An old but persistent myth suggests that human society inevitably becomes more open and progressive with the passage of years. According to this view, conservatives might slow, but can never stop, the irresistible evolutionary flow of history. Seen through this lens, children’s books and literature become narrower and more restrictive the further back you get. Move forward, by contrast, and you can breathe easier as oppressive moral codes fall by the wayside and people become incrementally more enlightened.
Even the most casual (if honest) student of history and literature should quickly recognize how far this point of view veers from reality. Look closely, and it quickly becomes apparent that people swing in perpetual cycles from freedom to restriction, and from enlightenment to ignorance, with frequent stops along the way. Fundamentally, little changes. Human nature being as maddeningly consistent as it is, one certainty we can always count on is that majority, or trendy, opinion will always try to suppress, if not crush or eliminate, expressions of dissent—with censorship being a favorite tool. It was in recognition of this basic fact that the Founders of the United States wrote the Constitution and Bill of Rights as they did, with fundamental protections for minority thought.
A lot of attention has been devoted recently to the problem of book censorship in the USA, particularly in the realm of children’s literature. But explanations of this undeniable trend vary depending on who you talk to. The New York Times’s take is predictably biased. While admitting briefly that “book challenges aren’t just coming from the right,” the newspaper directs the overwhelming mass of its ire at “conservative groups” that “backlash” against allegedly mild, well-meaning efforts to give children access to a wide range of literature about sexuality and race. “The politicalization [sic] of the topic is what’s different,” observes a school book executive quoted in the article. Another commentator denounces the “chilling effect” of public and official scrutiny, for example, of books for small children about sexual identity—books that would have been denounced as explicit by any previous generation, but are considered not only permissible but morally essential today.
The New York Times’s simplistic and partisan analysis of the problem of censorship does not withstand even tentatively objective scrutiny. The politicization of censorship in children’s literature is nothing new. Moreover, it originates not so much from the political left or right, but from that old bugbear, human nature. What’s different about the current era is the savage intensity with which censorship advocates on both sides of the political spectrum have targeted children’s literature in our deeply divided society. Far from drifting along on the progressive current toward an enlightened promised land in literature and thought, the early twenty-first century has regressed to a social intolerance and oppressiveness not seen since the late Victorian 1890s—a time when interior designers draped fabric skirts over side tables lest the exposure of wooden legs present scandal.
In our present era, righteous sanctimoniousness and horror of scandal have inspired an intolerance of dissent every bit as oppressive as that of the late Victorians, albeit proceeding largely from the opposite end of the political spectrum. The result, just as in the 1890s, has been the triumphalist politicization of children’s literature according to current trends in popular thought on the one hand, and on the other hand a ruthless repression of alleged literary impurity via censorship (or, as we would call it today, cancellation). This has in turn provoked a reaction, using the same methods, to reclaim the mainstream: creating a perfect storm of repressive exclusivity that reduces children, who should be free to imagine and grow, into political pawns.
Standard histories of literary censorship in the United States recite the nineteenth century process by which social convention, backed by legislation, suppressed works by Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, and many others deemed unsuitable for vulnerable young minds. In the early twentieth century, pulp magazines, comic books, and other literary forms targeted at young people enjoyed all-too-brief flowerings of sometimes risqué creative expression, before being censored and channeled into more socially acceptable forms. At its worst, this process spawned blandly conformist children’s books and magazines modeling white, patriotic, and faultlessly conventional young people. Even so, children’s authors and illustrators of this era somehow managed to produce an astonishing outpouring of inspiring and timeless literature—whether because or in spite of the conventions and restrictions of their day is another question.
From the 1960s, as mainstream social certainties began to crumble in the face of new challenges on race relations and the roles of women, children’s literature broadened in concept and presentation. Local school boards, librarians, teachers, and parents continued to employ censorship to restrict availability to certain types of literature. A series of legal cases, however, including one brought before the Supreme Court in 1982, reinforced the rights of school boards to restrict access to some books, but not for “narrowly partisan or political” purposes. On the whole, a much wider variety of literature, including on topics such as poverty, and sexual and race relations, became available to children during this era (although the safety and quality of education in public schools markedly declined during the same period).
There was another, more troubling subtext. While efforts to suppress new forms of literature continued to emanate from social conservatives, other forms of censorship from the opposite end of the spectrum proceeded with less fanfare but arguably greater effect. Gratuitously racist depictions of, for example, African Americans in children’s literature and illustrations, fairly common through the 1940s, quickly disappeared as the Civil Rights movement awakened Americans to the outrageous injustices of Jim Crow. But the impact of changing perceptions did not stop there. Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever, originally published in 1963, might surely seem one of the most innocently benevolent children’s books ever written, with its endearing depictions of anthropomorphic bunnies and kittens going about their daily business. By the 1980s, however, Scarry’s traditional depictions of gender roles—with female animals working in the kitchen and pushing strollers, and males serving as policemen and firemen—were no longer deemed socially acceptable. New editions therefore reversed gender roles—but also removed depictions of cowboys and Indians, and even of a church and a French Foreign Legion fortress. Such censorship—and there is no other accurate word for it—was celebrated by progressive critics as indicative of “progress” and “correcting” wrong thought; i.e., good censorship instead of bad censorship.
Progressive censorship has accelerated drastically over the past couple of decades. Six Dr. Seuss books harboring now-scandalous and socially unacceptable images have not only been removed from publication but subject to full-fledged cancellation with the sale even of used editions being suppressed on Internet venues such as eBay. Criticism of Dr. Seuss books continues, however, and more cancellations may be on the horizon. New targets for progressive censorship include Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the beloved Little House on the Prairie series whose name has been removed from a children’s book award; Beatrix Potter (for “problematic” elements including too many “middle class rabbits”); and many more who were once considered old standbys. Coming full circle, books by authors such as Mark Twain are once again on the chopping block in many localities, albeit now because of objections originating from the left (an irony that would no doubt have delighted Twain himself). Likewise, Harry Potter creator and feminist J.K. Rowling, once attacked by Christian conservatives for allegedly fostering paganism, has now been cancelled for questioning orthodox thought on transgender issues. From whichever direction the censorship originates, the assumption is the same: that children cannot be trusted to form their opinions, or to learn that people over time have taken different approaches to different issues. Instead, they must be drilled with political orthodoxies and moral absolutes, and shielded from improper thought.
Just like in the Victorian era, repression and censorship of children’s literature has coincided with the triumphalist imposition of an exclusionary social and political orthodoxy that cannot contemplate, let alone tolerate, differing moral approaches. Thus sexually suggestive literature, for example, today is not only made available, but eagerly promoted to small children; not as something that they might read, but that they (and their parents) must accept and embrace lest they be branded morally disreputable and so cancelled. The zeal with which youth are encouraged, if not hectored, to read books about alternative sexualities dovetails with an imperious unwillingness to tolerate criticism. In the 1890s, as now, censorship advocates have been simultaneously convinced both of their righteousness, and of their right, and moral duty, to eliminate opposing points of view.
The consequence of the current era’s morally repressive zeal, like that of a century ago, has been the production of a relentlessly homogeneous and tiresomely politicized body of children’s literature. Rare indeed is the young adult novel these days that fails to engage (“correctly”) with current preoccupations in the realm of race and sexuality. Pandering to social trends reflected in the vital public school purchasing market, and terrified of moral transgressions for which they are liable to severe punishment (i.e., cancellation), children’s book publishers relentlessly self-censor with a zeal matching if not exceeding that of any progressive crusader. This impacts not just already published literature, but potential works by new authors with non-conformist worldviews.
Political divisions being what they are today, the reaction to this new, exclusionary moral absolutism in children’s literature has not been long in coming. Following the burgeoning parental rights in education movement generated in part by the COVID-driven transfer of public schooling into the home, conservatives and even otherwise-apolitical moderates have begun pushing back against what they regard as dangerous excesses. And once again, they have gravitated naturally toward censorship as a tool of regaining control—drawing the ire of progressives for whom censorship from the right is obviously wrong, while censorship from the left is morally correct.
Generations ago, children were to be seen and not heard, and their learning and exploration of the world strictly circumscribed. Much the same dynamic exists today, but with a frightening new element. For all their social rigidity, Victorians recognized a line between adulthood and childhood beyond which they dared not pass. Even as they placed boundaries on children’s lives, literate adults of that era idealized childhood with an almost mystical adoration. Children of those days had to follow the rules when in the company of adults, but they were also recognized possessors of a sacred realm of existence fueled by imagination. Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland captures this reverence of childhood, as also does English author Algernon Blackwood’s lesser-known The Education of Uncle Paul (1909) in which an adult transgresses into the world of children, not as a ruler, but as a subject. But the Cottingley Fairy Hoax of 1917, in which two young girls duped thousands of adults across the world into believing in magic, is inconceivable today—and we are the worse for it.
Today, the boundary between the worlds of children and adults, as captured in literature, is no longer respected even when it is recognized. The twenty-first century, indeed, is arguably the least child-friendly era in the history of this country. It is a time when adults seem to increasingly view children as annoying burdens rather than living treasures whom it is a delight to nurture and observe. Far from believing that children have, and need, a secret world beyond adult access—one in which they can train their own imagination and access the world on their own terms—today’s adults seem to have concluded that children’s minds are fair game for dominance and manipulation; from politics to sexuality, and with no age too young and nothing off-limits to outside control. Even the most reactionary colonialists of the 1890s never imagined writing a book “Imperialist Baby.” Our own generation, however, has produced a book titled Anti-Racist Baby, demonstrating that no corner of childhood (which doesn’t naturally have the word race in its vocabulary) remains safe from political manipulation. Such colossal arrogance marks a fundamental betrayal of childhood, and bodes ill for the future.
Ed Lengel is an author, a speaker, and a storyteller.
 “Book Ban Efforts Spread Across the U.S.,” January 30, 2022.
 See, for example: https://www.upworthy.com/8-changes-that-were-made-to-a-classic-richard-scarry-book-to-keep-up-with-the-times-progress