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Warning over 'inappropriate' children's books

News | Published in TESS on 22 February, 2013 | By: Elizabeth Buie

The language used and subjects covered by some authors are said to be unsuitable for upper primary

The team running one of Scotland’s most successful literacy programmes has criticised some children’s writers for including inappropriate language and content in books aimed at upper primary pupils.

Angela Glover, literacy development officer at North Lanarkshire Council, told a national literacy conference last month that even some books by former children’s laureate Michael Morpurgo had been considered unsuitable for inclusion in her authority’s reading list.

She picked out one of his books in particular, An Elephant in the Garden, for criticism, as towards the end of the story set during the Second World War, a German soldier is quoted as saying: “Bastard, bastard.” But other authors were also guilty of including inappropriate themes and language, she said.

“I was not happy about putting this out to schools,” she told a workshop at the conference, Turning the Page: Improving literacy for all, in Clydebank, run by Children in Scotland and West Dunbartonshire Council.

North Lanarkshire’s active literacy programme, now in its eighth year and being extended from primary into early years and secondary, is relatively prescriptive.

One of its key principles has been the replacement of traditional reading schemes with “real” children’s books, which members of the authority’s literacy base grade to match to children’s reading ability.

Mrs Glover said they had a particular problem finding books for upper primary that were suitably challenging but still appropriate for this age group.

“Children do have a say in some of the books we have on that list, but we have read them all for appropriateness and not all books publicised as age-appropriate are actually appropriate,” she told TESS.

It was up to parents to decide what they allowed their children to read in the home, but where schools were working with children’s novels and sending them home in schoolbags, teachers had to feel comfortable about content and language.

One of the books currently on the P6/7 list of approved texts, Theresa Breslin’s Saskia’s Journey, is being withdrawn by the literacy base because it contains an inference that the grandfather has sexually abused a child. One of the programme’s comprehension strategies is inferential reading, so Mrs Glover and her colleagues felt they could not skirt over such an issue. And while some schools have gone ahead and used Morpurgo’s An Elephant in the Garden, they have blacked out the offending words - a strategy that the literacy base feels is less than ideal.

Morpurgo’s publicist was unavailable for comment.

Catherine Owens, chair of School Libraries Group Scotland, said that for most school librarians, appropriateness was not an issue, as nearly all worked in secondary schools. She works in the High School of Dundee, for pupils aged 5 to 18, and agreed there was a particular problem in finding books suitable for upper primary pupils who were good readers.

“They want to read more challenging books and it is very difficult to find books that are still challenging reads but not either on a teenage theme or containing bad language,” she said.

She had refused to allow P6 children to borrow Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series because she felt the theme was not appropriate for that age.


Photo credit: Getty

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Comment (2)

  • Angela Glover, along with teachers, parents and other people concerned with children’s literacy, need to choose what books to encourage children to read, but there are real dangers in prescribing books for the use of specific words or subject matter. The dangers of what is effectively censorship are, I believe, greater than the use of an ‘inappropriate’ word or two.

    The specific example she uses is Michael Morpurgo’s Elephant in the Garden where ‘towards the end of the story set during the Second World War, a German soldier is quoted as saying: “Bastard, bastard.” ‘ The context of the story is that Dresden has just been firebombed and flattened - with countless casualties. The Germans are looking for an downed Allied bomber crew. One of the German policemen looking for the crew says: ‘There is no city any more. There is no Dresden.. There are so many dead. It is impossible to know how many. Bastards. Bastards.’

    I’m unsure what words Ms Glover would have put into the mouth of the character had she been the author , but any less strong language would both be unrealistic and patronising to young readers.

    We must distinguish between discouraging swearing or ‘bad’ words which add nothing to a plot or characterisation, and understandable emotions shown by protagonists.

    I understand that ‘ where schools were working with children’s novels and sending them home in schoolbags, teachers had to feel comfortable about content and language.’ But I fail to believe that a 7-11 year old has not heard worse language in the playground, at home or on the TV. To, in effect, ban a book at school for two words (used appropriately and in context) in 230 pages is a mad form of ‘correctness’. Look instead for what the book is, overall, teaching the child.

    If a major task of literary programmes has as ‘one of its key principles ... the replacement of traditional reading schemes with “real” children’s books’ Ms Glover and others must also understand that children come to books and reading through being excited and involved in the story. Many of the best authors deal with ‘grittier’ subjects than I was brought up with, and the books are all the more interesting as a result. The prospect of a ‘reading police’ deleting ‘bad’ words, or banning a highly regarded and valuable book from schools. fills me with dread.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    23 February, 2013


  • I agree with markmorvenlodge's concern about exciting books being "banned" for the sake of one or two words. As a secondary English teacher, I have yet to meet a child who has been disturbed by such trivial and fleeting use of profane language in a text.
    I am often horrified by the subject matter of texts chosen in primary schools however. In the last few months, I have learned of children studying Wonder in P4, and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in P5, both texts I would give serious thought to covering with an S2 class. Children are entitled to read books which challenge and interest them, and this may mean exposing them to "grittier" subjects than we would have read about ourselves. It is important, however, to remember that they are still children, however advanced their reading skills. Subjects such as the Holocaust deserve to be covered responsibily and thoroughly - but that respectful level of exploration is surely not appropriate for nine year olds.
    My local librarian has told me of the difficulty she has had with parents wanting their primary aged children to be allowed to take books out of the teenage section, simply because they are capable of reading them. My eight year old is capable of looking at Playboy, but I won't be buying him a subscription any time soon!

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    27 February, 2013


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