Cherie Givens

Pre-censorship of children’s books: Curtailing the freedom of speech and expression of Canadian authors and illustrators


Pre-censorship is defined as a form of censorship “where publication of offending information or opinions is prevented in advance. . . .  A writer of a book simply avoids giving information or expressing opinions which he knows will not be allowed to see the light of day” (Ingram 2000, 8).

Iram Khan (1999) identifies pre-censorship as acts “committed by publishers who attempt to avoid censors through pre-censoring.” Khan provides the example of Annick Press asking author Robert Munsch to write a softer version of The Paper Bag Princess fearing that the main character, Elizabeth, punching the prince would draw criticism. Canadian illustrators have also experienced pre-censorship. Laszlo Gal’s original illustration for the front cover of Margaret Crawford Maloney’s The Little Mermaid, a re-telling of the Hans Christian Andersen classic, “which had featured a bare-breasted mermaid, was not accepted in the United States because it would not have been good for sales in the ‘Bible Belt.’ Gal had to cover the breasts with hair.”

Similarly, “Roger Pare's illustration of a nudist in Naples had to have clothes on when it was released in the United States” (Khan 1999).

Over a period of three months in late 2007, I conducted interviews with seventeen Canadian children’s authors and illustrators who self-identified as having experienced censorship prior to publication or pre-censorship. These authors and illustrators have been published in either Canada or the United States and shared their experiences with pre-censorship in the interview. Thirteen interviewees are authors, two interviewees write and illustrate children’s books, and two others are predominately illustrators of children’s books. Interviewees included both English and French Canadian writers.  

Most interviews were conducted in confidentiality, and the names of the interviewees are withheld by mutual agreement. Statements that follow which are not attributed to a specific author or illustrator are taken from their unpublished interviews.  What follows are some preliminary findings and examples of the types of pre-censorship experienced by interviewees. 

Types of Pre-censorship Experienced by Canadian Children’s Authors and Illustrators


Among those interviewees who either published in the United States or with publishers who use American spelling, the request to Americanize spelling is generally considered to be the cost of doing business across the border or an annoyance that does not rise to the level of censorship. Requests for pre-publication changes to place names and identifiers of Canadian culture are more generally considered to be pre-censorship among those interviewed. That is certainly the case for author Nan Gregory.

In an interview with the author, Gregory recounted her experience with an American publisher who insisted on changes that removed Canadian content from her manuscript for a middle grade novel. “They said right off the bat that they didn't want it to be set in Canada.” Gregory explained that she was advised to “make the setting as generally North American as possible rather than identifying it as Canadian.” In addition to the setting change, language changes were also requested. “I couldn't say runners; I had to say sneakers. . . .  They said that Canada wasn’t exotic enough.” When asked how she felt about making these changes, Gregory said, “I consider [it] erasing my country. That's what it feels like” (Nan Gregory, interview with the author in Vancouver, Canada, on November 15, 2007).

Gender Stereotypes
A number of authors related requests from editors and publishers that seemed to focus on the issue of stereotypes. Among the requests for changes was one that appears to be reviving gender stereotypes. Author Alison Acheson told of a request to change a picture book that she had written featuring a young boy being taught how to knit by his grandmother. One of the editors she sent it to said that, “they'd spoken to the marketing people and it would be too difficult to market a book about a boy knitting.” Acheson was asked to change the boy to a girl. She agreed to do so if the grandmother could be changed to a grandfather. The editor hesitated but agreed. Acheson submitted the rewrite, but it was refused. She was not given a reason why. (Alison Acheson, interview with the author in Vancouver, Canada, on November 13, 2007). 

French Canadian author, Laurent Chabin, spoke about a requested gender change in a fairytale he had written. The story was originally part of a collection and was to be republished separately. In the story, the king kills chambermaids. For the republication, the text was changed to include a word that encompasses both genders because of the editor’s concern about portraying only women being killed (Laurent Chabin, interview with the author in Montréal, Canada, on October 4, 2007). 

Negative Adult Behavior
A concern about the portrayal of negative adult behavior has been noted in some of the pre-censorship incidents documented.  French Canadian author Laurent Chabin spoke about a pre-censorship incident that occurred early in his career. He had written a story about a spider that lives in the corner of a door and a little boy who thinks that the spider is his friend. The boy greets the spider every morning and evening.  “But . . .  when the father, for the first time, sees the spider in the corner of the door he tries to smash it.” Chabin’s editor told him, “No you cannot write this. . . .  It’s not a positive attitude for a father to smash a spider.” Chabin argued, unsuccessfully, for its inclusion.    

In a similar vein, author Alison Acheson spoke in her interview of a request to rewrite one of her young adult novels to remove a secondary character.  She explained that it was the most drastic rewrite she has ever been asked to do. The character was “a very major secondary character.” It was “the main character's uncle. He is sort of an old hippy guy, and in the story, the main character's . . . best friend's mother is pregnant and toward the end of the novel you discover that the father of the baby is actually the uncle.” In the novel the uncle is “trying to come to terms with maybe having to commit.”  An editor in the United States “really took exception to this character” and although she liked the novel, felt that the Uncle needed to be removed from the story.

noted that her editor was aware that there was a real gender imbalance in the story with the removal of this character, “so she suggested that I add a couple of brothers to the main character's life, so that there would be some boy somewhere.”  After spending five months reworking the plot to remove the character of the uncle, Acheson submitted the rewrite to her agent who felt the revised story was “rather flat.” Ultimately, Acheson decided not to submit the revised manuscript. “It disturbed me the thought if it being out there, not at all as I had intended, so I didn't send it back” (Alison Acheson, interview with the author in Vancouver, Canada, on November 13, 2007). 

Canadian Specific: Olympic Word Prohibition
Some forms of pre-censorship appear to be specific to Canada. Canadian children’s picture book author Kari-Lynn Winters was forced to make extensive revisions to a book that she had written which was accepted for publication prior to the introduction of Bill C-47, the Olympic and Paralympic Marks Act (1st sess., 39th Parliament, 2007):

Bill C-47  “gives the Vancouver Organizing Committee of the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games . . .  considerable powers to prevent the use of Olympic marks by businesses or individuals seeking to profit from an unauthorized association with the 2010 Games. . . .  [It] extends protection to a set of images, words, and expressions associated with the Olympic Games in general and the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games and Paralympic Games in particular.”

When Winters was interviewed, a month before Bill C-47 came into effect, she said, “I’m being censored by the government.” Her book, originally titled Olympic Chicken, must be renamed and Winters notes that Bill C-47 prohibits her from using the words “Olympic, Olympic games, . . .  winter, gold, silver, bronze, sponsor, Vancouver, [or] Whistler . . .  in conjunction with . . .  the expression of the Olympics or some sort of sporting event” (Kari-Lynn Winters, interview with the author in Vancouver, Canada, on November 12, 2007). 

Other types of pre-censorship incidents experienced by Canadian authors include the censoring of controversial terms. Two Canadian authors were asked to remove the term evolution from a nonfiction Canadian children’s book even though the book conveyed that meaning. When the authors complained, the publisher advised them that the word evolution could not be mentioned “because we’ll get letters.” After negotiating with the publisher, the chapter title was changed but the term evolution remained in two places in the body of the text (Interview with author, October 26, 2007).

The Lived Experience
The impact of pre-censorship has been to stifle creativity for some authors and illustrators. One children’s fiction author stated, “It did a lot of damage, a lot of damage. . . .  I’m more afraid now. . . .  It made me crawl into my shell a bit more, I think, artistically.”  When asked about whether she self-censors, this author explained, “I'm totally self-censoring now” and asking others to review my manuscripts, “that’s how insecure I am about my writing now which is really criminal” (Interview with author October 15, 2007).  

Other authors are careful about what they write in light of the censoring climate. Picture book author Kari-Lynn Winters explained, “I just find that if you’re crossing genres, librarians and . . .  other people are kind of aware; teachers are aware of the other stuff you’ve done. So I think for myself, I want to keep going into schools and libraries and I want to be primarily a picture book author, so I am going to censor myself” (Interview with the author in Vancouver, Canada, on November 12, 2007). 

Pre-censorship Similarities – Canada, UK, US
Similarities appear in the types of pre-censorship incidents experienced by Canadian children’s authors and illustrators and by children’s authors in the United Kingdom. 

These include a particular prohibition against using language to imply metaphorical blackness. Canadian author Patricia Quinlin was asked by her American editor to change “a dark place” to “a cold place” in one of her books for children so as not to seem racially insensitive to African Americans (Hurst 1993, 46). Similar requests have been made of authors in the United Kingdom (P.E.N. Committee on Censorship 1993, 2).


Similarities appear in concerns about gender stereotypes in Canada and the United Kingdom. As mentioned earlier, French Canadian author Laurent Chabin was requested to change the language in one of his fairytales replacing chambermaids with language specifying both sexes. A P.E.N. (1993) study in the United Kingdom showed that there was pressure to redress gender stereotypes in British children’s literature.

Health and Safety
There also appears to be similar concerns in Canada and the United Kingdom concerning health and safety. Author/illustrator Lindesy Gardiner asserts that “publishers banned youngsters from walking alone” in one of her novels (Devlin 2007). The same type of concern is seen in Canada where an illustrator was required to insert partial images of adults into scenes in a picture book featuring children playing with animals. The publisher was concerned that an adult be depicted as nearby at all times (Interview with the illustrator, September 9, 2007).

Some British books have also faced the type of Americanization that Canadian author Nan Gregory’s middle grade novel underwent. Books such as Peepo! by Janet and Allan Allberg and Diana Hendry’s Dog Dottington have been change for the American market. Hendry’s Dog Dottington became Dog Donovan because the original title was deemed “’too British-sounding’” (Whitehead 1996, 690).

The extent to which authors and illustrators of children’s materials in Canada and children’s authors in the United Kingdom are pre-censored is not known. Interviews, narrative accounts, and some studies provide a glimpse of the impact of pre-censorship. One thing is clear; pre-censorship is stifling the creative expression of some Canadian authors and illustrators. Similarities in the types of pre-censorship incidents experienced in North America and the United Kingdom may point to categories of pre-censorship that extend beyond country borders.

Cherie Givens, Canada

31st IBBY Congress, Copenhagen 2008

Devlin, Kate. 1999. Children’s books are “purged of risks.” The Telegraph, November 19, 1999. (accessed July 30, 2008).
Hurst, Lynda. 1993. Censorship for the kindergarten set – censorship of children’s books. World Press Review 40 (6): 46-47, June.
Ingram, P.G. 2000. Censorship and free speech. Burlington: Ashgate.
Khan, Iram. 1999. The censorship of Canadian children’s literature. Canadian Content. (accessed January 1, 2005).
P.E.N. Committee on Censorship. 1993. Report of the P.E.N. Committee on Censorship. London: English Centre of International P.E.N.
Whitehead, Jane. 1996. “This is not what I wrote!”: The Americanization of British children’s books – Part I. Horn Book Magazine 72 (3):687-694.