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Comic censorship

22 July 2016

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IN A list compiled by the Amer­ican Library Association of the top ten books most complained about last year, the Bible made it to number six. It is a relief that Fifty Shades of Grey was ranked second, but bewildering to see that Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time also pipped the Holy Book in its level of antagonism.

We were not told on Sunday Feature: Not suitable for children (Radio 3, Sunday) on what criteria Americans were complaining about these texts; not even, despite the title of this documentary, whether it involved the protection of innocent minds.

But since that is the main reason that people wish books to be with­drawn from bookshops and lib­raries, it seems that some parents were concerned about the effect on their little ones of the racier bits of scripture.

Dr Sophie Coulombeau’s pro­gramme instead focused on a hand­ful of case studies in book censorship, including the Leninist vision of children’s literature — “Out with the mysticism and fantasies of children’s books” — and post-war moral panic over comics such as Tales from the Crypt.

There was no room for Struwwelpeter in her account — despite delivering what must surely be the most traumatic warning against thumb-sucking in the whole of world literature — but we did get to meet Judy Blume, who was proudly introduced as the most banned author of the 21st century. Her form of “Young Adult” fiction involves discussions of adolescent sexuality which are guaranteed to get certain parents reaching for their black marker-pens.

To its credit, this was not just a programme about grumpy social conservatives and their censorious ways. We heard also from a human-rights lawyer who has waged a successful campaign to have Tintin in the Congo reshelved in the adult section. And it con­cluded with a paean by the author Michael Rosen to the redemptive quality of good literature, be it fairy story or dark realism.

The censorship of books also alerts us to cultural differences in our attitude to childhood. In The Why Factor on Tuesday of last week (Radio 4), Mike Williams’s subject was the age of consent. In England, in the Middle Ages, it was 12 years old; Shakespeare’s Juliet is 13, and her father is reminded by his wife that “younger than she are happy mothers made.” In Italy today, it is 14.

Almost everyone who con­tributed thought the law a blunt weapon in dealing with this issue, and there is no shortage of con­temporary stories in which star-crossed lovers come to a tragic end because of its interference.

By contrast, nobody is going to argue the case for a child’s right to work long hours for meagre pay — except The Resident Presidents, fic­tional African dictators whose satir­­ical dialogues have become a much-loved feature of the World Service’s Focus on Africa (Fridays).

Last week’s piece on child labour had a Swiftian viciousness, as the Presidents considered the usefulness of babies as nutrition or as crop protection. I shall stop there: the rest is suitable for neither children nor adults.

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