July 2007

Chris Zammarelli

banned bookslut

So Much Fear and Doubt Over So Small a Thing

There was an average of 546 book challenges in the United States between 1990 and 2005. Excepting 1990, when there were 157 reported challenges, the numbers go as low as 405 and as high as 762. The exact statistics can be found on the ALA's Banned Books Week home page.

While anti-censorship folks like me find them too high, the raw numbers aren't really all that large when you consider how many books, school systems, parents, and children there are in the U.S.

However, book challenges can attract a lot of media attention. Local newspapers are sure to cover them, especially when town meetings are held to discuss them. They can also attract attention of such blogs as AS IF!, Bookshelves of Doom, and, of course, Blog of a Bookslut. Sometimes, they can even get national coverage, as was the case with Laura Mallory's crusade against the Harry Potter series.

So, you can imagine the situation a publishing house finds itself in. Obviously, it wants to make money, and a little controversy can certainly raise a title's profile. On the other hand, there is a chance that people outraged by a book's content might organize against it, boycotting stores and libraries that stock it.

In light of this, you may be able to understand why Boyds Mill Press, a subsidiary of Highlights for Children, asked Rotraut Susanne Berner to remove the drawing of a nude male statute from Winter-Wimmelbücher to make it suitable for American publication.

The statute, along with a painting of a nude woman, were on display in a scene set in an art museum. Berner was taken aback by the request.

"This was a joke," she told Tony Paterson in The Independent. "The man's penis is about half a millimetre in length and the naked woman is clearly part of a work of art and not a real person."

As noted in an article by Franziska Bossy and Elke Schmitter in Der Spiegel, Berner's books have been published with much success in 13 countries. The author noted that the U.S. publisher was the first to take issue with the museum drawing.

The German press got a kick out of the story and what it said about American prudishness. The English edition of Der Spiegel's website referred to the story as "The Mini-Penis Scandal." Similarly, Die Welt declared, "Kein deutscher Mini-Penis für die USA." ("No German mini-penis for the USA.") Deutsche Welle reported, "US Censors Teenie Weenie."

Berner asked Boyds Mill if they could put black bars over the offending body parts. "If you're going to censor something, then the reader should be aware of it," she said. The publisher ruled out this option and insisted that the images be removed.

Berner told Earthtimes.org that the Boyds Mill representative "kept saying that he found it very embarrassing, but that there were people who would inspect the books and might advise bookstores and libraries not to buy them."

While "it was really a sensation" that the Wimmelbücher series attracted the attention of a U.S. publishing house at all, Deutsche Welle reported that Berner "pulled the plug on the U.S. deal." To her, the decision was easy. As she told Earthtimes.org, "I won't let them censor me."