Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Censorship is (Anti-)Gay! [a paper on book challenges]

This post is a paper that I wrote for a children's literature class at my university.  I figured, since I received a good grade, that I would share it with you here, on my blog, in case you're interested.  Feel free to leave comments and responses, as usual.

Censorship is (Anti-)Gay:
Exploring a Selection of Challenged Children’s Books Containing Same-Sex Couples

There are many children’s texts that are beginning to explore gender variance and queerness within individual identities and family structures. A number of these texts are quite helpful for children and adults to attempt a familiarization of non-heteronormative family structures. A book such as And Tango Makes Three (Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson) can be incredibly useful when providing information for a child who questions whether or not homosexuality is natural, while a text such as King and King (Linda De Haan and Stern Nijland) can help children explore alternative forms of marriage that are not problematized or stigmatized. Other books, however, can be less helpful due to stereotyping or else the message can be diluted because of cultural and institutional pressures. Heather Has Two Mommies (Lesléa Newman)and Daddy’s Roommate (Michael Willhoite)have been frequently challenged as presenting unrealistic family situations and having children play mouthpiece to a supposed homosexual agenda. Of course, timing is at play in situations like the latter two, as they were published in a time when homosexuality was an even more taboo topic than it is today.

And Tango Makes Three

The plot of And Tango Makes Three is a simple one, following two male penguins (Roy and Silo) as they meet, build a nest together, and eventually hatch an egg together. This heart-warming tale of sexual diversity was written by Richardson and Parnell in an attempt to bring forward the topic of same-sex couples to children in an accessible and (with the help of Henry Cole) adorable way. Richardson is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Columbia and Cornell Universities, and is, therefore, able to approach this topic with a critical eye that is backed up by a history of psychiatric training. The authors also provide a note at the back of the book which authenticates the realities reproduced within the pages of the book. The history of the penguin couple is present as is the historical information surrounding their meeting and role in the upbringing of Tango, their baby. This is a wonderful example of what B. J. Kass classifies as “social diversity or even, perhaps, ‘tender topics’” in children’s literature. 

There has been terrific backlash surrounding the book, however, and it is because of this that certain aspects of the story must be considered. The first of these involves the illustrations and the anthropomorphizing of the penguins through expression and emotional attribution. Roy and Silo, while illustrated with all the realistic characteristics of a chinstrap penguin, also embody very human emotional responses. Henry Cole has created lovable creatures that show happiness, confusion, and sadness through facial expressions that actual penguins cannot perform. When the two penguins realize that the male-female couples are hatching babies, they are illustrated in a way that provokes a feeling of sadness and uncertainty, with the corners of their beaks suddenly forming into frowns while the other penguins have a smile on their faces. 

This is one of the difficulties of any story that contains anthropomorphized animals, but in this case it is complicated by the fact that the story is actually true and the real animals have no way of expressing these emotions. With this in mind, it is understandable that children could become confused and have much more emotional investment in the illustrated penguins than in the real thing. Because of this, many groups have expressed outrage at the story for portraying same-sex relationships as sympathetic and have since attempted to get the book removed from libraries and classrooms across North America (American Library Association).

King and King 

Linda de Hann and Stern Nijland’s King and King is a typical story of finding the right person to marry, but is atypical in that the bride and groom are both young men. The first young prince is supposed to be looking for a wife, and so his mother sends out invitations all over the land to get princesses to come visit. After meeting a number of these princesses and feeling nothing for any of them, the prince begins to lose hope. But at the last minute, one last princess arrives, along with her brother, another young prince. The two young men see each other and fall in love immediately. They eventually get married and the kingdom is happy. 

The book has come under fire from its North American debut in the early years of the 21st century.  Within the book, there are a number of instances in which homosexuality is presented as normalized within the fictional world: “At last, the prince felt a stir in his heart. It was love at first sight” (19-20). The normalization of same-sex attraction is contrary to the heteronormative social expectations and also goes against the general consensus regarding same-sex marriage in the United States. When the two princes get married, there is no opposition within the text, conveying to children the idea that same-sex attraction is not something abnormal: “The wedding was very special. The queen even shed a tear or two… The two princes were known as King and King” (23, 27). The negative reactions of conservative groups have made the reception of King & King very tumultuous. 

In contrast, some review journals, such as Booklist, have found the book to be a very positive literary example for children. Gillian Engberg, in Booklist, called the book “a winning Dutch import for parents looking for an original tale with a gay slant.” The book was also called "brief and lighthearted" and the illustrations "whimsical.” As well, "whimsical, textured collages mix beautiful papers, fabrics, and bright paint in scenes that show the bossy queen, the wildly imagined town, the eclectic princesses, the wedding, and finally, a kiss between the two starry-eyed princes. Adults will know what's coming early in the story, but many kids won't. They'll simply like the fun artwork and the final twist on conventions" (1856). Controversy has surrounded the book, but at least some sources understand what children will see in the book, namely colourful illustrations and a poetic story. Another controversial children’s picture book, however one without much in the way of artistic merit, is Leslea Newman’s Heather Has Two Mommies.

Heather Has Two Mommies 

Heather is a young girl with two mothers. The text explores the childhood experiences of a young girl with same-sex parents. Newman’s book explores the experiences of Heather as she interacts with other children and her mothers, showing a normalized portrait of a family with same-sex parents. The text gives the history of Heather’s birth, her upbringing, and her time in school, comparing family structures with other kids in her classes. Adults and other conservative groups attacked this book right from the beginning, arguing that it promotes a homosexual lifestyle and undermines traditional family values. In “Queering the Picture Book,” Melynda Huskey asserts, “[h]ardly anyone tried to defend Heather on its literary or artistic merits: at thirty-six pages, it’s too densely textual for children the age of its protagonist (three) and its graceless black-and-white illustrations lack the energy or skill to engage the eye during the relatively long time required to read each page out loud” (66). Unlike King & King then, Heather has little to redeem it except that it is the first book of its kind. This should be taken into account as there was no book from which to learn certain lessons about portraying same-sex characters in a picture book. 

Linda Salem, in Children’s Literature Studies: Cases and Discussions, writes, “[o]bjections to Newman’s book include showing different kinds of families, negative reactions to the anatomical details depicted in the book, and the use of the words sperm, egg, breasts, and belly to describe pregnancy” (106). One of the other girls at school with Heather actually has two dads: “’I don’t have any mommies. I have two daddies,’ Stacy says proudly” (15). It is statements like this that caused controversy initially, the fact that Stacy is proud to have two dads. In the eyes of many conservative groups, heterosexual couplings are the type of relationship to be strived for, not homosexual. Much like Tango and King & King, “[b]oth Newman [author of Heather Has Two Mommies] and Willhoite [author of Daddy’s Roommate] have been accused of promoting sodomy, militancy, prostitution, bestiality, and incest. The books were removed from New York’s Rainbow Curriculum designed in 1992 to teach respect for all racial and ethnic groups” (Salem 107). Michael Willhoite’s Daddy’s Roommate is a particularly poignant example of a text attempting to normalize the existence of homosexual partnerships to young children. 

Daddy’s Roommate 

This book is about a young boy who lives in a home with two fathers. When the boy was young, his father left his mother for another man, Frank. The two men live together and the young boy gets to visit them. The young boy narrator makes a number of frank and non-heteronormative explications that have given rise to a number of instances of censorship and book banning.  The first of these starts near the beginning of the book: "Daddy and his roommate Frank live together, work together, eat together, sleep together, shave together, and sometimes even fight together" (3-8). The boy does not automatically associate this with the term gay until it is spelled out later by his mother: "Mommy says Daddy and Frank are gay” (24). 

In this book, Willhoite shows that homosexual relationships are as perfectly acceptable and equal to heterosexual couples: "Being gay is just one more kind of love" and “love is the best kind of happiness" (26-27). In this case, the most worrying part for some is the fact that a heterosexual marriage was broken up for the sake of a homosexual relationship between Frank and his daddy. Controversy surrounds such lines as the one above about the two men sleeping together and illustrations of the two men touching, holding hands, and rubbing suntan lotion on each other. Many instances of censorship have mentioned these issues as being too explicitly sexual for a children’s book. The book does at least spend time exploring an alternative way of seeing same-sex parents that shows the origins of the relationship and the ways that heterosexual relationships and homosexual relationships are both valuable. 

Conclusions and Discussion 

Having explored the main points of each book and a few reasons for the censorship and controversy surrounding them, it is time to discuss the concept of censorship and the difficulties surrounding the act. The exploration of these topics is not something that should be limited or kept from children, especially in schools and libraries. A number of scholars have written articles on and explored censorship and the implications that censoring books have toward children. 

Perry Nodelman and Mavis Reimer, in The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, speak to the act of parents keeping books from their children for fear of destroying their innocence. “In trying to protect children, however, these adults may well be doing more harm than good…. It also deprives adults of the opportunity to discuss these matters with children, and to share their own attitudes with them. Without such discussions, adults might actually diminish their control over children rather than increase it” (102, 103). Nodelman and Reimer continue, asserting that censorious practices by parents and others only serves to prevent children from learning: 
[Children] have special need of knowledge as a resource to make sense of new things. Those who are deprived of knowledge of certain attitudes or forms of behavior and, therefore, prevented from thinking about why they might be harmful, are the ones most likely to take such attitudes or commit such acts. To deprive children of the opportunity to read about confusing or painful matters like those that they might actually be experiencing will either make literature irrelevant to them or else leave them feeling they are alone in their thoughts or experiences. (102-3) 
Nodelman and Reimer aren’t the only ones who feel this way either. The act of censorship keeps children from learning valuable life lessons. But the act of publishing also says something about the progress of society as well. 

The very act of creating children’s books with gay and lesbian content proves that there has been a certain amount of progress in society over the last few decades: “These books speak to changing societal attitudes. Although homophobia remains with us, and same-sex marriage has become a political issue, these books show that in some ways society has made progress toward acceptance of homosexuality” (Cole 124). All the books discussed in this paper—Heather Has Two Mommies, Daddy’s Roommate, And Tango Makes Three, King & King—reveal a certain amount of progress by the very act of their existence. Each author is making a statement by writing about different family structures for child audiences. The books are all far from perfect, some containing stereotypes, some containing didactic text, and others guilty of being just plain unappealing to the eye, but each is also a step forward in sharing knowledge and teaching about diversity. 

Though adults are not always open to diversity, as can be seen through the initial and ongoing reactions to each book. And this leads to issues of censorship; Censorious people want “children to be as pure and as devoid of knowledge as they believe children are supposed to be” (Nodelman and Reimer 104). Assumptions abound surrounding censorship, about what adults believe children can and cannot handle. In every family the expectations may be very different as to what parents will allow their child to be exposed to, but in school and library situations, where there is greater access and more incentive to teach about issues of diversity, it can be difficult to know what should be taught to all students, and what should be left for parents to decide. However, according to the works of Nodelman and Reimer, and Cole, it would seem that to deny children is to the detriment of their ability to learn about diversity and different family structures. In any case, there are available children’s books with gay and lesbian content and they should be, if not explicitly taught, at least be made available to all children, and not be hidden through acts of censorship.

Works Cited

Cart, Michael, and Christine A. Jenkins. The Heart Has Its Reasons: Young Adult Literature with Gay/Lesbian/Queer Content, 1969-2004. Toronto: Scarecrow, 2006. Print.
Chick, Kay. “Fostering an Appreciation for all Kinds of Families: Picturebooks with Gay and Lesbian Themes.” Bookbird 46.1 (2008): 15-22. Print.
Cole, Pam B. Young Adult Literature in the 21st Century. New York: McGraw Hill, 2009. Print.
de Hann, Linda, and Stern Nijland. King & King. Toronto: Tricycle, 2000. Print.
Engberg, Gillian. "King & King (Book)." Booklist 98.21 (2002): 1856. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 15 Mar. 2011.
“Frequently Challenged Books of the 21st Century.” American Library Association, n.d. Web. 16 March 2011.
Newman, Lesléa. Heather Has Two Mommies. Illus. Diana Souza. Boston, MA: Alyson, 1989. Print.
Nodelman, Perry, and Mavis Reimer. The Pleasures of Children’s Literature. Toronto, ON: Allyn & Bacon, 2002. Print.
Richardson, Justin and Peter Parnell. And Tango Makes Three. Illus. Henry Cole. Toronto: Simon & Schuster, 2005. Print.
Salem, Linda C. Children’s Literature Studies: Cases and Discussions. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2006. Print.
Wiles, Heather. Controversy, Censorship, and Children’s Literature. 2010. Web. 22 Feb. 2011. <>
Willhoite, Michael. Daddy's Roommate. Boston, MA: Alyson, 1991.


  1. Rob,

    This is the most long-winded response, but I'm really intrigued by some of the issues you're touching on here.

    A few things I'm wondering about:

    While the correlation of more GLBTQ books being published may suggest societal progress, I also think that we need to reflect on the motivations of late capitalism and heteronormative patriarchy in "allowing" or encouraging these texts to be published and distributed. In many ways, having these books published becomes the point of exceptionality that allows for continued oppression to take place in society and culture as it is lived and experienced. I think it might be akin to the way that patriarchy says "but look we gave women jobs as CEOs" while at the same time advocating for an anti-feminist culture. Do publishing houses stand to gain by also including literatures of the margin?

    A related strand that I was wondering about is the relationship of literary production and library access to class. If we can agree that homophobia/transphobia, etc. are forms of oppression and violence that transcend class, as they do, then what are the implications of advocating for more books? Who is reading these books? Are they North American or European children?

    My last comment is about the idea of teaching diversity, and once again, the vested interests/problems in actually teaching real issues of racism/gender/class in the K-12 system. I'm not a ChildLit scholar, so I don't know how these books are being used in the classroom or how they may be displayed in libraries, but, I wonder: can we argue that some forms of literature are used in the same ways as "cultural days" are, namely, as a consumption of the other's lifestyle/beliefs rather than as a true engagement with them? Is inclusion in the classroom a matter of keeping everyone pacified? And, I suppose my bigger question is: is availability of texts enough?

    - Lucia

  2. There are many ways to look at the production of books and other materials for consumption and for classroom use, and there are many difficulties and problematic ideas associated with minority rights and visibility, so I will attempt to explain my views this way:

    1) You can provide books that cater to a niche audience, thus allowing people to themselves in literature or their situations in literature so that they don't feel that they are somehow hidden or unaccounted for within a social structure...

    2) You can see this as possibly furthering the marginalization of queer minorities, but I would argue that one has to have some for of representation first AS a minority before books can be created that treat individuals as "just like everyone else"

    Though that can also lead to issues of the person perhaps not wanting to BE like everyone else... hence the Genderqueer movement, where people WANT to be living on the margins. So yeah, the short answer is, book publishers will use any way possible to make money.

    As for education using such texts, the same problems as those above apply to the classroom. It's an incredibly complex area of study and I hesitate to say that any sort of consensus or full answer exists yet regarding the teaching of diversity and the use of minority status for profit and consumption.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post!