On Children’s Literature and Censorship – A Brief Look at Art, Literary Theory & Scary Stories

If you have not yet heard, there has been a lot of buzz going around the internet in regards to HarperCollins’ decision to re-release a 30th anniversary edition of the classic children’s book Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz. The reason it’s been getting so much publicity? They’ve replaced all of Stephen Gammell’s original art with new art by Brett Helquist. For most children, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark played a huge part in their formative reading years. And while the stories hold a special place in our hearts–it’s the haunting imagery that will forever lurk in the recesses of our brains.

Sure, I could go on about how this is an outrage and how it’s all kinds of wrong to mess with a modern-day classic–but that’s been done to death. And while the above statements are all true, I believe there’s a more larger issue at hand that isn’t being addressed as much: the issue of how literature and art can be censored/manipulated based on its position within the greater realm of literary theory. But let me not get too ahead of myself, instead, let’s examine the case from the beginning.

This story is not new (in fact, the 30th anniversary editions were released close to two years ago) it does not change the fact that people are still visibly upset by this change–it also doesn’t help that the original editions of the book series are nearly impossible to find, as the new ones have more or less completely replaced the original books. For those who may not have grown up with the Scary Stories series, here’s some background info: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was first published by HarperCollins in 1981, written by former journalist/reporter Alvin Schwartz and illustrated by artist Stephen Gammell. The stories were your typical scary story fare, folklore and urban legends written masterfully to both scare and delight the children and young adults reading them. But what was most often remembered was the artwork itself, which was very dark and unsettling, especially for a young audience, but, as with most children, always left you wanting more. A review from an Amazon customer describes it best:

To this day, the truly special part of Schwartz’s “Scary Stories” series has not been the tales, but the wonderful, horrifying illustrations by Gammell. Schwartz’s collection, while he put obvious effort into retelling these stories for a children’s audience, cannot by themselves evoke a feeling of dread or horror. If anything, they are comic horror, often ending in a punchline. If anything, the stories are a good introduction for black humor for children. But this is not what makes a classic. This means that the reason this book has survived and been wildly popular for so many years is probably not its stories, but something else. As many reviews have pointed out, that something is those Gammell illustrations. The rotting corpses. The shambling undead. Even the smiling, friendly “viper,” who is actually pretty benign in the story, but has something… sinister nonetheless. Gammell’s illustrations are so horrifying, that when I read this as a child, I could not help but imagine them… animated and moving around. In my nightmares. The best nightmares that make you love that feeling of being scared.

I won’t discredit the work Alvin Schwartz put into his stories, but they are, at best, an excellent retelling and rendering of folklore. In his 1988 interview with Schwartz, “Night Visions: Conversations with Alvin Schwartz and Judith Gorog,” Leonard S. Marcus describes scary stories as a mix of “supernatural and surrealist fantasy, black humor, and the cautionary tale” then goes on to demonstrate Schwartz’s mastery in the genre: “A former reporter, Schwartz brings his to his work a journalist’s respect for clear, crisp prose and solid background research, and a keen sense of his audience” (44). And that’s exactly what  Schwartz envisioned while writing these books, bringing folklore to a new audience, as Schwartz states:

In all of my books what I’m doing basically is presenting adult material in a way that children can understand. Children are so sophisticated these days that it works for them . . . [sophisticated] in terms of their life experiences or maybe simply their life experiences through the media. What fascinates me is that with the scary material, you’d think they would be jaded. But they’re not. They’re refreshed.  (Marcus, 50).

Schwartz wrote these stories to an audience he knew would not only be able to handle the material, but would enjoy and seek it out as well. And this was proven to be true since, as Marcus states, “a number of children’s librarians and booksellers all said that the genre for which they get the most request is ‘scary stories.'” (46). But, again, as previously stated, it is not the text that most remember, but the art. The art that wonderfully accompanied the text to create just the right balance of humor and horror for a fully well-rounded piece of fiction. As stated in the Schwartz interview:

LM: Sometimes I suppose and illustration can be helpful in bringing forward a suggestion that you don’t want to be too explicit about in the text.

AS: One could illustrate that story by simply having the girl look back and not showing what she sees. Stephen Gammell has made a very important contribution to these books because he has such a wild imagination. (51)

The notion of text and art working together is one I’ve touched upon before, in my post “Comic Books: A Viable Form of Literature?“, especially in regards to teaching literature:

By examining the combination of images + words, students are not only learning how to analyze a piece of literature, but also an introductory course on how to examine art. Does a mix of the two make a piece of literature automatically disposable? I’d beg to differ. Would Sterne’s pages of doodles in Tristram Shandy, Vonnegut’s frequent drawings in Breakfast of Champions, and even Joyce’s dazzling way of creating an art from the placement of words on the page in Ulysses make the texts themselves worthless? Hardly. Perhaps it’s a stretch, but I believe this indicates that introducing images and art into a piece of literature doesn’t have to demean the work or make it “childish,” but instead enrich and add even more layers of meaning to the text itself. The two forms of art do not always need to be mutually exclusive.

Schwartz and Gammell worked together to combine the two forms of art to bring folklore to a new generation, as well as introduce a new form of art to children, one that would forever leave a lasting imprint on their lives. And while it did impact many–and while children had most sought out and requested scary stories from libraries–Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark found itself on the ALA’s list of most frequently challenged books for two straight decades, often protested by parents groups who deemed the material “inappropriate.” Despite this, HarperCollins stood by their decision to publish the book, and did not waiver by pulling it or censoring it.

So why now, 30 years later, have they decided to completely change the artwork?

Unfortunately, I have unsuccessfully been able to locate any comments whatsoever from HarperCollins regarding their decision (oddly enough, they seem to have never made any statements about it, and it seems as though it took so long for the masses to catch on because they discreetly re-released the books with the new artwork, so it was only after a few people made a stink about it on Amazon that people began to really get upset) so I can’t go on record to explain their choice. However, a Facebook group called “Bring back the original illustrations to Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” speculates that  “changes made by Harper Collins were designed to accommodate the delicate sensibilities of the books’ would-be censors.” But again the question still must be raised: why now? Why are these images more offensive now than they were in 1981? And more importantly, why is it OK to go under the radar and completely change what made it a classic, without having to release any form of statement on the matter?

The only reason I can think of, is that it just seems that  censorship is just the “in” thing nowadays. In a world where laws like SOPA/PIPA/ACTA are still scheming to scrape by, using underhanded means to censor things is just commonplace. And in this specific case, censorship is even easier because, to put it simply, children/young adult literature just does not matter to the literary canon and literary theorists. In the wonderfully insightful article “Literary Theory and Young Adult Literature: The Open Frontier in Critical Studies” Cindy Lou Daniels states:

Some still believe that YA literature is merely a secondary category of childlike storytelling–didactic in nature–and unworthy of serious literary evaluation, when, in fact, it is really an overlooked and unappreciated literary genre that has only recently begun to attract the critical attention that it deserves. (78).

While Scary Stories may be considered children’s literature, and not YA literature, the basic principal is still in place: literary theorists are unwavering in what their views of literature are and are not. And often landing on the “not” list include YA literature, children’s literature, scary stories, illustrated books, comic books, graphic novels and the like. Daniels then makes a bold claim:

What would help in this regard would be not only for critics to recognize the difference between genres, but to simply acknowledge that regardless of genre, both children’s and YA works are literature. (78)

A bold claim indeed, for an article published in 2006. What’s more interesting is the note attached to this claim, which directs the reader to an article titled “The Limits of Literary Criticism of Children’s and Young Adult Literature” by Hans-Heino Ewers, which explore the issue of whether or not children’s literature should be regarded as art. In it, he references Henrich Wolgast’s essay “The Misery of Our Children’s Literature,”  a classic German article that called for the valuing of children’s literature and the necessity of considering it art, which was originally published in–get this–1896.  116 years later and we STILL can’t come to terms with the notion of accepting children’s literature in literary theory.  As it appears, the restraints of literary criticism are not just dated by about 60-70 years, but instead over 100. Is there any wonder why I’ve called for a complete reboot of literary criticism as we know it?

In Literature for Children, David L. Russell states, “Literary criticism is the discussion of literature undertaken in order to interpret its meaning and to evaluate its quality” (48) and it is also true that “the purpose of criticism is to promote high standard in literature and to encourage a general appreciation of literature among readers” (48).  One would assume that the “general appreciation” would also include allowing readers, children, young adults, adults, to choose the works in which they want to read, criticize and appreciate (to essentially set their own “high standards”; especially forming these views and opinions at a young learning age. A good way to do just that is to, as most schools do, focus a large part of lesson plans on teaching and approaching banned and challenged books (especially children’s and YA books). The lesson plan “A Guide to Challenged and Banned Books” features the article “A Few Words About Censorship” by YA author Chris Crutcher. In it, he gives the scenario of, after stating to children that no books should be censored, if he thinks that material is “appropriate for my little brother to read?” Crutcher responds:

You didn’t ask me what was appropriate, you asked which books should be censored. I don’t think that stuff is appropriate for your little brother or you or, for that matter, me. But you live in a free country, and that means standing up for that freedom, not just for the things you agree with or believe in. If you live in a democracy, and you want to participate in that democracy, you have to learn to stand up for the expression of things you hate. It’s easy to promote material that represents what you believes–a littler harder to do that for material that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. (5)

Just as it’s hard for literary theorists to get behind or criticize anything that’s out of their scope of appreciation. Just as the families that may have had the hair on the back of their necks stand up after seeing Gammell’s art, but still sought to deny anyone else from seeing it.  Crutcher presents an excellent method and view to teach to children at a young age. The guide also explains The Freedom to Read. In 1953, the ALA and the American Book Publishers Council issued a joint statement which affirmed the responsibilities of librarians and publishers to make the widest diversity of views and expressions available. It also states that:

It is the responsibility of publishers and librarians, as guardians of the people’s freedom to read, to contest encroachments upon that freedom by individuals or groups seeking to impose their own standards or tastes upon the community at large; and by the government whenever it seeks to reduce or deny public access to public information. (5)

This is all fine and well, but, there’s just one, small thing that I can’t get past . . .

This lesson plan and “guide” was published by HarperCollins and can be downloaded on their website.

Perhaps HarperCollins is firmly behind the idea of not censoring text, but treating art on a different, lower-level that can be manipulated and changed and yes, censored. Perhaps they, like many literary theorists, don’t regard illustrated children’s books on the same level as other forms of literature. Either way, changing the art–assuming it was in response to 30-year old protests from parents and not the children who loved the books–is in direct violation of everything they stand for and impose on others in their guide. Though, then again, that’s not very different from how often literary theorists impose rules upon others that are in direct opposition of their own; it seems as though both literary criticism and the publishing industry are in need of a shake up. Maybe we can write up a guide on that get Stephen Gammell to illustrate it!

NB: If you feel so inclined, here is a petition to bring back the original artwork. While this is in no way meant to disregard the wonderful art created by Brett Helquist–and I absolutely suggest you check out his website for a more comprehensive look at all of his talented work–it’s the notion of letting HarperCollins Publishers know that censorship and manipulation without any sort of warning will not be tolerated.

Sources:

Daniels, Cindy Lou.”Literary Theory and Young Adult Literature: The Open Frontier in Critical Studies.” The ALAN Review. Winter 2006.

Marcus, Leonard S. “Night Visions: Conversations with Alvin Schwartz and Judith Gorog.” The Lion and the Unicorn. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, June 1988.

Russell, David L. Literature for Children. 5th Edition. Boston: Pearson, 2005.

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2 Comments

Filed under American Literature, Art, Authors, Banned Books, Books, Children's Literature, Comic Books, Literary Criticism, Manifestos, media, Opinions, Publishing

2 responses to “On Children’s Literature and Censorship – A Brief Look at Art, Literary Theory & Scary Stories

  1. Fabulous, comprehensive post. Thanks for sharing- I will be following your blog now 🙂

  2. Douglas Ernst

    The only thing that scared me about these books as a kid WAS the artwork. It freaked me out. And, I don’t know if it was just me, but the paper they printed the book on, or perhaps the ink they used, had a weird smell to it. It “smelled” like a scary book, if that’s even possible.

    Thanks for posting.

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