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

Carolyn worked as a technical writer, software user interface designer, and writes about children's lit, the American West, and investing.

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?

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 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?

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

© 2008 Carolyn Augustine