February 19, 2016
Russian Institute of Health and Hygiene is policing children’s books for sex, drugs, and italics
by Ena Brdjanovic
Back in 2010, Russia passed a series of laws aimed at protecting the innocence and purity of children. One law in particular—titled “On Protecting Children from Information Harmful to Their Health and Development”—limited the content, themes, and facts allowed to appear in books intended for readers under the age of 18. In a recent article for The Intercept, Masha Gessen reports that children’s publishers in Russia have dubbed the new measure a “law for the protection of children from information.”
Here’s a quick breakdown:
Under 6: No sex, no drugs, no violence, no illness, no death
Ages 6-12: No sex, no drugs, no violence, no death, no “naturalistic” descriptions of the body
Ages 12-16: Condemning mentions of drugs and violence are OK, mentions of sex OK but no descriptions
Ages 16-18: Mentions of sex, drugs, and violence are OK, but no descriptions or encouragement
Oh, one more thing—books must be printed in san serif fonts; boldface, italics and condensed fonts are prohibited in all books whose targeted readership is under 18.
Gessen summed it best: “If you believed what it said, Russian children were to be protected from reading in general.” More importantly, these new restrictions send a clear warning to children’s publishers: “Books are dangerous to kids and publishers need to be put in their place.”
As with all laws of this nature, which is to say simultaneously myopic yet vague and overreaching, “On Protecting Children from Information Harmful to Their Health and Development” is both too subjective and too grand in schema to be enforced “as written.” (Though, it’s worth noting that it hasn’t stopped vigilante parent groups from demanding the pulping of such salacious titles as Lynda and Area Madaras’ What’s Happening to My Body series.) And, while already published-and-shelved books are more difficult to censor on a sweeping scale, upcoming children’s titles are being subjected to a bureaucratic and mercurial approval process, one Gessen calls “selective and unpredictable.”
Each book must be issued a certificate by the Institute of Health and Hygiene, where a small army of unsmiling women examine the typefaces, kerning, and leading. Publishers conform, often doing ridiculous things like using large type for translations of Judy Bloom, whose books are geared to tweens. Worse, publishers have to endure arguments with the newly empowered bureaucrats. “She fancies herself an expert,” the editor complained about one bureaucrat. “And so she says to me, ‘Are you going to come in here and tell me this is a book for a 6-year-old?’” As a matter of fact, this editor would like to tell the bureaucrat that and a lot more…
In particular, Gessen chronicles a recent debacle faced by Samokat, a children’s publishing house in Moscow. After publishing Say Hi to Me, a book about refugees intended for elementary school readers, Samokat realized that the title contained a map of Russia and its neighbors that did not “reflect Russia’s official view of the world.” The map showed regions of Georgia annexed during a Russian invasion in 2008 as still part of Georgia (which they technically are—only Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela recognize the islands as “independent,” or not part of Georgia). The unsettling part? Repercussions for such an oversight are—as with most Russian laws—terrifying unclear.
The good news? Gessen reports that children’s publishers are working to find strategies over, under, and through the restrictions. Irina Balakhonova, editor-in-chief of Samokat, has found an inspired workaround:
[Balakhonova] has launched a series of books that are sold in adult book departments, shrink-wrapped, with plain black-and-white covers marked “Books not for children.” Once the plastic is removed, one can see that the cover is perforated. Peel off the cover at the perforations—and it will reveal another cover underneath, in full color, of a book clearly geared to teenagers, and it will leave in your hand a bookmark-shaped piece of cover stock that says, “Book for children.”
Ena Brdjanovic was formerly Director of Digital Media at Melville House.