Family First did not apply for an interim ban on Ted Dawe’s Into the River, but its national director, Bob McCoskrie, sees it as an opportunity to review how our censorship laws can be better used to protect our children from inappropriate and offensive material. Stricter censorship, he believes, is in our children’s best interests.
Is he right? Are our children better off being unable to access books that might offend or disturb them?
Talking with a secondary school teacher, a librarian and a bookseller, the answer they give is a resounding ‘No’.
Wellington High School English teacher, Denis Wright, has taught for 37 years and at more than one low decile school, where literacy levels, particularly among boys, can be a serious problem.
‘Reluctant readers need to be motivated,’ he says. ‘And I’ve found the books that work best are those about subjects closest to their own lives.’ He cites the example of one teenage boy, who did not read at all, for whom Ted Dawe’s debut young adult novel, Thunder Road, was a breakthrough.
‘I read out loud to him the first chapter, and he was hooked. He said to me that he hadn’t realised books could be about such things – about him and the life he was leading. He didn’t know authors were even allowed to write about stuff like that.’
The boy went on to read more books, including Wright’s own debut YA novel, Violence 101, which is about a not-particularly-remorseful juvenile delinquent.
For Wright’s student, Thunder Road was what is known as a “home run book” – the one that starts a child on the path of reading, and builds the associated skills of literacy.
According to Statistics New Zealand, New Zealand children rank fifth out of 30 OECD countries for reading . However, Literacy Aotearoa believes that more than a million New Zealanders struggle with literacy, and a 2012 report by the World Literacy Foundation estimated that the social and economic impact of illiteracy in this country is NZ$3 billion a year. The Foundation believes that low literacy levels trap people in a cycle of poverty, by limiting employment opportunities and earning potential . Other research shows low literacy also reduces confidence and skill in parenting and relationships, and decreases the ability to contribute as an informed citizen and to develop empathy and insight .
As the National Library’s Services for Schools website states: ‘Reluctance to read has far reaching effects on boys, on the men they become and on the society they influence.’
But could the subject matter of a book do more harm than good? Could it, as Family First suggests, have an adverse effect on young readers?
In her 30 years of book selling, Mary Sangster, owner of The Original Children’s Bookshop in Christchurch, has had only one parent complain.
‘Her child had been upset by the violence in the book she’d bought from us, and the mother felt strongly that it should have had a warning on it. Which that particular author’s books now do.’
The parent had not consulted with staff before buying the book, which Sangster encourages her adult customers to do. With Into the River, ‘we would be careful about who we recommended it to because it is very raw, with very realistic language,’ she says. ‘But, frankly, if children watch the news at night, they’ll be subject to worse than is in that book.’
Sangster believes that it is the parents’ responsibility ‘to give their children a social education’ and if content in books can open up conversations, then all the better. ‘Our children have to deal with these things, whether we like it or not.’
She sees the issues raised in Into The River as pertinent and important.
‘It’s about a young boy being forced to give up his Maori identity. The underage sex scenes, which take up all of about two paragraphs, go straight to the consequences. “What have I done?” the boy asks, which is rare enough in itself. There is a strong morality to this book that’s being overlooked.’
Young readers, says Sangster, will understand the messages in the book. ‘Children are perfectly capable of distinguishing fiction from instruction. No child who reads The Hunger Games is about to shoot someone with a crossbow.’
Denis Wright agrees. ‘Any young reader knows a work of fiction is not a manual for living. We need to give our children more credit than that.’
He feels Family First and the Review Board are ‘not reading with a literary intelligence. The scenes and language being objected to are plot points only – and the plot is just a vehicle for the ideas. To suggest that young readers don’t know that is patronising.’
Wright uses challenging scenes in novels as the spur for discussions in class.
‘The moments of conflict in the books are always human interactions, and I ask my class to think about what’s caused the conflict and how the characters reacted, which gives them an opportunity to think about how they would react in such a situation. Books give them insight into themselves, and let them safely explore different life experiences.’
Wright’s main worry with the possibility of an age restriction on Into the River is that it might shut out the very readers who would benefit most from the book.
‘Older readers won’t want to read about 14 year-olds. With young adult fiction, you have a small window of relevance. If the book isn’t about their world, they won’t pick it up.’
Librarian, Louis LaHatte, shares his concern. She is Regional Collections Manager for Auckland City Libraries, who were successful in having the initial R14 classification removed.
‘We’d had to take the book off the shelves, and as a result, saw a marked drop in borrowings. We felt not only was Ted Dawe being unfairly singled out, but also that young people were being deprived of the opportunity to read about issues that affect them.’
She cites Judith Platt, national committee chair of Banned Books Week, which, with coincidental timeliness, falls from 27 September to 3 October this year: ‘Young Adult books are challenged more frequently than any other type of book. These are the books that speak most immediately to young people, dealing with many of the difficult issues that arise in their own lives, or in the lives of their friends. These are the books that give young readers the ability to safely explore the sometimes scary real world…young people need to be allowed the freedom to read widely, to read books that are relevant for them, and to be able to make their own reading choices.’
A decision on the classification of Into The River is due in early October, and LaHatte says that any subsequent appeal would need to be taken through the courts, which Auckland City Libraries won’t be able to do. ‘Our ratepayers wouldn’t consider it a good use of their money’.
Lahatte is concerned that the Board of Review is not as familiar as the Office of Film and Literature Classification with the Act, ‘which does say you need to take into account the literary merit of a work.’
But she also sees that this event may prompt a review of the Office/Board of Review set-up and of the Films, Videos and Publications Classification Act itself, which has been in place since 1993 – ‘pre-dating the digital world.’ A world that, in Wright’s words, is ‘unfiltered and open to all’.
None of the three interviewed wants Into the River to have a restriction, believing it is unfair on both Ted Dawe and his potential readers. Wright is also concerned about the precedent. ‘Ted is hardly the only young adult author who uses swear words and sex.’
Says Mary Sangster, ‘Young readers are all different. Into the River could be completely right for a more advanced but younger reader. Parents, librarians and booksellers should take responsibility for getting the book into the right hands.’
The Secretary of Internal Affairs has granted Family First NZ leave to apply to the Film & Literature Board of Review for a review of the recent classification by the Office of Film and Literature Classification (the Office) in respect of the book Into the River.
The Board's role is to re-examine the publication as per the provisions of the Films, Videos and Publications Act 1993 and without regard to the Office's recent classification decision of 18 August 2015. The Board has subject to confirmation, scheduled a provisional review date of 2 October.
Organisations can make a submission to the Board to assist it in its review. Under section 53(2)(c) of the Act before giving consideration to any submission the Board needs to be satisfied that the person or organisation making the submission is “likely to be affected by the Board’s decision”.
Accordingly, any submission should address how your organisation is likely to be affected by the Boards’ decision.
Should your organisation wish to make a submission this can be sent to Julie Wall [email protected] no later than Friday 25 September 2015.
Please note it is the Boards’ practice for submissions to be circulated among those who have made submissions.
Article written by Catherine Robertson
Over the years, Catherine has been a freelance feature writer for various magazines and newspapers. Right now, she has a regular gig with The NZ Listener – a four-weekly review roundup of contemporary fiction, plus the odd standalone review and writer interview. She also contributes to New Zealand Books, a quarterly review publication.
She appears regularly on Radio New Zealand’s The Panel with Jim Mora, a current affairs discussion show. The first time brought on sweaty palms, but she’s getting the hang of it now.
Catherine also attends various book events, like the Yarns in Barns Great Debate (where her team won for the second time in a row). She is Chair of the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Society of Authors and a member of the Romance Writers Association of New Zealand.
The best way to find out what Catherine’s up to is to follow her on Facebook.