Friday, August 1, 2008

Freedom to read

I've been passionate about books and reading ever since I was kid, and librarians have played a big role in nurturing that passion. This post, from a librarian in Colorado, has been getting some exposure in the blogosphere, and I just wanted to add my voice to the chorus of praise.

Jamie LaRue, director of Colorado's Douglas County Libraries, writes that a patron challenged a book called Uncle Bobby's Wedding, by Sarah Brannen, on the grounds that it was targeted to children and designed to "normalize gay marriage." She felt it was "inappropriate that this type of literature is available to this age group" and said "This was not the type of conversation I thought I would be having with my seven year old in the nightly bedtime routine.”

Yes, those are guinea pigs on the cover. The book is about a little girl, Chloe, and her beloved Uncle Bobby. Chloe is concerned that her uncle's marriage to Jamie, another male guinea pig, will change their relationship. Awww! Don't worry, Chloe. Remember, you're not losing an uncle, you're gaining one! (Ironically, among the endorsements on Brannen's Web site is one from Wicked author Gregory Maguire. While Maguire has written books for children, Wicked is definitely not one of them!)

Anyway, LaRue answered the patron in a very eloquent and well-reasoned letter, which he reprints on his blog (minus the patron's name, of course.)

His basic point is that children's books deal with all sorts of subjects - even some that are quite disturbing. (Just think about Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel. They don't call them Grimm's fairy tales for nothing!) "I think a lot of adults imagine that what defines a children's book is the subject. But that's not the case. Children's books deal with anything and everything."

It's up to parents, not the library, LaRue says, to decide which books they want their children to read. And he notes that not all parents come at the decision from the same perspective. "There are gay parents in Douglas County, right now, who also pay taxes, and also look for materials to support their views.''

It's truly scary to read some of the bigoted remarks about Uncle Bobby's Wedding on Brannen's Web site. It infuriates me when opponents of gay marriage argue that the subject shouldn't be broached "in front of the children." We have to "protect the kids," because heaven knows, gay people aren't something you can discuss around their tender young ears. It is so offensive and it makes me so angry. How could it possibly harm a child to know that two men or two women love each other? Isn't the highest family value two consenting adults who love and care for each other wanting to build a life together?

Plus, there are plenty of kids with beloved gay uncles and lesbian aunts, people who may be getting married someday soon. And those kids may well tell their friends at school, and their friends may come home and want to talk about it with their parents. This sounds like a great book for them, or for any child. As LaRue correctly notes, "In some parts of America, at least today, gay marriage is legal. If it's legal, then how could writing a book about it be inappropriate?"

And I loved LaRue's description of the purpose of libraries: "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."

When I was a kid, I loved nothing better than to get a big pile of books out of the library and read them one after another. I don't remember anything in the children's room being off limits. That was where I first developed an interest in topics that still interest me today - mysteries, British literature, American history, biography. I often think that some of the best books I read were ones I read as a child. It's how I learned about the world, really. (These were among my favorites).

Will the parent who objected to Uncle Bobby's Wedding agree with LaRue? Probably not. I realize that not every parent will want their child to read this book, and that's their right. But they don't have the right to take it way from other parents and children. I really admire the way Jamie LaRue states his case and stands up for this book, for the freedom to read. Thank goodness for courageous librarians.


Stella Louise said...

Good point with the Grimm's Fairy Tales. I have read the original (not watered down!) versions and they are shockingly violent.

Esther said...

Thanks for the comment! I think it's a good point to consider what really makes something a children's book or story. It's the presentation and the language level, not the subject matter. Children's books can discuss some very weighty subjects.

Anonymous said...

Interesting reading. I'm always on the hunt for great children's books and have recently discovered Bayard and their series of StoryBoxBooks, AdventureBoxBooks and DiscoveryBoxBooks (which is a special Olympic edition) They have work by acclaimed children's books illustrator Helen Oxenbury appearing in the Storybox series for September. In addition to this, they also have some great activities for rainy days:,, Enjoy!

Roxie said...

Things like this always frustrate me so. How are kids going to learn to be tolerant if they don't learn about different things and different ways of life? Of course, people who ban their kids from reading books about homosexuality probably aren't too concerned with tolerance, I suppose. It's like when people make a hoopla about Harry Potter because it's about magic - hello! It's about the fight between good and evil! And this book seems to be about love and change - pretty important life lessons, I'd say...

Esther said...

Hey Roxie,
Thanks for the comment. It frustrates me, too. And how could anyone be opposed to the Harry Potter books, which I loved and which made readers out of literally millions of kids.

I was in Borders yesterday, so I looked for this book and they had it, so I read it. It is incredibly sweet. I can't imagine anyone possibly being offended, unless the thought of two people in love is offensive. I mean, I was practically in tears it was so adorable. The love between Bobby and Jamie (the two male gerbils) is presented matter-of-factly. There's no big discussion about it.

You'd have to have a heart of stone to think that this book is in any way inappropriate. It's a beautiful story about love and family. And the illustrations are very cute, too! But you're right, the people who are opposed simply don't want their children to know that gay people exist, much less fall in love.