Washington nurseries warned off scary stories for children

State guidelines say books for infants that ‘show frightening images are not considered to be appropriate’ – raising cultural censorship fears

It could be goodbye, Roald Dahl and farewell, fairytales for children in daycare centres in the state of Washington, following the issue of new regulations suggesting: “Books that glorify violence in any way or show frightening images are not considered to be appropriate” for young readers.

Daycare nurseries in Washington can earn a state subsidy if they meet a series of requirements – one of which is to make “appropriate books … accessible to children”. While the guidelines, as made public by the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), do not provide a list of books for nurseries, they do suggest that children should “look closely at fables, fairytales, and nature/science books”, and that “books that glorify violence in any way or show frightening images are not considered to be appropriate”. Earlier this summer, a UK-based survey found that one third of parents also steer clear of reading their children books containing scary characters.

The NCAC warned that, while the new regulations are intended to steer children away from “disturbing” material, they could “end up forcing daycare providers into self-censoring the reading materials that they provide to young children”.

“Countless pedagogically valuable books that cater to young audiences rely on images that toddlers might find frightening,” said the free-speech organisation, pointing to books including Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, fairytales such as Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel, and nature books containing images of lions, bears or dinosaurs.

“The effect of the ‘frightening images’ standard is thus that daycare providers may be, ironically, prevented from selecting many fairytales and nature/science books. Fairytales, of course, are full of scary images,” said the NCAC. “The standard also prohibits books that depict or describe animals or people eating other animals or people. This would, naturally, impact science books covering the more Darwinian aspects of natural history and also fairytales like There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.”

The organisation has contacted the Washington Library Association about the new policy, saying that while it “trusts Washington state’s intentions … [it] expresses concern that its overbroad wording may impact a number of pedagogically beneficial books. Not to mention [that] the standards ignore the fact children may benefit from confronting their fears in safe and controlled environments.”

Psychologist Emma Kenny told the Guardian in August that “fear is a natural response. And when you are reading a scary story to a child, or they’re reading to themselves, the child has got a level of control – they can put it down, or ask you to stop. And the story can raise a discussion, in which they can explore and explain the way they feel about a situation.”

According to Daniel Radosh, a writer for The Daily Show With Trevor Noah, the struggle over children’s reading extends well beyond early education. When his son brought home a slip requiring his parents to give their permission to allow him to read Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s tale of a dystopian future where books are banned, Radosh’s ironic response to the school went viral.

“What a wonderful way to introduce students to the theme of Fahrenheit 451 that books are so dangerous that the institutions of society – schools and parents – might be willing to team up against children to prevent them from reading one,” he wrote to his son’s teacher. “It’s easy enough to read the book and say: ‘This is crazy. It could never really happen,’ but pretending to present students at the start with what seems like a totally reasonable ‘first step’ is a really immersive way to teach them how insidious censorship can be.”

The Guardian has approached Washington state authorities for comment.


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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