By: Beate Bjørklund
The land of the free and the home of the brave, the United States of America, supposed leader of the free world, is (surprisingly) also a country of censorship.
Earlier this year, the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) published an article about how nudity has increasingly become a taboo among young children in Norway. Iben Sandemose, a Norwegian author, lamented that children in Norway are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with depictions of nude people in picture books, leading some young readers to express disgust when encountering her drawings. Author Stian Hole concurred with Sandemose on this observation, and added hopefully that Norway would not go as far as the U.S., where a co-worker had once been asked to fully clothe a shirtless 4-year-old in a New York park. The article pointed to baby bikinis and fewer instances of nudity in most children’s environments as a probable cause. Willy-Tore Mørch, a psychologist specializing in children’s mental health, observed that fashion trends may contribute to making nudity more taboo, arguing that it is important to normalize nudity since it can contribute to better body images.
A follow-up NRK article featured three examples of books that had to be censored for the American market.
When Sandemose’s books were bought by a U.S. publisher, she was asked to edit her illustrations so that they showed the women in a women’s locker room wearing swimwear, instead of showering nude, which is what all Norwegians are taught to do from childhood on (cleanliness for the pool). She could have refused this request, but if she had, her book would not have been published in the U.S.
Hole faced the same dilemma. He was told point blank that if he didn’t agree to alter the illustrations in one of his books, it would not be published at all. These were the same illustrations that had been printed in his award-winning book Garmann’s Summer, which had already been published in 10 other languages. Apparently, the brave readers in the U.S. cannot stomach illustrations showing a child’s bare bottom or a boy peeing against a tree (don’t worry – no visible genitalia). Unfortunately, NRK was unable to reach Sandemose’s and Hole’s publishers for comments.
The censoring of illustrations and works by the U.S. publishing industry is nothing new. Back in the ’90s, there was a Sesame Station (a Norwegian Sesame Street spin-off) illustration that contained a small whittling knife, which was censored in the U.S. because it contained “a weapon.” That’s just one example of the small yet telling editing and challenging that goes on behind the scenes.
I must admit I was surprised when I was told that on the American Library Association’s Top Ten Most Challenged Books lists, “nudity” was listed 16 times as the reason for challenging, with many of the protests relating to illustrations. I knew about Banned Books Week and the ALA lists of frequently challenged books, but here in Norway, we don’t have any such lists.
I also know the U.S. movie ratings rank nudity more harshly than violence. Yet, I had failed to realize that the U.S. is still so puritanical that challenging books because of nudity is considered perfectly reasonable. Maybe it is no wonder then that while the news agencies in Europe wrote about Iran “adding” clothes on Charlize Theron on their broadcasts of the Academy Awards, the U.S. media was virtually silent on the issue.
The average reader and buyer presented with the U.S. published edition will most likely never see the original edition or be able to question why the images don’t match up. Is this really the state of affairs that is desired? Do we want a public space where outcry and challenges to books are so prevalent that instead of risking offending anyone and then possibly hurting sales, books are carefully curated and altered in order to not cause any ripples? In this context, books are reduced to a calm and quiet means of upholding the status quo, while keeping us all in our own comfort zones.
Illustrations are important. The really good picture books have illustrations that awaken emotions, memories and wonder in the readers. Such books are pieces of art where the illustrations and words build off each other and create for us an enhanced whole. To me, it feels wrong that art has to be edited in order to be made “palatable” for the greatest number of people. Art and books are supposed to challenge us, broaden our horizon, and help us empathize with others. When the publishing industry conforms to selected groups’ ideals, they do us all a disservice.
Unfortunately the average author and illustrator do not have the clout that Disney does. Only Disney can shrug and say: You want to edit out a scene from our work? Well, in that case, you do not get to have the work at all, thank you very much.
A Norwegian national, Beate Bjørklund is currently working as a children’s and teen librarian in Søgne, Norway, and was formerly a jill-of-all-trades library director of two different libraries (consecutively). She holds a B.A. in documentary science, and is presently pursuing a master’s degree in the management and leadership of LIS institutions. She is an active member of the ILN and of the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative. She loves the idea of learning and sharing across borders, and broadening her horizons.