Monday, December 15, 2008

Are there things we can’t write about?

Are some subjects off base, unwanted and unwelcome? In other words, taboo?

Something in me believed it so, convincing myself, for example, that the intersection of sex and religion is so fraught with incendiary passion that children’s books about them must barely exist.

Well, I was wrong. Or right.

Using Amazon as a database, I searched the children’s section for books about controversial subjects Roe versus Wade (abortion), Margaret Sanger (birth control), and the Scottsboro Boys (race and sex.)

The resulting titles were of modest number, and few of recent publication.

Still, they were there.

I am unsure of my original supposition and wonder: Are the relatively few books a reflection of the modest place the subjects hold in comparison to the larger themes of, say, the Civil War, Immigration, or Westward Expansion. Or do they represent a de facto taboo?

I don't know.

What do you think?


Linda Salzman said...

I think it's interesting that two of your examples are Supreme Court cases. I've been an advocate of introducing kids in elementary school to the importance of Supreme Court decisions throughout American History.

I get a feeling of disinterest more than a taboo. My general feeling is that writers will write about anything but it's a matter of getting it past an editorial board.

I recently read James Cross Giblin's "The Life and Death of Adolph Hitler" and was impressed by his the depth of information that he put forth; it seemed geared perfectly for intelligent kids who were looking to really understand a complex subject.

Mickey Schafer said...

Hi, Don.

My first reaction is from the parent's perspective -- I'd guess that parents would prefer that taboo subjects (sex, religion, etc.)are ones taught in the household so that the preferred moral stance is part of what children learn -- or, for some, all that they learn.

My second reaction is more from my teacher side. The other topics you mentioned (Civil War, immigration, Westward expansion) have conventionalized interpretations that are pretty well standardized -- the Civil War was a horrible but just and necessary war to preserve the unity/integrity of the U.S; we are a nation of immigrants; Americans have as part of their destiny the need/desire to explore/acquire (hmm, didn't intend the rhyme!). Then, we layer our own interpretations upon those standard ones.

Another way of looking at it might be that "taboo" topics are classified as individual decisions while the others are common cultural property. If the same search were performed in a subject specific database, I wonder if the results would be different? A quick Google search for "christian children's books" (seriously, I just now opened a new tab, put in the terms, and clicked the first link) brought me to, and the search term "sex" brought a page full of options, mostly for teens and adults; however,one entry ("God's Design for Sex Series") was a 4 book series intended for children as young as 3-5 and going up through pre-teen. Obviously, this is mostly useful to those who are Christian, and whether or not it qualifies as "non-fiction" in the sense of scientifically based or morally neutral is the subject of a different topic! But it may answer the question some.

Anonymous said...

As a school librarian, I wonder if I choose not to purchase books because I think they'd be inappropriate for my kids. I'm in an elementary school--I don't think I need books like the Kama Sutra (hyperbole here!), but I bet there's a need/interest for books about some of the other topics for some of my students.
I think in a middle or high school, there is a definite need for books on such topics.
Supreme Court cases, as Linda was saying, should be discussed with students. But I can't imagine explaining to my fourth or fifth graders what Roe v. Wade was about, discussing the Supreme Court as a whole class. I could deal with one kid with a question, I think. . . I can just imagine the !ick! faces on some of the kids. . . they're grossed out by underwear jokes. ;-).

Don Brown said...

Does anyone think publishers are less likely to buy a manuscript that deals with 'troublesome' topics in the belief it will generate anemic sales or just merely be a PR headache?