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Banned books to take center stage [24 September, 2008]

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Since 1982, the American Library Association (ALA) has been hosting a Banned Books Week during the last week of September.  The week begins with “Read Out!” featuring several authors and celebrities reading from their favorite banned books.

According to Judith Krug, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at ALA, Banned Books Week seeks to “bring to the attention of the American public [the fact] that the rights that we enjoy in this country are fragile and that we have to use them in order to protect them.  The way that we celebrate this freedom is by printing a list of all those material in a given year that somebody or has determined should not be in a library or a book store …” Krug stressed that today’s public is far more resistant to the idea of censorship.  When the event was first staged, “Hundreds of books were removed from libraries.  Last year, we only had 40 books removed—when you put that against the hundreds of books, we’ve made substantial progress.”

But what kinds of books get banned? According to Krug, it’s not the “little innocuous books that tell sweet little stories” but the books that talk about the “human condition,” about situations in the lives of real people.  “Very often if sex is involved, that becomes a lightning rod for people complaining.  People feel strongly about these issues and they take action to make sure that the materials that offend their principles and personal value systems are not available.  Because that’s the way you protect your principles and personal value systems: By making sure there’s no contradictory perspective out there that could indeed cause people to change their minds.”

This year, the Chicago event will include readings by Judy Blume, the popular author of young adult classics such as Are you there, God? It’s Me, Margaret and Blubber.  It will also include appearances by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson, co-authors of the children’s book And Tango Makes Three which topped the ALA list of challenged books in 2006 and 2007.

And Tango Makes Three is based on the true story of two male Chinstrap Penguins, Roy and Silo, at the Central Park Zoo.  They exhibited traits of what we might call homosexuality in the animal world, even having sex with each other.  Roy and Silo attempted to hatch an egg together, mistakenly—and fruitlessly—trying to warm a rock in their abdominal folds in the manner of penguins in the wild.  Finally, their chief keeper Roy Gramzay took pity on them and handed them a fertile egg to hatch.  Over a month later, the egg hatched and their “offspring” Tango was born.

The story was reported upon in the New York Times, in an article about the scientific debate on the existence of homosexuality in the animal world.  It caught the attention of Parnell and Richardson, who then wrote a 2005 children’s storybook (with illustrations by Henry Cole) about the two penguins.  The book has received several awards, and was the ALA’s Notable Children’s Book in 2006.  But it has also been the target of communities and individuals who denounce it for exposing children to homosexuality and who have tried to have it removed from public libraries and public school libraries.  In Shiloh, Illinois, some parents at Shiloh Elementary School tried, unsuccessfully, to place the book in a restricted section of the library.

Peter Parnell, who spoke to Windy City Times over the phone, is a playwright and was a co-producer of first two seasons of the television series West Wing.  His husband and co-author is a psychiatrist who wrote Everything You NEVER Wanted Your Kids to Know about Sex (But Were Afraid They’d Ask): The Secrets to Surviving Your Child’s Sexual Development from Birth to the Teens with pediatrician Mark Schuster.  According to Parnell, who spoke to Windy City Times over the phone, the story of Roy and Silo was an opportunity to present children with a view of different kinds of families.

Addressing the attempts to ban the book, he said, “There’s a confusion between parents’ own anxiety about sexuality and the fact that the book is primarily talking about love and family and friendship and security and the kind of values that are actually important to bringing up children.  There’s a certain confusion here between a larger anxiety in the country about what it means for young children to hear about two mommies or two daddies and the way that young children perceive this story, which is not in terms of … a sex act but in terms of love.”

The specter of widespread censorship has been raised in this year’s election campaigning, with the news that Republican Vice-Presidential nominee Sarah Palin had, at the very least, asked a Wasilla, Alaska librarian about banning Daddy’s Roommate, by Michael Willhoite.  Like And Tango Makes Three, the book concerns gay life in that it’s about a young boy who lives with his newly divorced father and his partner.  Parnell feels that a Palin Vice-Presidency promises a dire future for books like this because her record on the issue “highlights the fact that these attempts at banning books exist, they are real.”

Krug spoke circumspectly but warily about Palin.  She pointed out that, so far, there’s been no evidence that Palin actually banned books.  A list of books she allegedly wanted banned has circulated on the internet but “The list … is totally bogus, it came from our website and is totally doctored.  I’d like to think that she asked the question because she literally did not understand how libraries work.  But the fact that she did ask the question means that her future actions bear some watching.  At this point we have nothing concrete that would indicate that she took any action.  We’ll just have to wait till the next shoe drops.”

The ALA Banned Books Week, “Closing Books Shuts Out Ideas,” runs September 27-October 4.  The Read-Out! is on Saturday, September 27, 12-4 p.m., at 401 N.  Michigan, Pioneer Plaza.

Originally published in Windy City Times, 24 September, 2008


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