COLUMN: Penguin tales and other freedoms

Anne DeGrace writes about Freedom to Read Week, which runs Feb. 21 to 27.

And Tango Makes Three is a children’s book about same-sex relationships. It has won awards — and been removed from libraries.

In the picture book And Tango Makes Three, two adult penguins raise a young’un from egg to fluffball, and presumably onward to be a happy, productive adult. The parenting penguins are both male. After the book’s2005 release, all was well in bookville until it wasn’t.

The book is based on the true story of two male chinstrap penguins in New York’s Central Park Zoo who were given an egg to raise Tango which in my opinion an insightful, forward-thinking thing for park officials todo, since Roy and Silo were clearly in love and were trying to hatch a rock in their nest.

Authors Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson, and illustrator Henry Cole, were probably baffled but possibly not surprised when the would-be book-banners began. Here in Canada, one parent in Calgary objected to its presence in a Catholic School library, and the library removed it.

The book had already won several awards by this time. As Richardson told the New York Times, “We wrote the book to help parents teach children about same-sex parent families. It’s no more an argument in favour of human gay relationships than it is a call for children to swallow their fish whole or sleep on rocks.” (As penguins also do, of course.) Thankfully, nearly all of the schools and libraries who received challenges kept the book on their shelves.

Next week is Freedom to Read Week, an annual awareness campaign that asks us to consider what it means to have unfettered access to books. Nobody wants to be told what to write or, by extension, what to read. You might expect this in countries hobbled by dictatorships or religious regimes. We don’t think of this as happening here, where we understand ourselves as smart enough to decide for ourselves, thanks very much.

And yet it does, all the time. Canadian writers whose works have been challenged for their right to be read include (but are not limited to) Margaret Lawrence’s A Jest of God, W.P Kinsella’s Dance Me Outside, Mordechai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and The Wars byTimothy Findley for reasons of extra-marital sex, vulgar language, homosexuality, and the potential for misunderstood irony.

Add to this list children’s books from Kevin Major’s Hold Fast to Lois Lowry’s The Giver and you’ll see that there are those who would tell all of us what all of our kids should be reading, not just their own.

Sometimes the objections come with their own political agenda. According to the Freedom to Read website (freedomtoread.ca), an official of the woodworkers’ trade union asked for the removal of this children’s environmental picture book Who’s in Maxine’s Tree? by Diane Leger from elementary school libraries in Sechelt. He said the book promoted an anti-logging viewpoint. (The school board rejected his request.)

Local author Ann Alma, after winning a children’s book award, was asked not to read from her novel Something to Tell on the tour. The book deals with a sensitive subject: inappropriate touching. Alma did read from the book, and parents and teachers thanked her for opening up the subject for discussion.

Having freedom to read is all about having the discussion. Because if you can’t discuss the things you read with your kids or your parents or your peers, how do you broaden your views, develop informed opinions, and learn tolerance or even kindness?

So here’s to Silo and Roy and their loving parenting, which spawned a book which spawned discussion and,hopefully, tolerance. And Tango Makes Three and every other book mentioned in this column are available on our shelves.

Anne DeGrace is the adult services coordinator at the Nelson Public Library. Check This Out runs every other week. For more information go to nelsonlibrary.ca.

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