Richard price explores the ways in which books are challenged in schools and libraries.

The Danger of Gay Guinea Pigs

The variety of books challenged sometimes amazes me. I worked in a small Rhode Island bookstore when And Tango Makes Three came out and scandalized people with a depiction of gay penguins raising a chick. So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when I discovered that a book depicting a girl worrying that she will no longer be her uncle’s favorite person when he marries his boyfriend. Oh yeah, they are all guinea pigs. While Uncle Bobby’s Wedding by Sarah S. Brannen was challenged often in the first few years of its publication, it seems to have faded from view. I just happened to luck into three challenges to the book’s inclusion in public libraries, one each in 2009, 2010, and 2012. As much of my material is from the past five years, these types of challenges help with tracking how arguments may have changed over time. 

One interesting argument made by two of the three challengers was that same-sex marriage was illegal in both Kansas and Missouri at the time (discriminatory marriage bans were invalidated by the Supreme Court in 2015). One complained that the book “seeks to influence young children to accept an activity that is illegal (homosexual marriage).” The Kansas challenger actually cited the state constitutional ban on marriage equality in response to the request for replacement suggestions: “A book that describes marriage as the law prescribes, ‘marriage shall be constituted by one man and woman only.’” The challenger apparently missed the hundreds (probably thousands) of heteronormative picture books when they found Uncle Bobby’s Wedding. In structuring the story around a gay couple marrying, the book was encouraging law breaking and “would be equivalent of showing kids drinking alcohol in a children’s book.” A constitutional prohibition against legally recognizing a relationship is translated into a prohibition on depicting the relationship in any way. 

While the marriage argument was unique in my sample (so far), the balance of the arguments stressed familiar themes. One complained that they picked out a pile of books with their 8-year-old and “[i]t wasn’t until we were at home reading this children’s book that I realized it had homosexual content. I was shocked that nowhere was I admonished to take a closer look at the book’s content before checking it out.” Thus, the library should have provided some notification to save them from this awkward discovery. Another parent objected to the content because the book “endorse[d] and promot[ed] … a lifestyle that is well-documented to be harmful to one’s physical and emotional well-being.” Importantly, the book targets young children who “do not have the maturity or critical-thinking skills to properly evaluate the arguments on both sides of this controversial issue.” 

The message here is that children having knowledge of homosexuality was inherently dangerous and thus the “the library needs to dispose of this book” to preserve their innocence until they are capable of reaching the correct decision that homosexuality is wrong. After all, presumably the challengers had no problem with the hundreds of available children’s books depicting straight families. The concern is not that children have the capacity to understand “both sides” of the issue, it is that there is only one correct side and the state should reinforce that fact. Nor has the success of marriage equality eliminated this logic. When PBS’s Arthur aired an episode in 2019 showing a teacher marrying his husband, Alabama’s public television station censored the show for the entire state. In defending this act of censorship, the director of programming said that “parents trust that their children can watch APT without their supervision.” He left implicit the point: depicting queer characters, even anthropomorphized animals, is such a danger to child’s moral purity that he preferred to remove the choice itself. The logic of the censor doesn’t change much over the years.


Fun Home Goes to Court

Is There a Right to Read? Thoughts on Pico