Saturday, April 25, 2009

Presto, change-o

Collecting Children's Books has had a couple of interesting posts about books such as They Were Strong and Good and The Rooster Crows, which have been bowdlerized to reflect changing standards of "appropriateness" in regard to depictions of nonwhite characters. Those are two among several if not many; Mary Poppins, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Dr. Doolittle are some of the others. What I hadn't realized until Peter pointed it out was that changes like these are sometimes made without any acknowledgment of the fact within the new edition; kind of Orwellian, yes?

Many years ago I was on YALSA's (then YASD) Intellectual Freedom committee, and we had a bit of a tussle with Scholastic, which was asking authors to make "word changes" (read: remove obscenities) from their books before Scholastic would reprint them for its lucrative book clubs. Two things were at issue: Scholastic did not want to acknowledge, in the paperbacks, that changes had been made, and, in the cases of books that had been named to the Best Books for Young Adults List, the publisher wanted to be allowed to say that the expurgated editions were BBYA winners. No and no, although we only really had the power to enforce the second.

To me, the weirdest part of Scholastic's argument was that since it was the author making the change, an affected book was still a BBYA choice. And some committee members bought this argument, as well as buying into Scholastic's emotional blackmail that we were "punishing the authors" by disallowing the BBYA designation. Well, tough: why would we want to reward authors for caving to commercial pressure? The money would have to be enough.


Wendy said...

I don't know the history of why the chapter in Mary Poppins was changed--whether PL Travers was under any of this commercial pressure--but I have always thought, while noting regretfully that the rewritten chapter doesn't have nearly the charm of the original, that if I were an author, I'd be embarrassed by a chapter like that and want to rewrite it, also. Wouldn't you?

Anonymous said...

In terms of "lucrative book club sales" I can tell you that they aren't all that lucrative for the authors. I'd love to see an article sometime on the monopoly Scholastic has on school sales and what that really means for quality books and authors.

Penni said...

Here in Aus, I've long been disturbed by the power Scholastic wields - aware authors grapple with whether or not to include that scene where the 12 year old tastes wine at a party, because they know that it will probably exclude the book club sales. And really, how can you make your gritty YA characters declare 'Heavens to Betsy!' or 'my giddy aunt!' with any credibility.

The Billabong books I read (for anyone who doesn't know, a series of Australian books from early 20th century that form some of the foundation of our children's literary tradition) had a note at the end basically saying 'yeah these books are horrendously racist and often sexist, but that was the era, be aware as your reading it'. I think this is possibly a better solution to books that are tied to a distinct time and place. I'm not sure about something that sits in more of a fairytale tradition for younger children though...I find it really hard to explain racism to my (disturbingly Aryan, what happened to my Welsh gypsy genes?) five year old.

(as I wrote this my daughter said: 'what does blue taste like?' and I said 'well, colours don't really have a flavour' - seemed like the premise of a kid's book about racism to me!)

Sorry, I feel like whenever I come here I write enormously long comments. I really do enjoy your blog very much (and Collecting Children's Books too - his post about The Flying Nun was excellent)

Anonymous said...

This is a knotty problem, and one that perplexes me. If you ask me whether it's right to censor books, I will of course say, no, it is absolutely not right. But sometimes a lovely African-American child comes to me, and asks me, with eyes shining in anticipation, if s/he can read Dr. Doolittle or Mary Poppins, and I go over to the bookshelf, where we have both the old-fashioned versions and the new ones--and well, I pick out the re-edited ones every time. I don't want that child to bite into a peach and break a teeth on the stone. But of course I am censoring, and I am convinced that censorship is wrong.

Anthony said...

This kind of thing has always frustrated me. Children don't have problems with prejudice - PC is an adult hang-up. I read the now heavily edited Enid Blyton extensively as a young child, and at no point did I ever associate Gollywogs with any racism. Or get damaged by characters called Dick and Fanny.

Any questions that children do generate should be answered honestly - it was a different time, people thought differently - not by avoiding the subject and hoping it will go away. Nervously looking away whenever the issue comes up does nothing to help change attitudes. Censoring old children's books is like abstinence only sex education.

Wendy said...

"at no point did I ever associate gollywogs with any racism"--see, that's part of the problem right there.

Kids DO absorb racism, and sexism, and any other kind of stereotype--why do you think they're so deeply ingrained? I don't know about you, but I didn't ask my parents questions about everything I read in books; I tended to assume the authors knew what they were talking about.

I'm not saying I necessarily approve of this kind of censorship, or that kids' books cause most of the racism in the world. But it seems to me like YOU'RE the one nervously looking away from the problem.

Laurie said...

Book-club bowdlerization is despicable. A few years back I picked up a Weekly Reader edition of Anastasia On Her Own by Lois Lowry, and was deeply disturbed to see that in Katherine Krupnik's recollection, Freddy Valente, 7th-grade bra-snapper, had been changed to a hair-puller. Ridiculous, and the scene no longer made much sense.

Anonymous said...

Although I agree Wendy, I agree most with Anonymous. It's a knotty problem. How big of a stink should you make when you don't really care in the specific case, but you care in Principle? My editor asked me to remove a couple of "bastards" from a book and I did. They weren't that important to me--pre-publication. If Scholastic wanted me to do it, though, I'd be so much more cranky-- post-publication. Even though the words weren't that important to me, I think I'd have to refuse, "lucrative" sales or no.

Nancy Werlin said...

"Well, tough: why would we want to reward authors for caving to commercial pressure? The money would have to be enough."

This reveals a naivete that shocks me in you, Roger. Authors might receive 5 or 6 cents a copy for each book fair book. They're not caving to commercial pressure nor to the desire for filthy lucre, but to fear that their publishers will not publish other books they've written, nor treat their current books well, unless they do as they are told. They also hope the additional exposure from the book fair will lead to better marketing treatment for future books. (It rarely does.)
-Nancy Werlin

Andy Laties said...

The most dramatic de-fanging of these classics with racist content takes place when they're completely reworked. "Sam And The Tigers" by Lester & Pinkney, as the mechanism whereby "Little Black Sambo" becomes repositioned in society is the case in point.

Perhaps similarly, children these days are most likely to encounter the Eddie Murphy "Dr. Doolittle" movies long before reading the books.

Roger Sutton said...

Where am I naive, Nancy? Everything you cite is an example of how making or allowing word changes for a book club edition means better commercial prospects for the author. I don't blame them--but I'm not going to hold them up as exemplars of intellectual freedom, either.

Anthony said...

Re: Gollywogs - In cases where the characters are actual people and there's racial stereotypes involved, I can see where children would absorb those stereotypes. But there's certainly no question that allegories like gollywogs and goblins went right over my head at age 4. Of course, I can't speak for every child. I simply disagree with hunting down any implication of any prejudice and removing it, trying to cover up our racist past. There's no looking away from the problem here, it's thinking the problem's different from what the censors think it is.

Nancy Werlin said...

"Where am I naive, Nancy?"

In saying, as you specifically do, that money is involved.

nw said...

I'm not sure I understand. Does any change in a book make it no longer the book that won an award? What if it's a nonfiction book and the new edition includes a correction?

Roger Sutton said...

NW, I think it depends a lot on the change. A correction, no, or typos or newly appended info. But if words are changed because otherwise the book might get someone in hot water, then, yes, I think the award designation should be withheld from that edition.

nw said...

That sounds a little punitive to me. Are you withholding it because the book has lost quality, or because you don't approve of the reason for the change? In every case, would the book not have won the award without the curse word or whatever has been removed?

Roger Sutton said...

We can't always know just why a book has won a prize or been named to a recommended list, and it's impossible to know what might have happened had the book been different in the first place. But the fact remains that a bowdlerized edition is different from the one that won the prize, and it is different for reasons actively disapproved (in this case) by the organization who gave the award or recommendation. Is In the Night Kitchen still Caldecott-Honor-worthy when Mickey has a bathing suit attached? What if Lucky loses his scrotum?

This discussion is making me very interested in knowing to what extent Scholastic and other book clubs continue this practice.

Anonymous said...

Lucky loses "its" scrotum, please. It's not a person, it is a book. Susan Patron could lose "her" scrotum . . . that would be exciting.

Roger Sutton said...

I meant ROY! If ROY loses his scrotum! In Lucky, I mean Lucky.

Andy Laties said...

I certainly agree that when a book is changed so as to reduce its controversial character, this meaningfully alters the book.

I used to pull the copy of "Inner City Mother Goose" by Eve Merriam, (re-illustrated by David Diaz, re-published by Harcourt), off of the shelf to show to certain customers -- I would flip right to the page with "f*ck" on it (the book had all four letters and no asterisks!) and say, "This is the only book in this store with this word."

"Inner City Mother Goose" -- what a brilliant book. If it were sanitized in any way, why should it be considered the same book?

(Typically, the book went out of print again. BLECH on censorship.)

Andy Laties

Anonymous said...

Dunno, Andy. Is that censorship or market pressure? I might admire Inner City Mother Goose, but I'm not likely to buy it. What's the difference between censorship and business? If an editor asks you to pull the fucks out of your book? What if the editor reads your book, thinks it's brilliant, knows it won't sell, and passes up the fucks entirely. They won't even ask you to change the vocabulary words, because they don't want to censor you're beautiful book . . . which is still sitting in a drawer five years later. Is that censorship, too?

Anonymous said...

And Roger, no one is going to publish a book for kids where a character loses his scrotum. That shit is just not on.

Rofl Anon 2:54

Cora Tesauro Spinney said...

This discussion makes me curious about a couple points about variations of award-winning books:

1. If one book says "fuck" and the other says "f---", are they considered the same book or different books?

2. When an award-winning book is translated into another language, is the translation still an award winner? Certainly in translating there is a lot of leeway to censor.

Anon 2:58--The character didn't lose his scrotum, but a rattlesnake bit a character's dog's scrotum. :)

Andy Laties said...

You seem to be saying that "market pressure" is something that has an objective character. But I'm saying this isn't true, and that the market's tastes and desires are shaped in turn by what is actually available for consumption.

In other words: it is not true that demand and supply are one-way. Rather, if supply contains no swear-words, demand will not necessarily ask for them. But "Inner City Mother Goose" was a brilliant book in 1969, became a hit musical, went out of print, was reissued in 1994, went out of print...and, so, is this the end? Are you telling me there is no market demand for a brilliant classic poetry book which has had social significance?? Are you telling me that if the book were in print there would be no buyers? How can you know this what the book is not being supplied and thus no data is available??

What I'm saying -- what I didn't say in my earlier post -- is that I consistently was successful at selling "Inner City Mother Goose" in the late 90s. During that period in my career I owned the bookstore at Chicago Children's Museum, on Navy Pier -- the number one tourist destination in Illinois. I had all humanity through that store, and I worked pretty hard to keep "Inner City Mother Goose" selling. I kept it faced out, in multiple copies, and I hand-sold it regularly.

And I think it's appalling that it's out of print; I'm a bookseller, in close contact with the market.

I'm telling anyone reading this blog that "The Inner City Mother Goose," by Eve Merriam (especially with the fabulous David Diaz illustrations) ((are you listening, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt??)) would sell several dozen copies per year in my current store at Eric Carle Museum -- and I think it would sell nationwide. I am saying that the presence of the word "f*ck" in the book IMPROVES the book, and HEIGHTENS its saleability.

That's not to say there aren't plenty of people who will choose not to buy it BECAUSE of the presence of a swear word, but rather to say that there's a very significant segment of the market which would LIKE their young children to encounter that word in a book being read from parent to child, in a personal moment, where the word can be frankly discussed.

Every parent's duty is to explain to children why and which words are swearwords, what level of "swearing" is taking place with each swear word, the FACT that the word "f*ck" is one of the oldest words in the English language, dating back at least to the 11th century -- all sorts of useful and interesting facts about swear words.

Gee. Maybe I should write a book called "F*CK!" for children which would be non-fiction, and historical. The history of swear words is fascinating. "Sh*t" is similarly a grand old word, dating from a thousand years ago!

Anonymous said...

Andy, the fact that you can't write the word "fuck" without using asterisks suggest you are not quite suited for writing a frank and open book on the subject.

Sorry, your manuscript query is rejected.

Andy Laties said...

hee hee. i'll have to publish it on kindle.

Anonymous said...

"Are you telling me there is no market demand for a brilliant classic poetry book which has had social significance??"

More shocking things have happened.

Anonymous said...

Oh, God, Roger, I reversed East and West in my award winning book and fixed it in later editions. Are you saying I have to peel the stickers off?

Anon 2:54

Andy Laties said...

Well, I still say "Inner City Mother Goose" by Eve Merriam should be in print! Duh!

And I do not see how that reprinting COULD happen if the word FUCK were removed from its poetic setting.

So if what you're saying is that this situation is not soluble and thus the book cannot be produced -- I am truly perplexed by the society I live in. And I assume that in the future, at some point, "Inner City Mother Goose" will once again be in print.

I certainly hope Eve Merriam's heirs don't bow to any temptation to print to book with altered text, however.

Roger Sutton said...

Hmmmm. East v. West. I suggest you keep the sticker and laugh yourself silly about the stupid award committee.

"F---" v. "Fuck." The former would only get Scholastic in MORE trouble with more people. I have seen "feck" used to get around this problem and used to establish the awesome street cred of the author.

Had Eve Merriam decided to bow to the publisher or marketplace or the sensibilities or her grandmother, I would say "it's your book, do what you want." But had a prize committee chosen to honor it, I would expect any subsequent edition that blazoned the sticker to respect the decision of the committee and not fuck with its choice.

Anonymous said...

"So if what you're saying is that this situation is not soluble and thus the book cannot be produced -- I am truly perplexed by the society I live in."

Who's saying this? (Or should I say, who the fuck is saying this?) What situation? All anyone is saying is that sometimes books go out of print. This is too bad, but is it news?

Andy Laties said...

Well I think Roger's original post was commenting on how the power of the large distributor (Scholastic) was forcing authors to make artistic choices. And how the awards committees felt that these authorial choices had meaning for the society.

Some of the responses have said, essentially, that authors have to be pragmatic. If they wish to be published, they have to be careful about what they include in their manuscripts.

So, this is a very good example of the way in which centralization of the publishing industry has an upstream impact on what exactly authors choose to write. Because there are too few publishers competing, and too few distributors competing, authors feel they have no alternatives. In an era when the market was being served in a fragmented fashion by many different players, there would have been many more opinions and types of expression represented. But we are dealing with a homogenizing impact resulting from a monolithic distribution system.

Now, meanwhile, of course, everywhere this centralized system is under attack.

So, I think that the argument about how authors ought to compromise, and not write what they want to write, to ensure that their book will be published, is wrong. It's bowing to corporate power. Art should not bow to Mammon. Better to solve the problem some other way. Self-publish, for instance. Don't compromise with the big companies.

If "Inner City Mother Goose" has to go out of print for a while because the culture can't figure out how to distribute it, fine. The heirs should wait until society is a bit more open-minded.

My friends in the industry told me that my book "Screw The Chains" could not be published. But Eric Carle himself wrote me a blurb promoting the book, and I found a small-press radical publisher to take it on. The buyer at Barnes & Noble told our sales rep that she probably wouldn't buy any more of my publisher's books since he'd published my book (it was ultimately published as "Rebel Bookseller"). B&N's statement was appalling and egregious. They were acting like a bully. You have to stand up to the bully.

Speaking as an author, I have never felt that my book should have been dumbed down to satisfy the powerful big corporation. My publisher did suffer because of publishing my book. He is proud of having published my book, though.

I'm proud of taking a stand. That's the author's job.

Anonymous said...

Well said, and I agree with almost all of it. I still am not sure about the construction "If "Inner City Mother Goose" has to go out of print for a while because the culture can't figure out how to distribute it, fine." Not sure because there's no way to know whether the culture can't figure the book out, or whether the culture has figured it out, and doesn't want to buy that many copies of it, thanks. I think you have to allow for that option. Not every personal favorite that doesn't sell is a masterpiece in disguise.

Anyway, like I said, I agree with the rest of your points and admire your stand. And am amazed (though I suppose I shouldn't be) at B&N's behavior. I suppose that's naivete.

Andy Laties said...

The marketing director of the company which distributes my book warned me in an all-capital-letters email that if I went to the Wall Street Journal with this story (which he himself had just told me!) that I would be endangering all 400 small presses represented by that distribution house, since B&N might retaliate against the distribution house itself for merely DISTRIBUTING "Rebel Bookseller".

Here's what I wrote on my blog that day, in a post entitled "Self-Censorship":

I did censor myself -- I didn't tell the story to the Wall Street Journal. But at least the book had already been printed and was in full distribution.

As to whether "Inner City Mother Goose" would sell, if it were in circulation, of course you are right that I don't know for sure. But I would encourage you to read the book. It's absolutely brilliant. It was cutting-edge in 1969, and the 1994 edition, with illustrations by David Diaz, who had just won the Caldecott Medal for "Smoky Night," is simply a glorious production. It really wasn't a difficult sell: it's a book that should be in every collection. An American classic.

Anonymous said...

Oh, Fuck!
The scrotum and the bite by the rattle snake is all symbolic for the missing father. Just like the kid that carries around a copy of Are You My Mother. It's just really good writing!

Anonymous said...

which one of the new modes of communication is it which limits the "speaker" to 14 words? is it tweeter? - one of those things. Perhaps some such limit might be imporsed by the master of the HB Revels? things are getting pretty VERBOSE