>It was an itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny . . .

>Galleycat reports on the news that Boyds Mills Press has backed out of negotiations to publish a picture book series by German artist Rotraut Susanne Berner after the author refused to change two pictures that displayed nudity, both small representations of artwork displayed in a museum. Oh, the horror, oh, the censorship, oh these self-righteous blog posts that write themselves.

But if I were running Boyds Mills Press, I would have made the exact same call, although I might have spared myself the embarrassment of expressing interest in the first place. Selling picture books is difficult, selling foreign-born picture books is almost impossible, add some boobs and a little dick to the mix and you might as well just climb up to the roof and throw your money over the side. It’s not censorship, as there is no private obligation to publish. It’s stupid parents. Again.

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Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

Comments

  1. fusenumber8 says:

    >The article I saw on the subject didn’t seem to have any comments from Boyd Mills Press itself, so I’m wondering what the exact situation was. Scratching my head here.

  2. Andrew Karre says:

    >I agree with your analysis, Roger. But the conspiracy theorist in me says that if I were the original publisher and I really wanted to see this book in North America its original form, then this could be almost the kind of press I’d want to get. Except, I’d want Scholastic or someone huge to walk alway from the deal because of the naughty bits, so that someone small and opportunistic (Boyd’s Mill?) could pick it up. 7: The Mickey Mantle Novel, one of Judith Regan’s more controversial pickups is doing all right for Globe Pequot (6,000 Bookscan since April. In fact, it’s their top-performing Bookscan title this week). One publisher botching the deal can be just the thing a book needs to gain traction.

  3. Anonymous says:

    >Interesting little conspiracy theory there but on the other hand I’ve had several major publishers walk away from deals without it being a big help. And even in the best of scenarios the idea seems, like most good conspiracy theories, the long way around the problem.

  4. >Academic liberals are an odd breed. At what point does your own censorship become censorship? Is there a point, an issue, a subject for which censorship of children’s books, for instance, is warranted? A kindergarten introduction to bestiality? How about a pro- man/boy love organization book for 10-year-olds? Cannibalism? Self-mutilation as elementary playground art? “Early teen prostitution can pocket you some serious spending money!”?

    At whatever point you draw the line, at that point do you not become the flaming hypocrite?

    If not, why not? What do you use to justify your standards of censorship? Why are your moral standards fixed at the “right” settings, where the mom raising and protecting 3 kids is out of touch?

  5. Andrew Karre says:

    >Anonymous:

    I think that depends on what the exact problem is. I think sometimes wrapping a good-but-problematic book in controversy might be the shorter way around the problem.

    In this case, it’s basically an issue of a preponderance of gatekeepers (buyers, editors) believing that there is no market among parents for a translated title, especially if it happens to have [mild, non explicit] nudity. They don’t know this for sure; they haven’t surveyed parents; they’re simply projecting based on sales history of “comparable” books. Some of these same gatekeepers might well be convinced that there is a market for a book that’s getting a bit of buzz. It becomes the controversial book people are talking about rather than the translated book with boobs that no one wants.

    Under such circumstances, a publisher needs to manage carefully the definition of success (advance, print run, etc.), but if he can, then the controversy can be proverbial spoon full of sugar that gets the book on the shelves and maybe even off the shelves.

    The alternative is to force the majority of bookbuying Americans to be more broadminded in their tastes–actually, it’s even harder. You’d have to force store book buyers to believe that the majority of bookbuying Americans have become more broadminded in their tastes.

  6. Roger Sutton says:

    >Eric, I don’t believe anyone has been accused of censorship here so I’m puzzled about your point. I’m happy, though, to discuss the merits of any of the dozens of books that have been challenged by “family” organizations as harmful to children. But I’m not going to stand up for hypothetical books when there are so many perfectly good real-life examples already in front of us.

  7. Roger Sutton says:

    >Andrew–those Micky Mantle numbers are TERRIBLE. Maybe not for Globe Pequot, but for how much money has been sunk into that book. And I’m guessing this German series was never meant as a big seller for Boyds Mills, either, but because the margin was going to be slim to begin with, the numbers they would lose from the nudity made it unfeasible.

  8. Anatidae says:

    >Boyds Mills Press has credibility. It’s not like they never take a risk. (They’re associated with Front Street, which has practically nothing but risk-taking, envelope-pushing fiction.) I think they knew what their readers would want, and I think they made a judgement call based on knowledge and experience, not based on “censorship” or anything like that.

  9. janeyolen says:

    >Until I actually saw the illustration (with the boy and girl sniggering in front of the full frontal nude painting) I was ready to rain down curses on the head of Boyds Mills, one of my own publishers. But they are internationally focussed though quite conservative in their approach to publishing. (Remember their connection to Highlights.) And I think they made the right call for their perceived public.

    For me the real question is why did it get to this point? Hadn’t they looked at the book ahead of time?

    Jane

  10. >European kids don’t need to go to museums to see frontal nudity – they can just go to the beach with their parents. In the States, I once giggled in first grade with a female classmate when the word ‘navel’ was mentioned by Sister BlahBlah; we had to stay after school to hold encyclopedia at arms’ length….
    Maybe those American kids would think twice about downing that burger and fries if they knew they’d be walking on the beach one day with those extra pounds visible all around.

  11. Anonymous says:

    >Andrew,

    I didn’t mean to imply that controversy can’t be a useful marketing tool. It was just that idea of goading a large publisher like Scholastic into rejecting a book just so that one could then sell it to a small press still seems to me like a sort of, well, in your words, conspiracy theory.

  12. Anonymous says:

    >I do think Americans have very weird ideas about what is appropriate for children. I can remember offering to take a teenage nephew to see Man on the Moon (biopic about Andy Kaufman), and his mom refused because it was rated R. Instead, he and his four younger siblings stayed home and watched Wild Wild West, a very vulgar movie rated PG but full of violence, racism, sexism, and smarmy sexual innuendos. The youngest sibling was maybe four.

  13. Anonymous says:

    >this may just be a matter of the publisher’s inefficiency – perhaps the initial editor didn’t actually have the authority to make an offer and was overruled by ed-in-chief for who-knows-what reason. it has happened before

  14. rindawriter says:

    >The questions is: Must publishers always publish for the tastes of a potential reading audience? Which translated means publishing for the pocketbooks of the largest possible potential reading audience…must money and mediocrity and lack of diversity always rule in what is getting published?

    Don’t good publishers, smart, savy ones, big ones take creative risks sometimes in what they decide to publish? After all, there can only be so much mediocrity determined by money…..

    However, it is no wonder Boyds Mills Press, has never published a Dr. Seuss…or a— Heh, heh, I’m goign to let the rest of y’all fill in the blanks on this one….
    too easy….

    Perhaps picture book creators and publishers just have to be sneakier…more subversive….

  15. >Perhaps I misunderstood.

    When you implied that “stupid parents” were, out of the blue, to blame for it, complete with a link to an article on parents being censors… did I imagine that?

    60-someodd years ago, when your mother was reading books to you, would she have objected to the then-hypothetical idea of a child with 2 Daddies book? Would she have been stupid and ignorant, or justifiably irate?

  16. Kevin Moore says:

    >The big difference here, Eric, is that in Roger’s mom’s case, she is exercising her right as a parent to choose what to read to him. In the case Roger links to, parents are trying to tell other parents what their kids should be allowed to read.

  17. >I agree, Mr Moore, the “Roger’s Mom” parallel was lacking… but still, at what point does the line get drawn, and why? By whose standards? Does anything get onto the kid’s section library shelf, and if not, why not?

    And are “stupid parents” responsible for keeping “more enlightened” books off the shelf at the library or store?

    And just how “enlightened” do you want to be?

  18. Roger Sutton says:

    >Daddy’s Roommate was not published sixty years ago (nor was I yet born), making this another silly argument at the bottom of the slippery slope. (Besides, there are plenty of contemporary parents irate at Daddy’s Roommate: why drag my mother into it?) But what I mean by “stupid parents” are those, in the first case, who won’t buy picture books that show even incidental nudity, thus giving a book like Berner’s no chance in the marketplace, and, in the second case, who are afraid that books are going to turn their children into one benighted thing or another. In both cases we’re miles from censorship, just mired in the neighborhood of pig-ignorance.

  19. >From your photo, I assumed you were somewhat older than you are. No insult was intended.

    But assumptions can be like that.

  20. Roger Sutton says:

    >As Mame Dennis used to say, I’m Frankly Forty. (And Factually Fifty.)

  21. Anonymous says:

    >Oof, Eric! With apologies like that…

  22. Anonymous says:

    >I’m glad you wrote this entry, Roger. Anyone who works in children’s publishing and has been to a few foreign rights fairs understands that yes, American and European sensibilities are different, and discreetly changing a few details for a US edition is common practice.

    It really wasn’t unreasonable for Boyds Mills to ask Rotraut Berner if she was willing to make the changes, I don’t think. I wonder if she was the one who encouraged Der Spiegel to write such a snide article about the whole thing. If so, it was pretty ungracious of her.

  23. Anonymous says:

    >Reminds me of In the Night Kitchen by Sendak. Except the main character was nude for most of the book, something of a children’s classic now.

    I don’t think this is censorship, just cowardice. Unfortunately we’ve allowed the expectations of the few people that think their kids have never looked in the mirror determine what the rest of us have access to. Freedom of the press is limited to those with a press. Not good when they’re afraid to use it.

  24. >It is censorship. Look up the definition of the word, there is no requirement that the government censor you for something to be censorship. It’s about forcing your morality on another person. And this is what’s happening. The publisher should publish the book as is or move on to another title. To ask an artist to change a work of art (a VERY successful one at that) out of fear is awful. And in a highly deregulated capitalist system like ours, censorship is generally going to come from private industry, not the government.

  25. Anonymous says:

    >I think you missunderstand what the fuss is about, it’s not about accusations of censorship, but a (for europeans) rather absurd definition of what is deemed inappropiate for children in the US.

    Body Mills Press had every right to deny publishing the book, that is out of the question and nobody argues about that. German publishers would do the same in issues they think they would have to take some heat for.

    But here in Europe we have a hard time to understand why a lot of americans think of the human body as downright dirty when at the same time one has serious problems finding a movie with a female main cast that doesn’t look like a Pin-up (you know like “average looking”?). I’m not even starting on violence here…
    The post about “WildWildWest” might give you an idea.

    Again, although it IS censorship (it doesn’t just start with a court order, “you can’t publish this, CHANGE it” will do nicely) the article is just about having a big laugh at a weird moral code. I’m sure you will find plenty similar “weird” conventions in Europe ;-)

  26. Anonymous says:

    >1. as a snarky aside: evidently being in favor of censorship severely ages a person prematurely…

    2. censorship STINKS, period; redefining it as some moronic business decision just masks the problem…

    3. the TOTALLY bizarre and sick minds who find offense, disgust, or WHATEVER from this picture are not to be believed…

    4. once again, the least common denominator wins out; cowardly publishers, infotainment media, and priggish scolds out to childproof the world, instead, make it a much colder and stupider place…

    come the revolution, there will be NO censorship…

    art guerrilla
    aka ann archy

    eof

  27. >It’s NOT censorship. Boyds Mills Press never said that no one could publish it, just that they declined to do so. They’re not outlawing the book or yanking it off the library or bookstore or classroom shelves. They’re not moronic or cowardly in any way. They are publishers of children’s books. Getting quality books into the hands of kids is what they do. By being discerning about what they publish, they make sure that they can continue to publish more good books. That benefits the young reader — and the teachers and librarians and parents and reviewers and all the other grown-ups with in interert in good books too.

  28. Roger Sutton says:

    >To ASK an artist to change, for fear of offence, a work of art might be craven, ballsy, obnoxious, foolhardy . . .but it isn’t censorship. The reason I operate with a fairly tight definition of censorship (roughly, government restrictions on the publication or dissemination of information) is that by throwing it around too wildly we often smack another person’s freedom of speech right in the face. Is Boyds Mills obliged to publish Rotraut Susanne Berner? Of course not. Can they change her work without permission? Certainly not. Are they allowed to ask her to change it? Absolutely. To call Boyds Mills’ decision “censorship” is to ignore the various discrete interests that have a stake here, and avoid the much larger and realer problems of American parochialism and sexual hypocrisy.

  29. Bobby Byrd says:

    >Dear Roger,

    Belatedly a friend sent me the link to your July 13 post “It was an itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny . . .” Cinco Puntos Press, wandering always into the publishing landscape of folly, will be publishing this season Little Zizi, originally titled Le Petite Zizi. We bought the rights from French Canadian publisher Les 400 Coups. Catherine Germaine, the rights person for Les 400 Coup, told us she’s sold the rights all over the world, but nobody in the U.S. would touch it.

    Oh, well. Enter Cinco Puntos.

    The story, about the little boy Martin who worries about the size of his zizi, is by Thierry Lenain, and Stéphane Poulin created the hilarious and whimsical illustrations. The story is replete with a pissing contest between the bully and Martin. Our hero loses. But not to worry. The story ends happily because “Because love isn’t a question of a zizi—large or small.”

    We’ll keep you posted.

    Bobby Byrd
    Co-Publisher
    http://www.cincopuntos.com

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