Defending a Challenged Book

An assignment for a class on “Censorship, Youth, and the Politics of Reading” that I’m taking this quarter has us write a defense for a challenged book of our choice. I found the exercise to be quite fun as it gave me a chance to look through the books that have been challenged and the reasons that people censored them. After browsing these challenged books lists, I begin to wonder if I’m a person with particular low morals or concerns for youths since I didn’t feel a strong conviction looking at any of the books that they should be unconditionally banned.

On the few books that I did feel there was a legitimate conversation to be had about whether they should be banned for the general adult public, I wonder if my instinct about why these books and not others simply reflect my biases and not some objective, defensible concerns. I’d like to think not, but that’s putting a very favorable judge — me — to judge me.

In any case, I wrote my defense for Adam Mansbach’s Go the Fuck to Sleep and here it is below.

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Why “Go the Fuck to Sleep” can Rest Comfortably on Our Adult Shelves

Adam Mansbach’s Go the Fuck to Sleep has been challenged by a New Zealand organization, Family First, on the grounds that the book is “littered with offensive language” which “can be very damaging to both children and adults”.[1] The challenge implies that Go the Fuck to Sleep aggravates “aggressive and dysfunctional” parents and that parents who “foolishly read [the book] to their children” are engaging in “verbal abuse” of their wards. Furthermore, Family First states that “[b]ecause the book looks like a children’s story, it could easily be mistaken by children as being for them”.

The argument concerning “aggressive and dysfunctional” parents is no argument at all. The harm that “aggressive and dysfunctional” parents can inflict on their children is so catastrophic that it is simply impossible to believe that this harm would be limited or lessened if only Go the Fuck to Sleep were banned. As Mansbach himself satirizes, if our standard for banning things is whether they could be misused by “aggressive and dysfunctional” parents, then spoons may have to be banned as well since they “too could pose a grave threat to children in the hands of aggressive, dysfunctional parents”[2].

On the argument that parents may read Go the Fuck to Sleep to their children and thereby cause them harm, it is simply not the place for bookstores or libraries to interfere with parents’ deliberate choice of reading with their children. Do bookstores or libraries know the every reason for which a parent may have selected Mansbach’s book to read to his/her child? If not, how can bookstores, libraries, or Family First, substitute their own judgment on what every parent should (or in this case, should not) read to his/her own child when they have no information on the context in which that choice is made? Moreover, even taking as given the premise that some parents may be “foolishly” reading Go the Fuck to Sleep to their children, is this reason enough to ban the book for everyone? This argument and that concerning “aggressive and dysfunctional parents” are really shades of the same proposition: because some people may make put something to a bad use, this thing should be made unavailable for all people. This argument is simply unpersuasive when there is no evidence of how likely or frequently this misuse occurs, the magnitude of the harm that results from such misuse, and whether the proposed measure – a complete ban – is the best remedy to prevent this misuse.

The third argument Family First makes, that children may mistake Go the Fuck to Sleep for a children’s book, is best addressed by placing the book in the adult section of a bookstore or library and not by banning it outright. After all, when even Family First concedes that “in an adult context, the book may be harmless and even amusing”, why should not this source of amusement be kept for those for whom it may amuse? As the Supreme Court makes clear, measures that “reduce the adult population  . . . to reading only what is fit for children[3] should not be countenanced, especially not when there is an option to keep for the adult population what it wants while placing the material out of the easy reach of children.

I chose to defend Go the Fuck to Sleep because the book illustrates the point that not every book with pictures in them is necessarily a children’s book. The assembled defense materials speak to Mansbach’s book as being a book for the parents on parenting and so drive home this lesson.


[1] “Offensive Children’s Book Should Be Withdrawn,” Family First New Zealand, accessed April 11, 2013, http://familyfirst.org.nz/2011/06/offensive-children%e2%80%99s-book-should-be-withdrawn/.

[2] Adam Mansbach, “My Year on the Bestseller List,” Salon, December 11, 2012, http://www.salon.com/2012/12/12/adam_mansbach_my_year_on_the_bestseller_list/.

[3] Butler v. Michigan, 352 US 380 (Supreme Court 1957).

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4 Responses to Defending a Challenged Book

  1. A.M.B. says:

    They were trying to ban bookstores from selling it to adults? That’s ridiculous. I agree that libraries and bookstores can’t “parent” other people’s children. The language in that book isn’t appropriate for my children, but every household has a different standard about what words are acceptable and at what ages. It’s going overboard to say that our need to protect children from this book is so great that we have to restrict parents from accessing it. That argument doesn’t even work for guns (in the US). By the way, we do have that book, and my daughter did mistake it for a children’s book. We re-directed her to another book, and put Mansbach’s book on a much higher shelf. I wrote about that book in the context of the BYU mild curse word study back in June last year–it was one of my first blog posts (now I’m feeling nostalgic!).

    • I read your post on the Brigham Young University study and proposal. Nice!

      Regarding the challenge Family First mounted against Adam Mansbach’s picture book, I don’t think the organization has had any success with this campaign. The organization itself admits that it “has written to the Booksellers Association and Paper Plus in NZ asking them not to distribute the book to retailers but has received no response”. This leads me to think that some challenges (not all) are done more for “internal consumption” than public persuasion. That is, they are done so that people who already agree with the stance of the challenger and perhaps are dues-paying members of organization know that their organization is voicing their opinions, fighting their causes, and, more generally, earning their support.

      Not incidentally, I think roughly the same about Scott Turow’s latest column in the New York Times that you’ve also written about on your blog.

      • A.M.B. says:

        Thanks! I agree that the motive may be to please their constituents, but I’m not sure Turow falls into that category. His bizarre rant (which is really quite embarrassing for him) only represents the view of a small portion of American writers. The rest need Amazon and Google and know it. The Authors Guild should reconsider whether Turow is the best spokesperson for them.

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