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Columnists

Seeing censor

Paul Valleley

VallelyGay penguins. Are they an intriguing scientific case study? Figures of waddling fun? Or an attempt at sinister subversion? A book called And Tango Makes Three has just made it to the top of the list of books people have sought to ban in the United States during the last year. It is said to be based on a true story about two male penguins in a New York zoo who were spotted trying to hatch an egg-shaped rock. So keepers gave them a real egg which hatched into a chick the humans involved named Tango.

The book has become the No 1 target for anti-gay Christian campaigners in the US who have branded it anti-ethnic, anti-family, pro-homosexuality, of a dubious religious viewpoint, and unsuited to the age group it targets. They say similar things about the No 8 book on their hitlist, Uncle Bobby's Wedding, which features a couple of gay guinea pigs.

Second from the top is Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials which is deemed to have a dodgy political and religious viewpoint, and too much violence. Also condemned, for 'encouraging occultism and witchcraft', is Harry Potter which, one of George Bush's former speechwriters has just disclosed, is why Mr Bush refused to grant JK Rowling the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Some 513 schools or libraries found themselves targeted in 2008 by campaigners, who secured bans in 74 cases, plus the occasional lesser victory, as when the gay penguins were moved from the non-fiction to the fiction section.

It is easy to mock here. Such portmanteau censorship, according to the American Library Association, has in recent years seen attempt to ban The Catcher in the Rye (too many 'fucks'); The Colour Purple (promotes homosexuality); Lord of the Flies (excessive violence) and Orwell's 1984 (pro-communist and explicit sex). The Left can be as active as the Right, with attempts to ban The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (uncritical use of the word 'nigger') and Of Mice and Men (stereotypes people with learning disabilities).

The classic liberal line is that everything riles someone, so it is best not to censor anything. But what is under debate here is not outright bans but consideration of what it is appropriate to give to whom at what age. This is an altogether trickier business. I've recently been asked to write about the case in which 10- and 12-year-old brothers tortured a couple of other boys in a disused brick-pit in the village of Edlington near Doncaster. A relative of the little torturers claimed that from the age of six the brothers, who failed to kill their victims more by good fortune than intention, were allowed to eat cannabis and watch Child's Play videos featuring a demonic doll called Chucky which comes to life and kills people. Among them was the same video which had been watched a month before the murder of the toddler James Bulger by his two young killers in 1993. At their trial the judge suggested that exposure to violent videos may have influenced the boys' behaviour since the toddler was killed in a manner similar to a scene in which the possessed doll dies after being splattered with paint and having its face pulped.

Of course most people who watch such horrible films do not then go out and emulate them.  Most children instinctively understand the difference between fantasy and reality. That distinction goes the heart of what play is about. Through games children explore the world in safety, without being prematurely committed by their actions. Rowan Williams in his book of essays Lost Icons, reflects on how plays allows kids to 'talk irresponsibly' and discover the consequences of actions by adopting fictional identities which they can abandon 'without emotional shipwreck'.

That is why in so many of the best children's books the main character is a child who is, permanently or temporarily, orphaned and allowed to encounter the world without the mediation of a parent figure - 'a familiar world, now grown strange,' Williams says. In it the child is given the freedom to try out an adult identity in situations from which ordinary adults are largely absent - and in which children acquire insights which enable them to return to their real life with an expanded understanding of how to read their world.  A classic technique is to present animals doing human things, which can allow a child to see that some aspects of human behaviour, too, are strange and questionable.

Authors know this, which is why it was disingenuous of the Tango authors to insist that their book was 'no more an argument in favour of human gay relationships than it is a call for children to swallow their fish whole or sleep on rocks'. When the elves in Alan Garner's The Moon of Gomrath fight with bows and arrows, rather than hand-to-hand with swords,  so that they can 'kill at a distance, without seeing into the eyes of their victims' the reader consciously or sub-consciously, absorbs the message that humans do the same. 'The play between the familiar and the outrageously strange is a kind of moral exploration,' Williams writes. 'The child learns to look with a curious, even sceptical eye, at the everyday, ready to ask what are its non-negotiable bits, what are matters of convention or even distortion.'

None of this is to justify the nasty prejudices which lie behind the attempts of many of those who want to ban books. But it is inescapably the case that different children are ready for different levels of moral exploration at different ages. And some would argue that there is little moral exploration in the gratuitous thrill-seeking of video nasties, at any age. The business of growing up is a voyage of repeated testing and repeated trust. But questioning whether a child has as yet developed the appropriate critical thinking skills for dealing with a particular work is not censorship. It is an exercise in good parenting.

Paul Valleley