A while back I was at a book sale in the children's section looking for books for my cousin's infant daughter. I was shooting the breeze with a mother about which books were appropriate for a little girl and she told me that there were a lot of books which she doesn't allow her children to read based upon their content. She gave me the example of a Berenstein Bears book where Brother Bear is being picked on by a neighbourhood bully and Papa Bear teaches him how to fight in order to deter the bully from bothering him anymore. The mother felt this message to be inappropriate for her small children and thus the book never made it into their library. I don't know why I was surprised considering the rampant political correctness within our society, but I thought her reaction was more than a little extreme.
Her reaction to a pretty innocent, if outdated, plot makes me wonder how she would respond to a book like Herge's Tintin in the Congo which went on trial for its racist content. A Congolese man living in Belgium spearheaded a campaign to ban the work based on the way that Africans are portrayed in the book. After I heard about the controversy, I made a point to take a look at the book next time I went to the bookstore and I agree wholeheartedly with the idea that Africans in the book are represented as childlike and pliable. There are a lot of classic works which contain racial slurs and discrimination, but I don't think that banning these books or restricting a child's access to them is necessarily the way to deal with their content. By banning them, it creates a larger buzz around the works and may cause children to be even more curious about them. I know that when I was in high school, Chapters made the decision to ban the sale of Hitler's treatise Mein Kampf and this only increased my interest in buying a copy. I am not so sure that this stance deterred any future neo-nazis, and as an unintended consequence gave the work more attention. It also drove up the price of the book.
There will always be books which feature unsavory plots and racism, but what is important is how parents present these books to their children. I think the mother at the book sale was wrong to shield her children from books which contain plots that she doesn't agree with philosophically. Whether we choose to believe it or not the schoolyard can be an intolerant place and by the time a child is of a certain age they've seen racism and sexism in action. Books with plots about bullying or racist characterizations allow parents to begin a dialogue with their children about these issues. Keeping children shielded from controversial books does them no favours in terms of their development and if you have taught your children to be tolerant of others, than they will recognize intolerance around them. Also parents need to prepare their children for the periods of time when they are not around to monitor what their children come in contact with. If a child goes over to a friend's house and watches Peter Pan, they will not necessarily come home maladjusted and full of ignorant notions of Native culture.
Overall, helicopter parenting isn't entirely effective when it comes to books and movies. Even if you carefully monitor what your children read and watch at home, other children's parents may not share your philosophy. You can't regulate everything your child comes in contact with so you might as well talk about the big issues of life. My parents never talked to me about bullying, sex, and racism and I was really ill-equipped when I entered junior high where I felt totally isolated in my ignorance. In retrospect, I wish that my parents would have pulled out a book and shared the world with me and I refuse to pick and choose what books my future children will be exposed to.