Children’s authors and performers say growing censorship, institutional timidity and online backlash are resulting in stories about diversity, sexuality and even contemporary world events being deemed inappropriate for younger readers.
“It feels like we’re living through a second section 28, but one that the UK government has outsourced to an anonymous Twitter lobby,” one performer says.
When acclaimed gay author Simon James Green was banned from school visits in the south of England by the Catholic church last month, it drew attention to what many believe is a developing trend that mirrors the escalating censorship of children’s reading in the US, described by Art Speigelman recently as “a culture war that’s totally out of control”.
Savita Kalhan was expecting to take a school assembly with a group of teenagers for World Book Day recently. She planned to touch on themes of respect and consent that appear in her young adult novels That Asian Kid – about institutional racism in schools – and The Girl in the Broken Mirror – which includes a sexual assault. But the event was cancelled because the deputy head deemed her work “inappropriate”.
“Since then, I’ve had lots of school librarians message me to say they believe the situation is getting much worse and more widespread, with a backlash against certain topics from school management and parents,” Kalhan says. “There seems to be a fear of something that might or might not happen, and it’s unnecessarily affecting children’s choice of reading.”
“Young adult books, covering diversity, sexuality, even contemporary world events, are now being deemed unsuitable for teenage readers,” she adds. “This is completely out of touch with what teenagers are actually reading and watching, and the expertise of librarians themselves is completely overlooked.”
Juno Dawson – author and former teacher, whose acclaimed sexuality handbook for young people, This Book is Gay, is the subject of removal petitions in the US – agrees there is “a shift in mood”.
It’s part of a wider culture war, she suggests, now gaining traction in the UK. “You can’t stop a kid being trans or LGBT but you can stop a book. A lot of these attempts to have books pulled or readings cancelled feel vexatious, so huge credit to the librarians and teachers who are dealing with irate parents and campaigners.”
Elle McNicoll joined Simon James Green on the platform for the Bristol Teen Book Awards the week after his ban, which she describes as sending “a painful message to young gay pupils”.
“I’ve seen the absolute force for good that Simon is when he visits a school, and I’m just sorry that some children will be denied that joy.”
McNicoll’s latest book, Like a Charm, includes a dyspraxic protagonist; her debut featured a heroine who is autistic, like McNicoll herself.
“Diverse authors take on a lot more than questions about plot and story,” she argues. “We’re also often expected to fix societal problems or defend ourselves outside of our work.”
Hazel Plowman, head of creative learning at the Bath Children’s Literature festival, says there has been a “definite shift” towards more inclusive stories in children and young people’s books since she started working there a decade ago.
“We’re programming our autumn festival, and while there’s still work to do, we are getting all kinds of voices pitched as commercial books now, rather than being pigeonholed as ‘an issues book’ for example. There are LGBTQ+ books for all ages, picture books with two mums, British-Indian detectives and neurodiverse authors and characters.”
Jodie Lancet-Grant is one of the authors Plowman lists. Her debut picture book for 3–7 year olds, The Pirate Mums – a swashbuckling adventure about a boy called Billy who happens to have two mothers – attracted some trolling earlier this year. “The idea that anyone would think this story is not appropriate for children beggars belief. It’s just a different family circumstance, but it’s incredibly important that children see that represented.”
“There is a worrying trend of censorship of LGBTQ+ authors and books happening as a consequence of the more polarised world we are living in,” she says, suggesting that section 28 – the legislation enacted in 1988 to “prohibit the promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities and only abolished in 2003 – still has an impact. “A lot of adults grew up not reading about these subjects because of clause 28, and now assume they are not acceptable because they accepted that absence as children.”
Drag performers have attracted particular controversy, with a number of schools caught out in recent years after booking an act seen as having a non-child friendly name or online presence. Sab Samuel AKA Aida H Dee, children’s author and founder of Drag Queen Story Hour UK, is clear that “not all drag acts are suitable for education”, but believes that schools and local councils are becoming increasingly aware of the potential for backlash, and consequently steering clear of anything that could be deemed risky.
Adam Carver, whose drag performance for kids Palaver! generated complaints to local authorities and the Arts Council England last year, is blunt: “It feels like we’re living through a second section 28, but one that the UK government has outsourced to an anonymous Twitter lobby.”
Carver’s company, Fatt Projects, is working on a model to support arts organisations facing similar attacks, offering advice on how best to respond to criticism.
“There is a resurgence of the idea that queer people shouldn’t be around children,” he says. “There is a perfect storm now where venues and organisations are so afraid of backlash that they don’t take any risks. But there is still demand from children and families for work that explores difference.”