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The Difficulty of Difficult Topics

How might one approach topics known to be “difficult” in children’s books? And how might one defend one’s choices? At a time when several forms of censure seem to be working new pressures on publishers and librarians, the question is far from being insignificant.

For some people, children’s books should not include any mention of death, of war, or of sexuality. However, from the moment at which children are able to apprehend this reality, is literature not the best medium to light up their reflection, to bring elements of comprehension, even lift their worries? As an intimate object allowing for an opening up to the world, a book is without a doubt the ideal object from which one may reflect on the world.

The French publishing world is known for its capacity to tackle so-called “taboo” topics in literature for youth. We could almost speak of a “French savoir-faire” in this domain. It is true that “small publishers “, that is, publishing houses of a small structure, independent and free in their choices and the financial risks taken, have succeeded in preparing the way towards unchartered territory… The first were in reaction to the post-war movement that contributed in rendering publications for children sterilized and smoothed over, in the spirit of censorship laws from July 16th 1949 (still in place today), but more generally in the spirit of an era that thought to protect children from all evocation or representation of violence.

This movement asserted itself in 1968, and in the years that followed militant publishers defended the right to difference, or agitated in favor of feminist outlines, for the most part daring to tackle topics that had up until then been kept away from children’s books. These small publishers offered emotionally strong titles that pierced the frozen and fixed image that French society of the time made of childhood.

Some of these militant publishers are still active, and carry on these objectives. Others have taken up the torch, and have thus established their editorial policy, renewed, anchoring it in the 21st century. Moreover, these themes are no longer the privilege of only small publishers. Very rarely, the intention will be ideological and overly demonstrative. However, more often these themes are approached in respect of children and their sensibility. Authors and publishers make filters, summon topics with modesty or delicacy, very often making use of symbols or metaphors. The fertile contrast that separates image and text is indeed a guarantee of an interpretation that will not be forced. There is the play area, there is the area of freedom and of respect of everyone. Understand whoever can, or wishes. These are the conditions in which it is possible to approach sensitive topics in children’s books.

Anyone who possesses a minimum of perspicacity and honesty towards himself or herself knows that childhood is not a territory exempt of any hint of shadows, as one could yet believe upon reading the overwhelming majority of books for youth. That is where the strength of literature lies, in the echo that it can give to child readers of their turpitudes, of their difficulty in recognizing themselves in the truncated image that society reflects back to them.

Nobody feels like reading a book that evokes violence among children, war or death of someone close. And yet, is there not a growing necessity to respond to children’s questioning even though the information is developing and provides them daily with the occasion to be confronted with the atrocities of this world? Childhood is a privileged period of sensitive construction of personality. To be supported in this construction by audacious and benevolent books is a luck too rarely shared by children. Let’s ward off our fears and our reserves, and let’s roll out our energy and our talents in order to offer books that know how to respond to this ambition.

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