Censorship: A Parent's Thoughts on The Golden Compass and Other Banned Books

The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman sparked debate in 2007. Is it ever appropriate to ban a book?
The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman sparked debate in 2007. Is it ever appropriate to ban a book? | Source

Golden Compass Author Philip Pullman: What's my Agenda?

What is the balance between censorship and family standards? Should we encourage children, preteens, or even teens to read books that don't agree with our views on religion, politics, ethics, or public policy? Where does a parent's role begin and end in media selection process?

Several months ago, my neighbor sent me an email regarding Philip Pullman's book, The Golden Compass. This book had been made into one of the blockbuster movies featured during the 2007 Christmas movie season, and stirred up a lot of feelings among some Christians who blamed Pullman for trying to kill God in his fiction. The email I received from my neighbor labeled this book a "threat and a menace" and urged us to boycott the movie and ban the book from our children's libraries.

I replied to my neighbor's plea with a question. Did you actually read this book? She said "No," but Snopes.com has published an article claiming that Pullman himself has admitted his intention to subvert Christianity through the His Dark Materials trilogy. So, we should ban it?

I had happened to have already read all three books. The first one was a lyrical masterpiece of storytelling (pun intended, since the title character's name is Lyra). Pullman's mastery of storytelling is a fine art. He brings some highly unusual elements together into a fascinating fantasy world with a strong plot line. In this book, an evil organization originating in a larger religious government institutes a practice that is so heinous to the children who experience it, that it might be compared to the rape of one's soul.

The evil action of tearing children from their souls is central to the plot, and complicated by a panoply of characters who have different motives and roles within the movie and book. The golden compass, or alethiometer, as it is also named, helps guide Lyra through the story by showing her the truth of all things.

Strangely, if Pullman's intent is to write a book that is completely anti-religious, I think he has failed miserably. Too many elements of the story resounded with the religious and ethical principles that I find in the religion I practice. I found the book to be fascinating, meaty reading. The other books in his series, I must admit I lost interest in Pullman's broader message, but continued to enjoy the fantasy element of his stories.

Does such a movie or book need to be banned or boycotted?

I don't think so. I am REALLY disturbed by people who claim that their religious views should be the basis for determining if a book is worthy to be read by the masses. Lest I go into a rather long rant about freedom of speech and expression, first amendment rights, and my father's military service, suffice it to say that I believe that a democratic society needs to have room to express dissenting opinions.

What About My Family Standards?

On the flip side of the argument, my neighbor would say that this book was an attempt to subvert her family's beliefs and standards. She has the right not to view the movie or read the book. And she has the right to make this decision for her children, too.

I agree with her right to do this, but not to ban the book for others. After reading The Golden Compass aloud with my husband and 10-year old daughter, I felt that many of the themes of the books were much too complicated for a 10-year old to make sense of. And my daughter had a LOT of questions, some of which I struggled to answer. But the book started a conversation with her about the nature of evil. The Golden Compass has many villains who at first appear to be heroes. And aren't many of the evils of the world deceptive in this way?

The themes of Pullman's The Golden Compass are a lot more disturbing for their violence (akin to rape, in my opinion) than for their anti-religious message. For this reason, I would strongly caution a parent of a preteen to read this book before sharing it with their own preteen. Children need to have an ability to have a discussion about ethics and good and evil that goes beyond the black and white stages of early to middle childhood. The most disturbing scene of all to me in this book occurred when one of Lyra's playmates is found discarded in a fisherman's hut, clinging to a dead fish. It is an emotionally intense and disturbing scene. It made me cry.

But at some point, I will want my kids to begin reading books that challenge them to think about their world and their place in it. One of the purposes of well-written literature is to create a safe haven for exploring the dark questions of life. Why is there an entire body of literature dedicated to the theme of the Holocaust? Because the survivors of the Holocaust don't want it to be forgotten. Once we forget these great evils, we become easy prey to those who would seek to use power against us. Does that mean that I want my ten year old watching Schindler's List or Saving Private Ryan? Nope.

There ARE legitimate reasons to limit what our children see and read. In my opinion, pornography has the power to deaden the senses and warp the mind. I don't want my kids reading or viewing strong sexual or violent content. Most parents would easily agree. It's my job as a parent to protect my child's innocence and to guide her into an adulthood that prepares her for critical thinking and decision-making. I will leave the stamp of my value system on the media decisions I make for and with my children. And it is my job to teach my values to my kids so they can use their value system to anchor the choices they make for themselves. I cannot and should not be making choices for my kids as they near adulthood. It robs them of their individuality and dignity to do so.

But ban the Golden Compass?

No. Absolutley not. If we are going to be a nation of book banners, why not just march to the library and find every book that doesn't agree with our viewpoint, and throw it into one big pile, and burn it? Ray Bradbury anyone?

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Comments 13 comments

dutch84 profile image

dutch84 8 years ago

This is a great article. I've always found censorship to be inherently hypocritical...but I won't get into it.

When I was in 7th grade, there was a kid in my class who was excused from reading the book "The Giver" due to the fact that his parents' felt it was against his religious views.

Then there was the whole uproar about the Harry Potter books. I heard there was a book burning of all Harry Potter books and paraphernalia.

It's wild.


wannabwestern profile image

wannabwestern 8 years ago from The Land of Tractors Author

Thanks, dutch84. I am greatly disturbed by book banning. I don't object to parents monitoring their kids' media consumption, but at some point parents need to let their children think for themselves. This is a normal part of cutting the apron strings.

I don't want to live in a nation of suggestable adults who can't think for themselves. How ever will they vote?


jacobworld profile image

jacobworld 8 years ago from Ireland

I am living in China so.....


wannabwestern profile image

wannabwestern 8 years ago from The Land of Tractors Author

Wow! What a major reframing for my point of reference! I am fortunate to be able to write a hub like this!


solarshingles profile image

solarshingles 8 years ago from london

We need to fight for our freedom, because there are far too many people out there, who would like to take it and to force us to think as they think. Never give up for personal freedom of mind and a real physical freedom, as well. A wonderful hub! (I couldn't run the first video).


Uninvited Writer profile image

Uninvited Writer 8 years ago from Kitchener, Ontario

As a person trained in the library field I totally agree with all you said. Great hub :)

I was lucky, my parents let me read whatever I wanted. I think if something in a book goes over a kids head they will either ignore it, ask about it, or find out for themselves.


kerryg profile image

kerryg 8 years ago from USA

Excellent hub! I agree completely with what you wrote here. I think parents are well within their rights to forbid their own children to read a certain book, but when they start trying to prevent other people's children as well, they lose my sympathy entirely. I also think parents should exercise less control over kids' reading the older they get and, ideally, should actively encourage them to read (age-appropriate) books that do NOT agree with their own worldview.

My own parents censored our tv and movie consumption to the point that it actually became a little bit of a family joke by the time we were in our late teens, but barely censored our reading at all. I remember when my sister was about 8 she got it into her head she wanted to read Alex Haley's Queen because it was the biggest novel she knew. I doubt my parents were thrilled about that particular choice, considering the amount of sex and violence, but they let her and she actually did finish it.


wannabwestern profile image

wannabwestern 8 years ago from The Land of Tractors Author

Thank you for your comments, Kerryg, Univited Writer, and Solar Shingles. I think my husband and I are a bit like your parents, Kerry G. We are a lot more permissive about what we allow our kids to read than watch.

My oldest is at an age where she not only sees some of the deeper issues, but she is beginning to be able to articulate them. She started reading Huck Finn and I was very excited!

We are a religious family, too, but I don't want my kids to grow up simply parroting what we want them to say or thinking thoughts we planted into their minds. I want their thoughts to be their own. That requires that we put a great deal of trust in them as they get older. Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that all religious people do this, or even most of them, but that is a concern I have for my own family.


Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 8 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

It's encouraging to see that nobody has commented in favour of banning books. I'm living in the Middle East where there is heavy state censorship of all media. The effects of this are largely negative, resulting in a socially and politically naïve general public.


wannabwestern profile image

wannabwestern 8 years ago from The Land of Tractors Author

Thanks, Paraglider! I agree. My background is extremely religiously conservative, but I believe that freedom of expression is one of the greatest rights of an individual. Even if that means that someone is allowed to publish something that I find offensive or distasteful. Look at all the people who have lost their lives or tortured for their dissenting views that have also been labeled offensive and distasteful by the powers that be: Plato was executed for corrupting the youth, and Descartes was tortured by the Reformation era Catholic church for his scientific discoveries. I admit my title for this hub is a *little* misleading. :)


lusty airing profile image

lusty airing 8 years ago from Michigan

@wannabewestern: Hear hear... I support your stance. My goal is to raise my son, not shielding him from things that I may find objectionable, but teaching him how to deal with them instead. This is FAR more difficult than I would have guessed, but I think it's a worthwhile goal. Not everything is appropriate for my 6-year-old... but that's my call, not a censorship board's. My college literature teacher had an interesting take on it... the rule was that whatever books her kids could reach (unaided) on the family shelves, they could read. I wonder what was on her top shelf...


Jan 5 years ago

Thanks for the writing, Wannabwestern.I agree that religious people feel bad because this book.I pray every night, I belive that someone create us, but this book is just for entertaiment, not to offend the people who read.

Sorry about my english.:)


wannabwestern profile image

wannabwestern 5 years ago from The Land of Tractors Author

Thank you Jan, in this article I do not recommend that this book should be banned. In fact, I agree with you. Thanks for your comment.

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