Family group says the book is "highly offensive" and "gratuitous"
Author says books provide safe space for teens to learn about topics they may not otherwise be able to discuss
New Zealand has banned its first book in 22 years after an award-winning New Zealand author’s novel was criticized for its offensive language and gratuitous sexual imagery.
“Into the River,” a young adult title by New Zealand author Ted Dawe, was taken out of circulation by the country’s Film and Literature Board following complaints from family advocacy group, Family First.
The group objects to the graphic language and themes contained in the book, including “strong offensive language, strong sexual descriptions (and) covers serious things like pedophilia and sexual abuse,” according to Bob McCoskrie, National Director, Family First NZ.
According to McCroskie, the book contains “highly offensive language and gratuitous sexual content.”
‘Highly offensive,’ ‘gratuitous’
He says that Family First never called for a ban, only an age restriction, but that parents that he has contacted are sympathetic to the group’s position.
“I’ve read it to parents, I’ve sat with a group of fathers, none of them want their children to be reading it. I wouldn’t want my daughter to be hanging around with people who have been reading it,” he told CNN Tuesday.
The book had been given an R-14 restriction, which was later removed by the deputy chief censor, Nic McCully. When the age restriction was lifted Family First complained and the Film and Literature Board of Review placed the book on the restriction order, meaning it cannot be distributed or displayed anywhere in New Zealand.
If the order is breached, according to the Film and Literature Board’s website, individuals are liable for a fine of NZ$3,000 ($1883) and companies NZ$10,000 ($6278).
‘Unique source of learning for teens’
The author stands by his work, a coming of age tale that sees a Maori boy from rural New Zealand thrust into an elite Auckland boarding school, and says his contemporaries in the young adult fiction world “by and large support” him.
“We know the rules about writing for these groups. When writing for ‘YA’ you generally can have the same themes as for adults but younger protagonists.”
He said books provide a safe space for teens to learn about topics, which they may not otherwise be able to discuss with their parents, teachers or even peers.
“There comes a stage in the life of a child where they make the transition to adulthood, they have to walk free of their family, have to walk into spaces which may be dangerous,” he added by phone from Auckland.
“This is what young adult fiction prepares them for. I understand adults who get upset (with some of the topics) but often their children are the ones who can’t discuss these things with their parents. In the safety of a novel they can learn about this.”
The ban has prompted a lively debate in New Zealand about the nature of free speech and what steps, if any, need to protect certain groups from exposure to unsuitable content.
“It’s most concerning that it’s happening in this country,” Booksellers New Zealand chief executive Lincoln Gould was quoted as saying.
“Most of my friends are shocked by this, embarrassed that they live in a country where this is happening,” Dawe told CNN.
“It’s very much out of step with the way ordinary New Zealanders feel about freedom of expression.”
The book’s publisher, Penguin Random House New Zealand, issued a statement in support of the author, saying it was “disappointed” that it was subject to a ban.
“The book deals with difficult issues such as bullying and racism, which are topics adolescents should be able to read about as they may well experience these issues in their own lives.
“Penguin Random House believes that young people benefit from having access to coming of age books that help them to understand the complex society in which they live.”
The book won the Supreme Margaret Mahy Book of the Year award at the 2013 NZ Post Children’s Book Awards, which, ironically, brought it to greater prominence and, in some circles, notoriety.
Dawe also was named an Honorary Literary Fellow by the New Zealand Society of Authors in February.
The order will remain in place until the Film and Literature Board makes a further decision on a permanent classification for the book. It is scheduled to reconvene next month.