More Details of Children’s Book Challenge

Uncle Bobby's Wedding(This is a follow up to my earlier post about the challenge to Uncle Bobby’s Wedding, a gay-themed children’s book. Originally published in Bay Windows, July 23, 2008. Minor corrections below.)

Librarian Defends Local Author’s Gay-Themed Children’s Book

A patron at Douglas County Libraries in Colorado has submitted the first known challenge to Uncle Bobby’s Wedding, a children’s book by Massachusetts author Sarah Brannen, that features two gay guinea pigs.

In an e-mail to library director James LaRue on June 26, Parker, Colo., resident Anita Gohde formally asked that the book be removed from the library, placed in a special area, or labeled “some material may be inappropriate for young children.” She also submitted a letter to her local newspaper, the Parker Chronicle, which appeared the same day.

In her letter to the paper, Gohde wrote: “I want my voice to be heard. I am offended. Shouldn’t I have the right to voice my opinion and to take my young daughter to the public library without concern that she will choose a book that promotes gay marriage – a view that is a slap in my face?” She added a call for action: “Does anybody out there hear me? Where are all of the other moms who are willing to stand up for their beliefs? If you are, then get up, call the library, call the governor, call anybody. Do something.”

LaRue submitted a response to the Parker Chronicle, which appeared July 3. In it, he said that while Gohde has the right to free expression, so does everybody else: “She does not have the right to insist that no one will express an opinion contrary to hers, or that people won’t write books that she disagrees with, or that such books will somehow be hidden or made more difficult to find.”

LaRue also composed a lengthier, formal response to Gohde, which he e-mailed to her on June 27. Suspecting that the book would garner more challenges, he also posted this response on his blog on July 14, in the hope that other librarians might find it useful. Coverage of the flap first appeared on the blog Mombian, which is operated by this reporter, on July 15.

Brannen, a Boston-area author and illustrator, said in an interview that the experience of having a book challenged is new to her. “It makes me unhappy that anyone would object to my book enough to want to remove it from library shelves,” she said. “Someone posted a review on Amazon and said they threw the book away, and that makes me sad too.” At the same time, she added, “I’m very, very touched by the many people who have posted on message boards and the comment sections after online articles, supporting the book and fighting for it. I wrote the book for people I love. It is, in every way, an expression of family love. I truly don’t think there’s anything in it that any child shouldn’t see.”

Brannen’s experience promoting the book has demonstrated this. When she read the book to a group of young children at a school book fair in May, she recalled, they asked many questions: “How long did it take you to write the book? How did you draw them so cute? Is the little white mouse a baby? Is the white one at the wedding a boy? How did you make their clothes? Were you ever a flower girl in a wedding? And that was it.” None of them seemed phased by the fact that Bobby was marrying another male.

In his blog post, LaRue addressed Gohde’s concern that the purpose of the book is to show the wedding of the two male characters as “no big thing.” LaRue agreed, noting that the storyline revolves around Uncle Bobby’s niece Chloe, and her fear that their special relationship will change after he marries, not around the fact that he is marrying another male.

To her allegation that the book is inappropriate for children, LaRue observed that children’s books may deal with a wide variety of difficult subjects, including death, alcoholism, and family violence. “What defines a children’s book,” he said, “is the treatment, not the topic.” Based on the book’s length, vocabulary, illustrations, and publisher—G. P. Putnam’s Sons, “a division of Penguin Young Readers Group”—LaRue concluded the treatment was indeed appropriate for children.

To Gohde’s assertion of her strong belief “in America and the beliefs of our founding fathers,” and that “marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman as stated in the Webster’s dictionary and also in the Bible,” LaRue cited the founding fathers’ vision of freedom of speech. He noted that several of the definitions of “marriage” in Webster’s could apply to same-sex couples and that definitions can change. Now that marriage of same-sex couples is legal in some parts of the country, he asked, “how could writing a book about it be inappropriate?”

He also reminded Gohde that her own seven-year-old daughter’s response to the book was that “Boys are not supposed to marry,” and said this proves Gohde has conveyed her own values to her child. “That’s what parents are supposed to do,” he wrote, “and clearly, exposure to this book, or several, doesn’t just overthrow that parental influence.”

LaRue also acknowledged that the book might in reality help others in the community, including gay parents, their children, and gay youth. He explained, “Most of the books we have are designed not to interfere with parents’ notions of how to raise their children, but to support them. But not every parent is looking for the same thing.”

The two other letters that appeared in the Parker Chronicle in response to Gohde also supported this attitude. Tim Kuznlar of Highlands Ranch wrote that it is a parent’s responsibility, not the library’s, to screen books for her children. Gohde has the right to tell her daughter that she doesn’t approve of certain “lifestyle choices,” he said, but “it would still do her well to harbor a tolerance for the choices of others.”

Ricki Chambers, also of Highlands Ranch, reiterated the theme of parental, not library, responsibility. She added, “Perhaps we should follow the views of another man I am reminded of who believed in ’love your neighbor as yourself’—Jesus Christ. As a heterosexual married mother with straight and gay friends, I choose to practice acceptance of others—and not intolerance. Be assured that I will call everybody, I will vote and I will do something.”

LGBT-themed children’s books are no strangers to challenge. And Tango Makes Three, about a same-sex penguin pair, has topped the American Library Association’s list of the most-challenged books for two years in a row. The classics Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy’s Roommate are on the ALA’s multi-year “100 Most Frequently Challenged” list. Libraries are not the only arenas. Two sets of parents in Lexington, who objected to the reading of gay-themed children’s book King & King in their children’s school, have appealed their case to the U.S. Supreme Court after the circuit court rejected it. (The Supreme Court has not yet accepted the case.)

Uncle Bobby’s Wedding, which came out at the end of March, caught the attention of the right wing in May, when conservative commentator Brent Bozell III wrote at Townhall.com, “Already we can predict how the ALA next year will complain about any objection to a book called Uncle Bobby’s Wedding.” He added, “the ALA doesn’t favor open discussion and debate with parents—which is what the ’challenges’ represent. Its idea of ’freedom’ is emboldening librarians to be brave enough to indoctrinate children with what they really need to know, whether their parents object or even know about it.”

LaRue’s letter demonstrated a different approach. He stressed parents’ involvement in their children’s reading, saying, “I believe that every book in the children’s area, particularly in the area where usually the parent is reading the book aloud, involves parental guidance.” He concluded, “If the library is doing its job, there are lots of books in our collection that people won’t agree with; there are certainly many that I object to. Library collections don’t imply endorsement; they imply access to the many different ideas of our culture, which is precisely our purpose in public life.”

Timothy Travaglini, the book’s editor at G. P. Putnam’s Sons, concurred, saying LaRue’s letter has a broad purpose. “There is a constant push-and-pull in our society between censorship and free speech, and librarians such as Jamie LaRue stand on the front lines, ever ready to address such challenges with thoughtfulness and intelligence,” Travaglini said in an e-mail. “His response to his patron’s concern is as brilliantly reasoned as it is considerate of her point of view, and serves as an excellent model for the defense of any book challenged for any reason.”