Continuing my posts in honor of Banned Books Week. This is a slightly updated version of a piece I wrote for Bay Windows during last year’s Banned Books Week. Since If you haven’t yet read it, try to guess which children’s book featuring rabbits was challenged in 1959 for promoting (gasp!) interracial marriage.
And come back later: Author Sarah Brannen was kind enough to send me her thoughts on making the list this year, and I’ll be posting them this afternoon.
This week marks the 28th annual Banned Books Week, the American Library Association’s celebration of the freedom to read. LGBT-inclusive children’s books have long been on the ALA’s list of works that most often receive challenges (formal requests for removal) at schools and public libraries (though the ALA estimates 70 to 80 percent of challenges are never reported). And Tango Makes Three, about two male penguins who raise a chick together, has topped the list for the past three years.
In a comprehensive list of all challenges between 2000 and 2007, LGBT-inclusive works in the top 100 include not only Tango, but also Heather Has Two Mommies, King & King, and, for older readers, The Color Purple and Rainbow Boys. The Harry Potter series, however, holds the number one spot on this list, mostly because of its supposed promotion of witchcraft—but author J.K. Rowling’s revelation that her character Albus Dumbledore is gay probably isn’t likely to help matters.
One new book on the list this year is Uncle Bobby’s Wedding, by Boston-area author Sarah Brannen. It features a young guinea pig who wonders if her Uncle Bobby will have time for her anymore after he marries his boyfriend Jamie.
The book’s first challenge came in July, 2008, when a library patron in Parker, Colorado, asked that it be removed from the shelves or moved out of the children’s section. Library director James LaRue responded with a considerate, well reasoned letter. “What defines a children’s book,” he wrote, “is the treatment, not the topic. . . . 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.”
In August, however, a second patron submitted a formal challenge to the book, asking for its removal because same-sex marriage is illegal in Colorado. LaRue again responded with aplomb, noting, “Thousands and thousands of our books feature true or fictional tales of murder, robbery, kidnapping — all of which violate Colorado laws. . . . I concluded that the principle, in general, would be impossible for libraries to apply.”
LaRue then offered to meet with the woman and the 100 people she says agree with her. He noted that while she views this matter as one of a library advocating for a perspective she opposes, he believes, “it’s about the role of the public library as common and neutral ground, as a steward of public funds to represent all of the public. It’s a fair topic, and certainly deserving of community discussion.” No such discussion has happened yet.
Guinea pigs were not the first furry creatures to face criticism over their nuptials, however. In 1959, Garth Williams’ The Rabbits’ Wedding was removed from libraries in the South or transferred to reserve shelves because it depicted the marriage of a black rabbit and a white one. Many felt it promoted interracial marriage and was thus inappropriate for children.
Even 50 years later, in blue-state Massachusetts, we are not immune from book challenges. Two sets of parents in Lexington sued school officials in 2006 after the reading of King & King at their children’s school. After the circuit court rejected their case earlier this year, they appealed it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has not yet said if it will consider the appeal.
More recently, book censorship made national headlines when rumors circulated that vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin tried to ban LGBT-themed books at the Wasilla Public Library in Alaska. It is unclear to what extent she pursued this. Factcheck.org, a service of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, said there was no evidence Palin asked for the actual banning of books. The New York Times, however, reported that Laura Chase, Palin’s mayoral campaign manager, and John Stein, Wasilla’s former mayor, said Palin told them the children’s book Daddy’s Roommate did not belong on library shelves. Chase replied that the book was inoffensive and Palin should read it. Chase later related, “Sarah said she didn’t need to read that stuff. It was disturbing that someone would be willing to remove a book from the library and she didn’t even read it.”
Disturbing indeed, whether or not she made an official request for removal. Consider that George W. Bush’s education secretary Margaret Spellings tried to ban a 2005 episode of PBS’ Postcards from Buster that showed two lesbian moms and their children at a Vermont farm, saying the content was not appropriate for a show that received federal funding.
While the Obama administration is unlikely to do the same, I have to wonder if a future conservative administration would threaten to withhold federal funds from schools if the books in their libraries didn’t meet certain right-wing standards of acceptability.
Most censorship battles, though, will likely be local ones. LGBT parents looking to introduce or keep LGBT-inclusive books in their schools or libraries must find allies among other parents, community members, and librarians. We must include the books in larger diversity efforts and build broad support.
While it is parents’ duty to try and shield our children from things we feel are inappropriate, we must also give them the tools to make judgments for themselves. The solution is not to remove books from public places, but to make sure our children know how we feel about the subjects discussed. Whether children choose to follow our lead is one of the big open questions of parenthood. People who cannot handle that uncertainty, who have so little faith in their ability to convey values to their children, should think twice before becoming parents. They most certainly should not become politicians.