Censors and sensibility



When I read last week that a Young Adult novel had been banned in New Zealand, the cynical part of me couldn’t help but see it as a publicity coup. And sure enough, news came yesterday of interest from Hollywood and beyond in Ted Dawe’s Into the River. The author was frank about the effects of the interim ban, following complaints by Christian lobbying group Family First: “It is now a famous book. It’s in Time magazine. … I think it’s going to make a lot of money for me.”

Into the River was Dawe’s attempt to get boys reading, starting with a modest print run of 3,000 self-published copies. Despite having won the 2013 Post Children’s Book Award, campaigners insisted that the novel, which tells the story of a Maori boy at boarding school, was unsuitable for teenagers, with its graphic descriptions of sex, alleged glorification of recreational drug use, and liberal smatterings of the F- and C-words.

In an age when children can stumble across pornography on the web, banning a book seems downright archaic. But Dawe is not alone: Into the River is one of 1,289 works to have been outlawed in New Zealand. With titles like Marijuana Botany on the list, I can’t help but think that the censors are simply turning these books into “forbidden fruit” which is more likely to tempt the young and curious. And – apart from that cat-killing incident – is curiosity such a bad thing?


I can recall the thrill of reading Kinflicks by Lisa Alther as a young teen, memorable – in the words of director Katherine Dieckmann – for “its lurid paperback cover … and its frank talk of erections and lesbian hook-ups”. I also remember being shocked by one scene in Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride, returning to it again and again, trying to get my head around what was happening.

As someone who thought sperm were the same shape and the same size as tadpoles until well into my teens, I needed books to answer the questions I was too embarrassed to ask – and the questions I didn’t even realise I should be asking.

Yes, I came across references to sex in books and in some cases it took me a while to make sense of what I’d read. But the same could be said of films, TV shows, magazines. (We didn’t get the Internet in our house until I was 23, so I can only imagine what impact that had on my more technologically-equipped schoolmates…) My well-thumbed copy of Kinflicks sat in a drawer under my bed alongside VHS recordings of American Pie and Channel 4 series As If, as well as a couple of issues of FHM, purloined from my older brother’s stash.

As a teen, my curiosity almost certainly got in the way of my reading pleasure. I would probably enjoy a book like Kinflicks more now, focussing on the plot rather than treating each page as a potential sex ed lesson. But the same goes for all kinds of media. As a friend pointed out recently: “Friends is a lot funnier when you’ve actually had a girlfriend and a job and a flat yourself.” And it’s true: we all laughed at jokes about turkey basters without having much of a clue why they were funny.

Stories can be disturbing – but they can also be fascinating and reassuring and informative and entertaining. Writers like Judy Blume, Melvin Burgess, Louise Rennison, Sue Townsend, John Green, David Levithan (the list goes on and on) have helped to make accessible topics like sex and sexuality, bullies and bulimia, drugs, thugs and exploratory tugs. And no matter how many books we ban, teenage minds will carry on probing these areas. As exciting as it is to read a book by torchlight under a tent of bed covers, it would be terrible if youngsters felt that was the only way to read about what matters to them.