A Story for Boys (and Girls)

World Book Day 2023 – thoughts after the event:

Let me begin with a question:

Should we boycott, ban or burn great stories because we don’t like the authors’ opinions, or the opinions and mores of the society in which they lived?

Before delving again into the literary world I introduced in my previous article (Treasure Island), let me make a couple of points. Censorship of art has been around for a long, long time. Be it books, paintings, movies or, yes, even music, complainants have sought to deprive whole populations of material which they deemed distasteful, blasphemous, obscene or politically incorrect. Public libraries, school libraries, publishers and art galleries have all come under the watchful eye of the thought police. The creators themselves have been censured and vilified because they dared defy convention, or express an opinion contrary to the public mood.

Back in the early 19th century, a man called Thomas Bowdler decided the works of Shakespeare were unsuitable for public consumption – well, for children anyway. He published his own version and thereby ensured his own immortality. Now, the spotlight has moved back to the issue of expurgation and censorship because of two “incidents.” The first concerns the Harry Potter books of JK Rowling, the second the works of children’s writer Roald Dahl. I won’t go into the details of these cases now; anyone who wishes to know can find the story on line or in the column of daily newspapers. The point is that the problem here is not the content of the works themselves (though that has played a part) but the character and opinions of the authors.

The boys’ world I knew, where R.L. Stevenson’s stories like Treasure Island and Kidnapped were staples of literary excellence, has passed away. I suspect the boys’ world of R.M. Ballantyne, a source of Stevenson’s inspiration, has passed with it. Books like The Coral Island and others are no longer as popular as they once were. Works of Mark Twain, one of America’s greatest writers, novels such as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, are considered non-PC by some critics, who seek to excise them of offensive words. In a similar fashion, on the reading menu back in my boyhood was a whole library of books set in boys public schools, novels of their time, perhaps considered a little out of place in the 21st century, when the children attending public school are a small minority. Perhaps none of these books and writers excite young readers today as they once did; I do not know. But I do know that putting books under the counter in plain wrappers is one sure way to make kids want to read them.

What about girls? One of the perks on growing up, as I did, with a sister, was being granted a glimpse of their literary world and being permitted – sometimes – to borrow. Boys didn’t read “girls books” …. or so it was supposed; yet I cannot have been the only male pre-teen who did so! Of course we did read them, though I suspect it was often in secret, and was certainly something we didn’t admit often to our male friends of similar age. Yes, girls did have their own stash of recommended reading, crammed into a cupboard (or, if they were lucky, bookshelves of their own).

One supposed “girls’ book” I can remember devouring with interest was Little Women by Louisa M Alcott, a Bildungsroman about a family of girls growing up in 19th century North America. It is a novel which has regained some popularity due to a 2017 BBC serial and a 2019 movie. The girls in Alcott’s story eventually grow up, however Little Women is still very much a novel for young people.

Other popular novels of the period featuring young girls included Pollyanna by Eleanor Porter, which gave rise to a new word describing a person who is overly optimistic in spite of life’s setbacks. There were also the series of Katy books by Susan Coolidge as well as (I recall) a weekly magazine entitled Schoolfriend, whose characters were the counterparts of Tom Brown, Jennings and Stalky, found in the boys’ library.

Once, the expectations of our elders, or perhaps more accurately of our rulers and teachers, were that each gender should go down a separate road in life. That they should conform to the “rules” like good little boys and girls, blue and pink, toy guns for one, dolls for the other, as if they were two different species. It was a bad plan! And today, thankfully, most of us (some of us anyway!) have moved on from the sexist, segregated ideas of yesteryear. How else are children to learn except by caring and sharing?

So, what happened when we – boys and girls alike – grew out of those wonderful classics? Before the late 1960s and early 1970s there was only one choice: to read adult books. The idea of the “teenager” as a separate punter hadn’t been invented.*** Though genres had existed as a means to classify books, there were really only two sorts of fiction back then: children’s books and everything else. The problem for young aspiring readers was that many public libraries were reluctant to admit children to the adult section. Thus, without a library at home, the choice of reading for many was probably confined to works assigned by the school – unaffectionately called ” home readers” back then.

To get back to the point, novels invariably reflect the attitudes, morality and political correctness of the age in which they were written. They always have done, and always will do. Does that mean we should ignore, rewrite or ban literature of the past – even the recent past – because of some mistaken belief that we are better, kinder, more moral people?

I think not! It would be a tragedy for education and for society generally were we to permit this kind of censorship to happen. And it will be huge disaster for art if the bowdlerising and sanitising of great works deprives young people of reading those wonderful originals. True art has no morality; it is merely a reflection of the world, good and bad, right or wrong.

At the end of the day, if censorship is permitted, who censors the censor?

***Apparently, the term Young Adult – YA – arose sometime around 1970, following the publication of The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, a novel about teenagers by a teenager (only just).


4 thoughts on “A Story for Boys (and Girls)

  1. There will always be something in books that anyone can find distasteful. I grew up in the seventies, and it makes me laugh, in a Christmas Carol, when taught in schools, the sister is called Franny instead. Now they teach Shakespeare to teenagers in schools. Books are books, and in a few years even the modern books will have something in the reader doesn’t agree with.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I completely agree with everything that the author said in his article. I really don’t like the way that censorship has been going on for so long, and it’s really not something that needs to continue. I think that we should all boycott, ban or burn any of the books that we don’t like, because I think that it’s the right thing to do.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting. Indeed, the ultimate boycott is not to buy! However, I draw the line at burning books. If you buy and read a book, then dislike it, give it away. Someone else might enjoy it.


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