WHAT MAKES for appropriate reading for children has been a contentious issue in publishing, given the fact that a large number of books that go beyond normative themes are often met with resistance — not as much from children as from those who arbite what is age-appropriate reading for them — parents, teachers and other authority figures. From Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn to JK Rowling’s pathbreaking Harry Potter series, there’s a long list of children’s fiction which have found themselves on the wrong side of adult censorship. Often though, deviant may also mean diverse. Here are some books that continue to remain bestsellers despite the criticism and censorship they once drew:
Natasha Sharma and Priya Kuriyan’s The Art of Tying a Pug (2019, appropriate for 5+ years) recently ran into trouble in India when Sikh groups took umbrage at its tongue-in-cheek use of the word “pug”. With her story about a boy learning how to tie a pagdi on his pet, Sharma, a practising Sikh, offers an affectionate window into Sikhism and India’s religious diversity.
Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants series (2000- ongoing, appropriate for 8+ years) came under fire in the US the year it was first published, when a bunch of parents and teachers expressed their concerns that it encouraged deviant behaviour among children, including disobedience and dishonesty. Pilkey, who suffered from ADHD as a child, started the series keeping in mind children who had similar issues and who might be drawn to reading because of their quirky (and often scatological) sense of humour. Twenty years later, it is now a bestselling franchise with a movie and a Netflix series to boot, indicating that, perhaps, Pilkey’s understanding of what children need was more profound than critical assumptions.
Roy and Silo, residents of New York’s Central Park Zoo, like to do everything together. Observing their proximity, when the zookeeper gets them an egg to nurse, they become the doting parents of Tango. Together, Tango and her two dads make for a picture-perfect family. When this true story about a pair of Chinstrap penguins was turned into a book by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell in 2005, the picture book And Tango Makes Three ran into trouble with parents and school authorities for its exploration of homosexuality and its subversion of what was considered to be an ideal family. An endearing, heartwarming story (appropriate for: 3+ years), this is a book perfect to upend stereotypical notions of gender roles at an early age.
No one can ever have a dull moment with a Roald Dahl book, given how whimsical they are. James and the Giant Peach (1961, appropriate for 7+ years) is no exception. A romp of a story about an orphan who enters a gigantic peach and goes on a fantastical adventure with seven magical garden bugs, it has frequently courted controversy for its purported use of profanity, promotion of drugs and alcohol and possible sexual inferences. Television, film and musical adaptations later, children continue to giggle over its absurd story without being scarred by its overwrought readings by adults.
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘Discomfort zone’