Public Libraries Are for Everyone: A Response to the Illinois Family Institute

September 15, 2014
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And Tango Makes ThreeLaurie Higgins of the Illinois Family Institute thinks that librarians who celebrate Banned Books Week are hypocrites. In an article on the organization’s website last week, she argued that the real banned books are not the oft-targeted ones like And Tango Makes Three which depict same-sex parents or other LGBT characters. Rather, she says that what she believes to be the ideological opposite of those books — that would be “books that challenge Leftist assumptions about the nature and morality of homosexuality” — never even make it into libraries in the first place due to bias on the part of librarians.

Higgins’ argument rests on several false premises. First, she asserts that children’s books such as Tango “deal with highly controversial topics, particularly sexual perversion” and that they present “homoeroticism…in whitewashed, water-colored images.” But of course Tango and other challenged picture books that portray LGBT families, such as In Our Mothers’ House by Patricia Polacco and The Family Book by Todd Parr, do not contain anything that most people would consider remotely erotic. They simply acknowledge that same-sex parents and their children exist. They are a reflection of reality, not an attempt to lure children into any sort of “perversion.”

Polacco, for instance, was inspired to write In Our Mothers’ House after she visited a school and witnessed a classroom aide scornfully telling a daughter of lesbian mothers that she didn’t “come from a real family.” When The Family Book – which presents all kinds of families and contains a single page that says “some families have two moms or two dads” — was banned in the Erie, Illinois, school district in 2012, Parr recorded a video response in which he said his only goal was “to empower kids to feel good about themselves” no matter what their family looks like. And of course Tango authors Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson based their book on a true story of two male penguins adopting a chick together, but Tango’s family also does not look too different from their own, minus the beaks and feathers. (To preempt critics, we’ll acknowledge here that one of Tango’s dads later took up with a female. Parnell and Richardson, as far as we know, have not.)

So if Higgins cannot find books in libraries to counterbalance these, she’s not looking too hard. The vast majority of children’s books still depict opposite-sex parents and their biological children, but no one has ever claimed that The Berenstain Bears series contains any whiff of “perversion” or heteroeroticism. No matter how much Higgins wishes that same-sex parents didn’t exist, the fact is that they do, and if anything, their children deserve to see their families represented in more books.

Higgins’ second false premise is that libraries do not stock the specific titles she mentions in her article — the ones she says are the true banned books. Firstly, none of them are children’s books, so they would not provide the “balance” to books like Tango that she claims to want. Secondly, she obviously did not bother to search the catalog of the library she criticizes by name, Schaumburg Township District Library, because it actually owns two of the books she cites. That in itself is impressive because all of the books on Higgins’ list are either self-published or from small presses, so they would be unlikely to turn up in the review sources that librarians usually use to support purchasing decisions. If she wanted to call Schaumburg librarians’ attention to the other books on the list, she might have availed herself of the “Suggest a Purchase” link prominently displayed at the top of every catalog page rather than calling their Banned Books Week celebration “a cutesy and condescending propaganda effort to mock conservative patrons into ideological submission.”

Even so, Schaumburg’s collection does include plenty of books aligned with Higgins’ viewpoint — books that are likely offensive to LGBT patrons and many others. But as the library’s Resource Selection Policy clearly indicates, the inclusion of any particular item on library shelves does not imply endorsement of the ideas it contains but rather represents an effort to build “a collection that serves the diverse interests of the community.” The books linked in this paragraph serve one sector of the community which obviously includes Higgins, while Tango, The Family Book, and In Our Mothers’ House serve another. That’s exactly what a community-supported library should do!

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Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.

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