted to share. At one point, she annotates an early passage about menstruation with embarrassment that she “can’t imagine writing so openly about.” But later she laments how difficult it is to learn about reproductive anatomy because the adults in her life refuse to teach her.
At the cost of privacy, the world has come to know Anne’s deeper personality that she felt desperate yet unable to share in person. This may be what every writer, artist, and troubled teen longs for.
We can never do right by Anne. We can’t know what she might have accepted then, nor what she would have been willing to share once grown to adulthood. But if we lambast challenges to her Diary as an attack on intellectual freedom, we must remember: the intellectual freedom we’re defending isn’t Anne’s — it’s the decisions made by multiple people that sometimes contradicted Anne’s expressed wishes. Anne has already lost the scant privacy her diary afforded her.
I don’t advocate for erasing or removing the more explicit versions. What we learn from them is a more powerful and more complete version of their author and subjects. At the cost of privacy, the world has come to know Anne’s deeper personality that she felt desperate yet unable to share in person. This may be what every writer, artist, and troubled teen longs for. However, given that we do have a version of the Diary that is closer to what Anne felt comfortable sharing, we have the opportunity to choose which version to present in which context.
Children need age-appropriate ways to learn about their sexuality. It’s possible the Diary fits that bill. But Diary of a Young Girl is hardly the only book where they can do so. It is, however, unique and irreplaceable as a narration of a time and place of enormous evil. The original edited version may be a better teaching tool for this message so the book’s other themes do not distract from it. To me, teaching the original text in class, and making the definitive version available in libraries, seems like a reasonable compromise.
For more about the life and legacy of Anne Frank, Explore The Secret Annex.
Emily Cukier is a Science Librarian at Washington State University. Her interests include biology/life sciences, chemistry, human health and pharmacotherapy, data librarianship, and research ethics. Before coming to WSU, she has worked as a Senior Writer for BioCentury, a pharmaceutical trade publication, and as a nonproprietary naming consultant to the pharmaceutical industry.