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O Come All Ye Faithful?

Don’t miss Leonard Marcus’s latest column about picture book covers, and speaking of that, SLJ stalwart Rocco Staino reports on a gallery of ’em that would make Judy Blume blush. Or would they? The pictures were created by several well-known picture book artists in service of raising money for the National Coalition Against Censorship.

They are hilarious (see the link for the gallery), far funnier than the lists of “fake dirty children’s books” that periodically meme their way around the Internet, but I wonder about the, um, blowback. At least in regard to intellectual freedom for children, the argument promoted by the American Library Association is less about the freedom of expression than it is the freedom to read. And the reason for the freedom to read is that reading itself has value, and that those who seek to ban or restrict Forever, Harry Potter, or Goosebumps are misunderstanding (or misrepresenting) the fundamental good of these titles: Forever speaks honestly about sexuality, Harry Potter celebrates the power of the imagination, Goosebumps provides safe thrills and encourages reluctant readers to take up the habit. I don’t think the ALA has ever met a book for kids that didn’t have redeeming social value.

But what if Holiday Hummers were real? Would we still stick up for it? I put the question to NCAC Executive Director Joan Bertin and she responded (entirely sensibly) that “the whole thing is completely hypothetical and unlikely in the extreme. However, in general our position is that we defend the right to publish legal non-obscene content of any kind. It’s up to individuals to decide if they want to buy/read it.” That makes perfect sense when you approach intellectual freedom from the First Amendment rights of writers, but I wonder if when we defend books for their case-by-case value to readers (which is what ALA does), what we do when a book seems indefensible? A lot of fifth-grade boys would find a book called Holiday Hummers (not to mention Blow Me: A Book About Whistles, not to mention the real-life Go the Fuck to Sleep) irresistible, so we can’t argue that such a book would not be of interest to kids. My point is that a defense of books on the basis of their worthiness will only take you so far and is ultimately thin: “IS worthy!” “Is NOT!” A fair percentage of the population already thinks Daddy’s Roommate IS Holiday Hummers without the choir robes, anyway; are we prepared to defend both?

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.



  1. Shouldn’t “Holiday Hummers” be titled “O Come All Ye Faithful” or words to that effect? And Joan Bertin says it directly and correctly. I’ll just add: Happy holidays everyone.

  2. Michael Grant says:

    but I wonder if when we defend books for their case-by-case value to readers (which is what ALA does), what we do when a book seems indefensible?

    Hmm, interesting question. I’ll take a stab at it.

    My argument would be that the human mind is a complicated thing, too complicated to be analogized to a brownie recipe where a given set of ingredients produces a particular mouth-watering treat. The brain is billions of connections, an image, a scent, a sound, a snatch of misunderstood speech, a flood of adrenalin, a hormone or two, ideas, emotions, mistaken conclusions, time, space, randomness. More elements, more ingredients than we can hope to discretely label, interacting in ways we don’t understand, producing results that we cannot possibly reverse engineer.

    I remember during my very brief college experience being rather baked (speaking of brownies) and stepping into the dorm elevator to find that about a dozen large deli dill pickles were on the floor of that elevator. No broken jar, just pickles. I have a poor visual memory but for some reason that image stuck with me. I have no idea what little cascade that set off in my brain but the fact that it remains so clear to me suggests it had some kind of impact. For good? For ill? For just weird? Without that pickle tableau might I have become a venture capitalist or a monk? Damned if I know.

    We don’t know that adding Dickens or Tolstoy necessarily creates a thoughtful mind, any more than we can be sure that adding Stephanie Meyer will cause an outbreak of chronic lip-biting. (Probably, but we don’t know for sure.) Let the brain have experience. There are mysterious things going on down in the brain, things we cannot predict or control. Let the brain have data. Let the brain rattle through life like a little pinball running into things and become whatever it becomes. You can’t program the elevator pickles, they just happen.

    Let people (even kids) read whatever the hell they want to read. It won’t kill them, it may do something amazing, we don’t know, we should stop pretending we do and let the little brains run wild and free.

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