Thursday, September 30, 2010

Banned Early Readers

In recognition of Banned Books Week (September 25 to October 2) I went searching to see if any early readers had been kept off the library shelves. Truthfully I didn't expect to find any. I know that plenty of middle-grade and YA novels make up the lists and even certain picture books, but early readers? What was there to ban? Hop on Pop encourages parental abuse?

Well, dear readers, I was wrong. I did find two books, and very likely there are more.

The first one happens to be an old favorite of mine. It's Bony-legs by Joanna Cole with illustrations by Dirk Zimmer. The story is based on a Russian folktale featuring a witch called Baba Yaga, aka Bony-legs. She lives in a hut that stands on chicken feet (a nice, creepy detail) deep in the woods. Her teeth are iron and her favorite things to eat are children. What a gal!

Walking through the woods one day is Sasha, a little girl. Her aunt has sent her on an errand to borrow some needle and thread. When Sasha spots the strange house, she decides to go inside. As she makes her way to the house, she helps a gate (by greasing it with butter), a hungry dog (by giving him her bread) and a cat (by giving her some meat). After Sasha is taken captive by Bony-legs, the cat, dog, and gate help her to escape, repaying her for her kindness.

So why was this book banned? Because it deals with magic and witchcraft. So, of course, does Snow White and countless other fairy and folk tales. But I guess the reasoning is that young children should be kept away from such things. Someone should have told that to Walt Disney. The real reason, I think, is because the illustrations are so deliciously scary. Zimmer's witch is truly a horror with her long warty nose and witchy grin.  And the details in this book are wonderful. In the bathroom where Bony-legs locks Sasha, the bathtub has gnarly feet and the bath tiles show skulls and skeleton bones.

The second book is In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories. It features seven folktales retold by Alvin Schwartz, and again--yeah!--with illustrations by Dirk Zimmer.  Most of the stories are variations of what I think of as "Jack-in-the-box" tales. They start out creepy and build up to a scary, got-ya moment. A classic example is the title story. The narrator takes you through a dark wood to a dark house to a dark room to a dark chest to a dark shelf to a dark box, out of which springs...a ghost! Boo! Having told countless of these tales to children (The Hairy Toe is another good one), I can attest to their power. Most kids will shriek with fear/laughter and beg you to tell it again.

And the reason this book was banned? Someone, somewhere decided it was too morbid for children. And you know what, maybe for some kids it is. That's why those boys and girls who don't like to be scared won't check it out of the library. But for those who do (and my daughter's name is scrawled inside our worn copy) let them read it.

So go out there and celebrate Banned Books Week. Read a banned book or two or three. Check out a bunch from your library and read them to your kids--or to someone else's kids. If they don't like it, they'll let you know.



  1. These are wildly popular in my library and my own kids had major nightmares about both of them. But, hey, they read them over and over and over, and they're fine today, so...on the shelf they stay.

  2. And my 4 yr old let me know today that she was very scared from hearing Bony Legs at preschool today. I do not advocate banning, but I do advocate protecting little minds from learning pointless fear. This book should not have been read to a class of 4 yr olds who do not have a choice but to hear what is read to them. I am recommending that my daughter's preschool not read books like this anymore. It is not age appropriate, nor does it really have a meaningful point. If you want a what goes around comes around book. The Mouse and the Lion is much better.

  3. Bony Legs by Joanna Cole is based on the Russian Folk Tale: Baba Yaga. Check out Patricia Polacco's version of Baba Yaga and indeed it is the same story, but the theme of the tale is more obvious. "Don't judge hearsay nor appearance because those things are not from the heart."