Tuesday, October 7, 2008

"The Gay"

Every year at Banned Books Week, I learn something new from our students.

Every year when the ALA celebrates Banned Books Week, I invite English teachers to sign up to bring classes in for a short talk about the freedom to read, censorship, and the top banned books of that year. After all, many of the books our English teachers teach are perennial favorites on the banned books list. I'm always amused by the irony of Fahrenheit 451 being a frequently challenged title.

This year, for the second year in a row, the children's picture book And Tango Makes Three topped the list. It's a true story of a same-sex penguin couple, who had been spotted trying to hatch a rock after observing the other penguin couples parenting chicks, in Central Park Zoo. They were given an egg to hatch after a "normal" penguin couple laid two eggs and were only taking care of one. Roy and Silo successfully raised the chick, Tango, and according to the book are still a couple to this day. (Different websites I visited gave conflicting information about whether or not as of 2008 Roy and Silo are indeed in a monogamous partnership.)

The idea that a children's picture book about penguins (c'mon, it's no Daddy's Roommate or Heather Has Two Mommies) should get more censoring scorn than, say, the f-bomb-dropping Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist (intensely enjoyable, by the way) or the final installment of that witchcraft-promoting Harry Potter series piqued my interest. Our students in the past have been very anti-banning; once a hot-button social issue gets thrown into the works, would their opinions on same-sex relationships themselves cause more students to agree with the censors?

Two different things happened while I read the book aloud. Some students, mostly girls, went "awww" at the general cuteness of the penguins and their very G-rated love story. Others were shocked at the point in the story where it became clear that Roy and Silo were mates; jaws literally dropped open and some giggled nervously.

Each class was pretty evenly divided between those who thought the book was okay for elementary school kids to read and those who would not have wanted their own children to have access to the book. Some of the things I heard made me view my school's community in a different light; two different senior girls stated that they worked in two different daycares in our county each with a child being raised by a two-daddy household. One entire class came to a surprisingly not-tense agreement that the book isn't that big a deal and students should have access to it because it's 2008 and same-sex couplehood is something kids are going to see. About 5 minutes after I opened discussion one student voiced this opinion, and every single kid in the room shook his/her head and murmured in agreement, and that was that. One other class got so fired up on both sides that one girl left in tears ("Why are there so many haters?" I heard her say as she left; another student in the class had actually said, "I would disown my child if it was gay.") Most were able to carry out a reasonable discussion, though, and at the end agree to disagree in a surprisingly adult way.

Some things the kids said were unintentionally funny. One very nervous sophomore boy, after fumbling over the word "homosexuality", just called it "The Gay" in the rest of his comments. Instead of making fun of him, the rest of the kids picked up on the term and continued to use it the rest of the period. One of my mom's language quirks is that she adds a "the" to any disease or ailment; with her, it's "The Headache" or "The Stomach Cramps." I kept picturing "The Gay" as some kind of illness, which is possibly how many of these kids see it.

Occasionally, someone asked me, or the moderating English teacher at the moment, what we thought, or whether we would read this to our own children.

I declined getting into any kind of moral debate, but I told them about how Ainsley had wanted to read this book when I got it from the public library and how we had read it to her before bed one night. Ainsley didn't pick up on the two penguin daddies being anything unusual, or if she did, she asked no questions about it. Yet. She tends to let big ideas simmer and want to bring them up out of thin air as long as a month after the fact (it was a good week before she really started asking questions about her great-grandmother's funeral.) At the time, she simply saw it as a cute story with a terribly precious illustration of a baby penguin on one page. When she comes to my library in the afternoons she sometimes rushes to get the book off my desk and turn to her favorite parts.

Jason is more socially conservative than I am and I asked him how he felt about the book after he read it and whether or not he thought it was inappropriate reading for our 6-year-old.

He shrugged. "Anything that teaches tolerance at a young age is a good thing, right?"

Ah. I do so love that man.

Not having read this book, (in all likelihood) what is your knee-jerk reaction? Do you feel young kids are ready or need to hear about same sex couples raising children in this way? Or is it inappropriate?


Robert K. said...

So long as the book doesn't depict Roy and Silo engaging in hot penguin love, I can't think of a reason why I wouldn't want my child to read it. Of course, I'm a godless heathen who doesn't understand why people get so worked up about homosexuality. I would think that the important lesson for my kids would be that families are about people who love each other, not casting judgment on what others do in the privacy of their own homes.

Rick said...

Regardless of how one feels about homosexuality (morally, politically, scientifically) it sounds like this book just introduces more complicated situations to kids that they don't need.

First it was divorce, now it is same sex parents. When I/we were kids divorce became more socially acceptable. Prior to that it was taboo (I recall my aunt had a hard time finding an apartment complex that would rent to a divorced woman with children in the late seventies). I remember seeing a lot of kids that had to explain away why they only live with their mommy, or why daddy never picked them up, or why they have a new mommy, etc. I don't ever recall it being comfortable for anyone involved, and I remember looking at my non-divorced family and feeling bad for those kids without understanding why. Now that divorce is as commonplace as McDonald's (but no less sad than it was thirty years ago) kids don't think twice about it.

Perhaps same sex parenthood will be the same someday. Until then, I foresee a lot of situations where kids have to explain why they have two dads. Or that they have two moms and daddy came from a sperm bank. Plus, I suspect the acceptance of double moms and double dads by society may not come as easily as divorce did.

Is this book appropriate? Maybe, if it simply shows two people devoted to a child without calling attention to or emphasizing their same-sex status. But if books like this delve into moral or political statements about it (i.e. this is okay! or this is good! or this is normal!) then I think parents should have a right to limit their child's access to it.

Library Lady said...

Good comments. I feel like the issue of same-sex parents was handled very tastefully with no hit-you-over-the-head editorializing or political agenda from the author. I'm pretty socially liberal, and even I felt a little iffy about the book Daddy's Roommate when I read it in library school, but I felt this was a well-done book that might help some students understand this issue if a student in their class or on their street is a child of a same-sex relationship.

If same-sex couples are adopting kids here in conservative northern Kentucky, it's becoming more prevalent everywhere, and I would rather it be seen as normal (sorry, Rick!)or at least acceptable so that the kids aren't bullied or ostracized. And then there's this; I see kids at my school every day who suffer through neglectful, selfish, less than loving parenting of the one man, one woman variety. As long as a child is raised by two loving parents in a healthy relationship (which is the heart of And Tango Makes Three)can we really view that as a bad thing?

(Puts soap box away.)