A Censorship Issue

Josie Leavitt - March 7, 2011

Well, after almost 15 years of having the store, it has happened. A customer asked me to remove a book from my shelves.
This has never happened before. We’ve had people move books they thought were objectionable, but never has someone looked me in the eye and said, “Are you the owner? I want you to remove this book because it makes fun of childhood sexual abuse.” I apologized that she found the book objectionable and gave her a refund.
The book in question is My First Dictionary: Corrupting Young Minds One Word at a Time by Ross Horsley. Does this book cross the line of good taste? Sometimes, sure it does. But honestly, so do lots of humor books. Parts of the book are laugh-out-loud funny, and parts of it made me cringe. I try to warn customers that sometimes it’s a little bleak. There are some letters about abandonment and parental drinking that seem particularly cruel.
The customer went on to say, “This book is not appropriate in a children’s store.” To which I countered, half my store is made up of adult books. And besides, one person’s unhappiness is not enough of a reason to pull a book. If that were the case we’d never sell Goodnight Moon, Love You Forever, or Harry Potter because plenty of people have issues with those books. And I’ll be honest, I really bristle at the phrase “it’s not appropriate in a children’s store.” Well, parents shop in children’s stores and often the “objectionable” books are well out of reach of kids.
This brought up  a larger issue. When does curation of a collection cross the censorship line? I like to think of myself as a fairly open-minded buyer who doesn’t reject a book because it’s objectionable. I don’t buy certain books because I don’t think they’ll sell or they’re not a good fit for my customer base. Is that act one of censorship? Now I’m wondering about all my buying.
I will order anyone anything, even if I hate the topic or the book. That’s not my place, to judge someone’s book buying.  Obviously, my goal in stocking my store is not to have books people find offensive and therefore won’t buy. But some people find David Sedaris and Mary Karr objectionable, and I love them and will continue to stock and recommend their books.
So where is the line? I have puzzled over this ever since the customer left and I still don’t know.

48 thoughts on “A Censorship Issue

  1. kidelo

    It’s our job as booksellers to provide the books. It’s their job as customers — and hopefully, thinkers — to buy what’s appropriate for them. Bookstores should never be involved in deciding what titles are ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ While we curate the collection kept on the shelves, we still provide the opportunity to the customer to order the book they want.
    That being said, there are certain books I will not feature in the window, face out on shelves, etc. because they don’t fit our store’s “brand.” And if a shopper is particularly aggressive about a (perhaps) political title, I will remind them that it’s a private business and that they are welcome to their opinion. Period.

  2. Kate Mills

    I think you did the right thing. The customer gets her money back and isn’t expected to keep the book that offended her, but she also can’t dictate what your other customers can consider buying in your store. Justice was served ! Good for you !
    P.S. The customer is not always right.

  3. VA

    Josie, I wouldn’t call you a censor! There’s a huge difference between a business owner limiting her stock because she doesn’t think certain items will sell and a person refusing to carry an item because one individual finds it offensive or objectionable. One is a business decision, the other is a personal moral judgment. Furthermore, one is measurable (“we’ve sold one copy of “Book X” in three years, so it doesn’t make financial sense to reorder more copies”) and the other is subjective (“I don’t like books with the word “poo” in them and find them offensive, so I’m not ordering any”).
    If a customer finds a book distasteful, he or she is not obligated to purchase it. I don’t understand people who think they can dictate the contents of someone else’s store, or library, or reading list. What hubris.

  4. Lisa Yee

    The good news is that it’s only happened to you once in 15 years. The bad news is that it’s happened to you.
    If the book was in the children’s section, I could see how the customer would have an issue with that and ask you to reshelve it elsewhere. But to ask you to remove it from the store?
    Whoa . . . wait. Maybe I can get my local bookstore to remove Snooki’s book from their shelves!

  5. Rachel

    I face similar dillemas as a buyer who services a primarily educational market. In an ideal world, we’d stock every single book published each season, and never leave out anything, but limited space and budget require buyers to do some vetting for the customers. You know your market, and you just have to trust your judgement, regardless of what one narrow-minded customer believes.

  6. Latifah

    Please, people have tunnel vision for themselves!
    It’s your store, and you refunded her money…business is business, but 1 unhappy customer of this nature in 15 years? Your doing a great job, don’t sweat it.

  7. Russ Cornwall

    At the most, your only obligation to this customer is to take her compalint seriously and evaluate whether your broader shopper base has the same problem. I would think as long as the books are kept out of children’s reach and are appropriately labeled as adult reading, you shouldn’t have to answer to one single customer. Censorship in this context is a dangerous line to walk, and I think you hit the nail on the head that anything can be found offensive to the wrong person. I wonder how many copies of this book you have sold, and if any other customers who purchsed the book feel the same.

  8. Janet Lawler

    Josie – Did you have it shelved in the kids’ section? The cover looks like it would appeal to kids and/or adults. Maybe you can consider where the book is shelved in response to this customer’s concerns (and maybe keep the customer). I haven’t read it – but based on this post, it seems likely to be a book that could offend many who might not have a sense of humor about a particular subject that hits close to home (I often find this with “adoption” humor, since my daughter is adopted). But I also recognize that humor is a very personal thing, so while I might let you know about a book I had a problem with (or might even correspond with an author), it would be a discussion, not a request to remove a book. You definitely should not take it off the shelves, and I think ultimately your good judgment (both personal and business) is the best guide for what you offer. You just can’t please everyone, though you can try (short of removing books!)

  9. Janette Shipston Chan

    The woman bought the book with the cover displayed and then figured out she was offended…and that it wasn’t a kids book? Really?? Seems like she was looking to make a fuss. Armies fought and died (and still are) for the right to be offended.
    Free speech doesn’t mean only safe, unoffensive ideas.

    1. Ayla

      That’s exactly what I was thinking–did she honestly buy that book with the intention of giving it to a child, without even glancing at the content or even the cover? That is so completely not anybody’s fault but her own. I’m imagining she really did, gave it to a kid, realized her mistake, felt incredibly stupid and embarrassed, and wanted to shift the blame onto somebody else. Fail.

  10. Kat Brokaw

    I’m going to agree with Donna. Stocking your store to fit your customer base and making decisions based on what you can/can’t sell is business, not censorship.

  11. HM Epstein

    Censorship may not be the issue. You’ve reached an uncomfortable spot where Freedom of Speech issues collided. The author’s freedom to write as he pleases preceded the reader’s freedom to express her opinion of his book.
    I believe the humorous book’s cover makes the author’s point-of-view evident. Perhaps the reader/customer just wasn’t sufficiently observant? It was nice of you to refund her purchase. It is NOT necessary for you to let her judgment impact yours.

  12. ManoDogs

    The line is pornography, true crime – things like that. You have the right to decide what crosses the line as the owner of the shop, and you shouldn’t let others make that decision. It is not your responsibility to raise anyone else’s children, though you do have some responsibility to the community at-large. If this book, and others like it, are not easily-accessible to children, then you have fulfilled that responsibility. Of course kids are going to push boundaries and, no matter how well you perform your duties, if one of those kids wants something they shouldn’t have badly enough, they will find a way to get it.
    The best thing to do is to ban the woman, her kids, and her family from your store. Let her know, should she ask, that she failed as a parent and you’d prefer not to do business with such people.

  13. Josie Leavitt

    To answer some questions: the book was shelved at the register with a fairly large burst in it saying, “This book is not for children.” We kept it there primarily so that kids wouldn’t pick it up. Also, I made a point of saying to the adults who picked it up that it was surprisingly harsh in spots and would point them to the letters that gave me pause. I was not working the day this customer bought this book. I will not be moving book from its spot because it was actually the best spot for it. Ironically, kids looked right past it on to the toys.

  14. Rux Martin

    Please, Josie, stock that book, and keep standing up against censorship! I’m lucky that my mother let me read anything I wanted from her bookshelves and never tried to intervene, saying that something was “not appropriate for children.” I read lots of things in Sigmund Freud that were puzzling and worrisome, but I’m so glad that books weren’t treated that politically correct or incorrect items. Truth be told, I think that the book shouldn’t have to carry a warning label wherever it is shelved. But thanks for all you do in support of intellectual freedom, and for goodness sake, don’t take it off the shelves. What would be next: Huck Finn, because of its use of the N word?! Thanks for writing about this very important issue.

  15. Diana

    Especially in the case of small businesses, the customer is NOT always right. In fact, acting as if the customer is always right is often a money-losing proposition.

  16. Kate McMurry

    Josie, thanks for the thoughtful post! Your experience brings up for me the issue of genre specifications which bookstores have traditionally used to shelve books, in particular those that indicate age. It sounds as if your bookstore contains, as does every bookstore I’ve ever visited, age-designated sections. There is a section for children’s books (picture books for preschool through age 6, early reader for ages 6-7, and middle-grade for ages 8-11) and young adult books (for ages 12-15), and everything else in the store is for adults over 18 (and teens 16-17 who frequently prefer to read books for adults). In addition, the adult books are also divided into nonfiction which is broken down into subject categories, and fiction which is divided into multiple different genres and subgenres. Because of that system, it seems as if “buyer beware” is already very well done in bookstores, so in that regard, your customer’s complaint makes no sense.
    However, there is one area in age-and-genre book labeling for purposes of shelving books in bookstores which, though it doesn’t apply to the specific example you provide, is closely enough related to it that I think it is worth mentioning. This is the sometimes indiscriminate way in which certain books are labeled by publishers these days as YA. Some might protest that it is “censorship” and an “infringement on free speech” and a “violation of artistic integrity” to attempt in any manner to limit what type of content is contained in books marketed to any age group, or within any genre. However, I would argue that since these labels are entirely about marketing books—to help potential buyers seek out the precise type of book they are looking for—this is not an issue of freedom of speech but rather a matter of “truth in advertising.”
    In most cases, it is not adherence to a high, moral cause but rather a focus on the bottom line that leads publishers to “push the envelope” on the YA age/genre label. In this down-turned economy, virtually every area of publishing is tanking except YA, which has been showing continuous growth for years thanks to the hunger for YA created by Harry Potter and Twilight. As a result, publishers seem to be increasingly applying the YA label to any adult novel that even remotely has a connection to a teen audience. The industry code words for these adult books marketed as YA are, “dark,” “gritty” and “edgy,” and they typically contain the type of material that would get a movie labeled, “R.”
    As a consumer, it is frustrating to me when I assume, on purchasing a YA novel, that I’m going to get a book appropriate for an innocent, unworldly young person age 12-15, only to discover it is filled with adult content. The least-worst example of this situation is a novel where there are one or more point-of-view (POV) characters, including often the main protagonist, who are not teenagers. This POV choice forces the teen reader to spend an unfortunate amount of page time in the head of characters with a maturity level that is often disturbingly outside the life experience of a young person between 12-15 years of age.
    But far worse than pushing an (often evil) adult POV on a young teen is the fact that these “gritty” novels frequently include onstage acts of graphic violence and sexual depravity that would represent undesirable subject matter to many adults. Here are some examples of this sort of difficult adult content from recently released, mainstream, YA novels: (1) A teen male character is told by a magical villain that if he doesn’t murder innocent people the villain will kill his girlfriend–and the young man complies. (2) An 18-year-old shape-changing girl is kept naked in a cage for weeks by an evil, 40-something, magical villain. (3) The father of a teen, male protagonist makes his living by grave robbing, and as the boy hangs out among grave robbers he is exposed to necrophilia. (4) An emotionally fragile 16-year-old girl (already suffering from PTSD from witnessing the aftermath of a horrific murder, which is also graphically described in this same novel) is stripped naked at a party by a group of truly evil teenagers, has booze poured down her throat to the point that she might have died of alcohol poisoning, has her hair hacked off in clumps, is beaten with fists to her body and face by a muscular football player almost three times her size, is paraded through the party crowd nude, and then driven to the country and dumped to potentially die. The only “limit” that the author has applied in respect to the “YA” genre label in this long, harrowingly graphic scene is that the girl is not gang raped. But given the subhuman brutality of her attackers, and the sado-masochistic, sexually perverted nature of their torture of the heroine, their eleventh-hour restraint is not particularly believable.
    To me, picking up a book like those listed above which is labeled “YA” is like opening a package of what I assumed to be simple chocolate-covered cherries and finding out, too late, the soft filling contains 100-proof alcohol (or in some cases, rat poison). How can a “buyer beware” if the package is–purposely–mislabeled by the manufacturer? I’m not saying these books should be taken off the shelf. Rather, they should be shelved where the right consumers can find them—adults with strong stomachs.

    1. Crystal

      I understand that this is frustrating for you, but you also must understand that your idea of what’s inappropriate in a YA book may not match up with mine, and mine may not match up with the publisher’s, and so on. I have no problem with non-teen POV characters, nor do I have much of a problem with violence or sex in YA novels.
      Violent, scary things happen to kids sometimes. When I was 12-15, real life had already done plenty to introduce me to those topics. Seeing them covered in literature, being dealt with by protagonists close to my own age, did a lot to make me realize I wasn’t alone and to make me more capable of talking about them with the adults in my life. So what I’m saying is, your mileage may vary.
      As an adult, the responsibility for what your children read is on you. Not the publisher, and not the bookseller, and not your local librarian. If you’re not willing to check every single book they’re going to be reading for content, then you’re going to have to accept a certain amount of risk–and you’re also going to have to accept that other adults may not agree with you about what is and isn’t appropriate.

  17. Chris Finan

    I think you handled the complaint very well. In an effort to help booksellers prepare for this and other frequent censorship scenarios, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression produced a video a few years ago. It’s posted on You Tube, “Scenes from a Bookstore.” We tried too have fun with it.
    Chris Finan, ABFFE

  18. Sudhar Krishnamachary

    You seem to have done everything professional and sensible to provide the book for interested adults while keeping it out of children. Given at least few have bought the book, you have the reasons to continue to promote it front and center.
    We respect every customer’s (specifically irate ones) views but they no right to dictate what you should or shouldn’t do just as owners shouldn’t dictate what customers ought to read.
    Sudhar K

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  20. Ellen Scott

    I think such discussions about censorship are necessary on a regular basis to remind us of the First Ammendment and its importance and difficulties. Thanks, Josie, for sharing your recent experience.

  21. Alison

    @Kate re YA – Kate, I don’t think that the general opinion of YA is 12-15. The YA division of ALA (YALSA) defines it as 12-18. In those parameters, some books will be good for the “innocent, unworldly” reader. But others will be better suited to the older teen reader.

    1. Kate McMurry

      @Alison, I went to the YALSA site and searched for the statistic you mentioned. I discovered a 1997 survey of 50 librarians in which 40 of them defined the term, “young adult,” as referring to either ages 12-18 or 11-19. I wonder if there have been any surveys in the 14 years since and if they included parents or teachers?
      @Maria, Crystal and Nicole, I read your insightful comments with great interest. They have given me a lot of food for thought. In particular, Crystal and Nicole, I think that you are right, it is certainly the ideal for a concerned parent to read every word in any book that her child is either assigned in school or chooses to read for pleasure before the child is exposed to it. But practically speaking, there simply aren’t enough hours in the day for even the most dedicated, speed-reading parent to do that much reading if the parent has more than one child, one or more children who are “bookworms,” and/or a job and all kinds of other time-gobbling obligations involved in maintaining a home. As a result, an alternative that many parents rely on are reviews, especially for YA.
      I personally love reading YA. I also write a lot of YA reviews, and I read dozens of YA reviews written by others every week. In the process, I’ve noticed that many people who comment on YA reviews express gratitude for any information that a reviewer can provide as to the content of a given YA novel as pertains to areas of particular concern to parents, e.g. foul language, drugs/alcohol, sexual situations, and violence. The motion picture industry chose many years ago–because of consumer demand–to self-police itself with ratings of G, PG, PG-13, R and X, which refer to these issues. These ratings are not a form of censorship, but merely a form of product description to aid consumers in choosing which movie to see themselves or to allow their children to see.
      Currently there are no such ratings or subcategories for YA fiction even though publishers have long been in the habit of offering age-related subcategories under the marketing designation, “children’s book,” which encompasses a relatively huge span of 9 years, from age 1-10. The subcategories include board books for baby’s first book experience; picture books for pre-schoolers through first grade; early-reader books for children age 6-7, and middle-grade fiction for children age 8-10.
      Given that pattern, it is not completely far-fetched that publishers might consider creating similar subcategories within the YA genre since, as Alison has pointed out, it apparently is viewed by publishers as also encompassing a 9-year span, from age 11-19. A great deal of intellectual and emotional development occurs in young people during that time, possibly even more than between age 1-10 (as reflected by motion pictures having only one rating for children of “G” and three for young people between 11-19).
      The simplest names for YA subcategories might be these: “pre-teen (11-12),” “younger teens (13-15),” “older teens (16-17),” and “teenage adults (18-19).”
      Again, I am not suggesting such labels as a form of censorship, merely as a means for publishers and reviewers to provide useful product information to consumers similar to what is provided with the motion-picture rating system. All ages can enjoy a G-rated movie (or children’s book), and even a young child can experience an R-rated movie (or read a YA novel with adult content) if his parent is willing to let him.
      In that regard, the books I mentioned in my previous post would clearly fit into the “teenage adults (18-19)” category. This discussion has made me realize that as a reviewer I will feel much less at a loss when reviewing “gritty” YA books if I use that designation, because it allows me to clearly and objectively explain how and why that type of book is YA.

      1. librarychick

        The best way to figure out what age level a young adult book is appropriate for is, short of reading it yourself, is to use what we librarians use all the time – professional review sources like Booklist, School Library Journal, and VOYA magazines. Personally I am against a rating system like the movies because they are restrictive – you can’t go to a rated R movie unless you are 18 or older. I don’t think books should ever be labeled like that.

  22. Jay Ellar

    The correct response is:
    “I reserve the right to refuse service to anyone. Please leave now. Thank you.”

  23. Stan Denski

    When I was 17 I was reading Henry Miller. The idea that someone would censor what I read was ludicrous to me. I’m 57 and it is STILL ludicrous. Let people read whatever they want to read and keep your blue noses out of it.

  24. Maria

    I’ve always personally felt that the label “YA” was a better designation of the style a book was written in, rather than the actual content of the book. Don’t forget, the world of teens can be filled with actions and thoughts as dark as the world of adults.
    Also, I am 25. I read “Brave New World” when I was 12, and “A Clockwork Orange” when I was 13. I also continue to read YA novels to this day, because I find I enjoy a certain lack of pretension that often defines these books, as distinct from many “adult” novels.

  25. Kris H.

    I would do exactly what you did–give the angry, disappointed customer her money back, and leave the book exactly where you think it belongs. All books are not for everyone and this is true no matter what one’s age, level of maturity, gender, life experiences, etc. etc. etc.
    Removing a book for every objection to said book would diminish us considerably. Discuss, don’t censor!

  26. Nicole

    Working as the children’s manager in an independent bookstore (in the bible belt) for many years, I have had this come up time and time again. I have had so many objections to books on our shelves. People bring me letters from the church stating why no one should ever read Philip Pullman, click their tongues when I suggest their grandchild read Harry Potter, and so on…
    I even did a spot for the local news about the content in certain YA books and I told them what I tell everyone. Every book is not for every reader. I encourage parents to look through/read a book before they hand it to their child or to read it with them. I will never force anyone to buy a book just because I think it’s fantastic. Hopefully I know enough to help my customers make good decisions on what book are best for them. But I would like for all books to be available to my readers because that is their decision to make.

  27. megan

    I had this talk with my seven year old daughter a few weeks ago to ban burn or censor books is one of the worst things a society can do if it values freedom although we may not agree with the images or ideas expressed in a work it is not our place to decide that for others if you don’t like it don’t read it but don’t tell me or any one else what we are capable of determining for ourselves.

  28. VickyUK

    I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
    -Voltaire (Evelyn Beatrice Hall)

  29. Caryn

    I applaud your appropriate effort to let patrons know about the adult content of this book, which especially given the cover, could be misleading. I think your response was perfect. Banning the person from your bookstore, as some have suggested, seems harsh. Even more than a straight censorship issue, part of the difficulty for that customer may have been their expectation of what a children’s bookstore is–not realizing that businesses like yours often carry adult books, too.
    I really like the idea of a YA rating system. Apparently they can be darker and more graphic than I realized, based on some of the posts. I also didn’t realize that YA covers such a wide age range. There are huge variances in maturity. It’s hard to imagine that most parents would think books written specifically for an 18 or 19-year-old would be appropriate for their 9-year-old.
    I still remember being traumatized by a book when I was 14. I’m sure it was meant for adults, but from the descriptions in some of the posts, might be billed YA today. It literally gave me nightmares. I did not pick it out for myself; it was required reading for my freshman English class.
    A rating system wouldn’t prevent young people from reading outside their age, just as many parents allow their children to watch specific R-rated flicks long before they are 17. As with movies, a rating system would give parents a very helpful “heads-up” on books they might want to review in advance.

  30. Alison

    @Kate – I got the definition of YA from YALSA’s criteria for the Michael L. Printz award: “To be eligible, a title must have been designated by its publisher as being either a young adult book or one published for the age range that YALSA defines as “young adult,” i.e., 12 through 18.”

  31. Frank

    In these times of society developing backwards at an increasing speed it is refreshing to see that common sense and maturity still have a place and presence. Thank you!

  32. betty tisel

    I only want my favorite Mpls bookseller to remove lousy celebrity-penned books from her store. Not really, but it’s nice to dream…..

  33. Marisa

    If anyone is bothered by a book,they can simply stop reading it.That woman did what she should do in flipping through a book before you buy it–which,by the way,I don’t think you can do with e-books–and decided she didn’t want to read it.Smart buying decision.But demanding that no one else have access to it is wrong and objectionable on so many levels.
    And I take issue with people saying books shouldn’t bother anyone.People who want to ban books seem to have adopted the attitude of mainstream mass media that something should be as inoffensive to as many people as possible in order to be commercially viable,and applied it to a completely different intended purpose.Sadly,if your store were run by a chain instead of independently(go you,I love independent book stores!),it probably would have been pulled from the shelves for that reason.
    But if a book disturbs us in the right way,we can examine for ourselves why and maybe learn something from it.That’s what literature’s for.People make a huge fuss about children or teenagers being made upset by things nowadays.That’s part of growing up,and it’s wrong and unhealthy to shelter young people from the world.That’s how my generation got so messed up.People need to give children and teens–there’s a difference between the two–some credit.If they’re upset by something,it’s not actually the end of the world!

  34. Charlotte

    Josie, libraries get these sorts of complaints all the time. Some of the folks who complain are just on a crazy train or have no idea how to select age appropriate materials even when we LABEL them. My all time favorite rant was by a patron who held up the claymation film “The Creation” about Adam and Eve and told me it was pornographic because the little clay figures (with their little clay circle anatomies) were not wearing clothes! Really…seriously….just weird! Yes, we have naked clay men in our library and are proud of it. Don’t take it too hard…..people are weird.

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  36. Wendi

    I just wanted to point out that the cover has a child building a stack of blocks that spells out the word VODKA. The word “Corrupting” is in the title.
    …the customer is obviously an idiot if she bought this for a child.

  37. the.effing.librarian

    you did your job: you listened to a complaint, took it seriously, looked at the item and decided it still belongs in your store. even if you decided to remove it, you did your job. it’s your store. I think the problem comes from having someone come into your store, feel comfortable enough about the collection to select an item for purchase, then suddenly do a 180 and attack your professional judgment. it makes you feel like something is really wrong with reality. but there is no censorship because it’s your store.

  38. TEB

    Its interesting that a random person feels that they are significant enough to tell someone with professional experience of running a book store exactly what is and isn’t appropriate in said bookstore.
    In all likelihood this person threw a strop and called you all sorts when they left the shop, whereas you reflected on the situation and considered the issue of censorship and your approach or contribution to it.
    Which is a nice way of saying that this person was probably just a crank, while you seem to be a reasonable sort.

  39. The Ridger

    Concerning the content of YA novels, consider this GK Chesterton quote: “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”
    Concerning this incident, given that the book is not shelved in the children’s section and has a warning about content on its display, you handled it perfectly.


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