July 21, 2015

This week in dangerous children’s books, at home and abroad


Artwork courtesy of the American Library Association

I’m just gonna leave this here. (Artwork courtesy of the American Library Association)

Another day, another stack of children’s books that are actually socially dangerous tools of the insidious Gay-Muslim-Liberal conspiracy to inculcate the innocent minds of young readers with perverse concepts. Depressed yet? You will be! But if you make it to the end of this story, there are cute dogs, I promise!

VENICE, ITALY: We previously covered Venice’s new mayor Luigi Brugnaro’s decision to ban children books that include themes of “physical, religious, or racial discrimination,” amounting to putting dozens of books on the curriculum chopping block pending a thorough review during summer break. Did this also effectively mean that any children’s book that even hints at acceptance of gay parenting was pulled from schools, with the reasoning that such books “discriminate against children” of hetero parents? Yes, of course!

Burgnaro has since walked back his rhetoric a little, claiming that all the other books that were initially banned will return to schools in the fall, except those that present alternative family structures, because those are apparently still dangerous. In response, Italian writers have publicly criticized the mayor’s decision by requesting that their books be added to the ban list. Via The Guardian:

Now authors, led by Andrea Valente and Matteo Corradini, have delivered a letter to the mayor’s office signed by 263 writers. The letter asks Brugnaro to “kindly ban our books as well”, adding “we don’t want to stay in a city where the books of others are banned”.

Valente and Corradini write that they do not consider the “partial reverse” of the mayor to be satisfactory, so decided to ask for their own ban. “At the moment it seems that the great majority of the books have been ‘freed’ and can go back to school. The ones that are still banned are the ones that talk about gender (the complete list of books was about diversity in a more general way, including colour of the skin, religion, handicap and so on),” said Valente on Thursday. “Nevertheless, as long as even one single book is banned, our letter won’t change.”

The titles in question are Francesca Pardi’s Piccolo Uovo (Little Egg), about an egg that discovers that there are all kinds of family units, and Ophélie Texier’s Jean a deux mamans (Jean Has Two Mummies). 

Valente, who calls Brugnaro’s actions “an uninformed crusade” is skeptical of the sincerity of the mayor’s reversal, and while he admits to being slightly ambivalent when the ban was announced, he quickly acknowledged that it would contribute to the national culture of silence and enforced homogeneity surrounding gender diversity—something that the disputed books address in the most nonthreatening way possible.

One response would have been to close our eyes and consider the action as just another of those weird little things our country is capable of doing. Perhaps even a kind of diversity, not that the mayor would know.

But there are many times when doing nothing is not a good idea.

[…] Meanwhile the mayor, no doubt wrapped up in his own little world, took the trouble to browse through some of the banned books, and found them harmless enough to be read by anyone. Perhaps he’s even intending to give some of them as Christmas presents. So he executed a U-turn almost as audacious as his initial act and reinstated the books, except for the two which were about gender diversity, something which doesn’t exist for some people and woe betide anyone who talks about it.

But the number of books – two or 49 – is irrelevant. A banned book is a banned book, regardless of what it’s about, and that’s why on 14 July, the anniversary of Bastille Day, we signed and published our request.

JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA: Which dangerous books are threatening Floridian children this week? Nope, not Satanic coloring books again; this time it’s those books about…saving books. That’s right: parents in Jacksonville are trying to ban books about the value of books. Because said books feature Muslim main characters and the acknowledgement that war exists.

The Florida Times-Union reports:

This week administrators at Duval County Public Schools received a petition from several citizens protesting the use of two new books added last month to the third-grade reading list: Nasreen’s Secret School and The Librarian of Basra, both said to be based on the true stories from the Middle East.

Those opposed to having them available in Duval Schools argue the books’ serious content, which details war and makes references to Islam aren’t appropriate for elementary-age children, while those on the other side like [School superintendent Nikolai] Vitti believe it will open children’s minds to a diversity of ideas.

The Duval County Public School system isn’t exactly known for being progressive. It’s been banning children’s books for decades (though it only got around to banning paddling a decade ago.) This latest proposed ban was sparked by a Facebook post (motto: “How grown adults disperse incredibly suspect non-news and spark pointless idealogical debates”.)

A synopsis of both books on Amazon.com describes Nasreen’s Secret School as the story of a little girl with a grandmother who “risks everything to enroll Nasreen in a secret school for girls” in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. The Librarian of Basra is based on the life of Iraqi librarian Alia Muhammad Baker who struggles to save her community’s book collection, which she fears in the midst of war “will be destroyed forever.”

The Facebook post, which addresses parents of elementary students in the district, advises that students will be required to “read two books, promoting prayer to someone other than God.”

It would appear, however, that the smoke is much bigger than the fire; only nine parents have officially petitioned the school to drop the books from their reading lists, as of the recent deadline. And while this certainly isn’t the first time that books (and book bans) have turned into political flash paper, cooler heads appear to be prevailing this time. Though the larger question remains as to how the district plans to deal with the 50% of Duval County third-graders who aren’t reading on grade level, not counting non-starter ideas like mandatory summer school for kindergarteners.

Just remember, Florida’s not actually the cesspit of insanity that we’re told it is! (Though the comments on the Times-Union piece are incredibly, gloriously deranged.)

GRANBURY, TEXAS: An attempt to ban two children’s books from a local library has failed, after the county commission decided the subject wasn’t worth a vote. The great Michael Schaub reported for the LA Times:

The books in question, My Princess Boy and This Day in June, were challenged by dozens of Hood County residents who demanded that the books be removed from the library or relocated from the children’s section. While library director Courtney Kincaid agreed to move This Day in June to the adult nonfiction section, she refused to relocate My Princess Boy.

Commissioners decided not to vote on the issue after consulting with the county attorney, who, according to WFAA-TV, told them “that previous case law suggests that removing, relocating, or in any way restricting access to the books would likely constitute unlawful censorship.” The decision not to vote means the books will stay where they are.

My Princess Boy, written by Cheryl Kilodavis and illustrated by Suzanne DeSimone, is based on the author’s son; the book tells the story of a boy who prefers to wear clothes that some people consider feminine. This Day in June, written by Gayle E. Pitman and illustrated by Kristyna Litten, is a book about a pride parade that also focuses on LGBT history.

This decision followed a three-hour public meeting, in which concerned citizens weighed in on both sides of the issue. This sounds exhausting, and also like something out of Parks & Recreation (RIP). During this meeting, a local man echoed an increasingly familiar sentiment:

One Hood County resident, James Logan, accused the library of anti-religious sentiment, saying, “This library, as many on the progressive left do, hides their contempt for Judeo-Christian values behind the right of free speech.”

If this is sounding familiar, you’re right. Let’s jump back to Jacksonville. Here’s the original Facebook post talking about why Nasreen’s Secret School and The Librarian of Basra are bad:

“If we cannot promote praying to God and Jesus Christ in our public schools, how can we promote reading the Koran and praying to Muhammad?”

Now here’s Mayor Brugnaro:

“We do not want to discriminate against children,” he said. “At home parents can be called Dad One and Dad Two, but I have to think about the majority of families where there is a mother and a father.”

In all three of these bans, the motive to remove the disputed titles has been defended using the rhetoric of anti-censorship. I.e., “these books oppose my belief system, which is censorship, so they must be suppressed”. It’s an audacious and shameless re-purposing of the language of social progress to excuse cultural regression, but more than that, it speaks to the changing political nature of this type of discourse. Brugnaro didn’t publicly excuse his book ban by saying he believes that gay people are sinful, because that would have sacrificed too much political capital. By framing the issue in the context of institutional censorship, claiming that the previous administration was working insidiously to undercut “traditional” values, it implies moral high ground while quickly derailing any liberal counterargument.

Ditto in Duval and Granbury, where supporters of these bans didn’t immediately resort to blatantly Islamophobic/homophobic arguments, because those don’t garner the same amount of support as a claim of discrimination. A baseless claim, I should add. Children’s books don’t suppress Christian or heterosexual or “traditional” points of view any more than a red shirt (children’s books) suppresses a green shirt (God, I guess?). Or to be a little more pointed: The parents and legislators trying to ban these books are claiming that every red shirt comes emblazoned with “GREEN SHIRTS ARE BAD AND STUPID”. This is not true! Rather, their green shirts are printed with “ONLY GREEN SHIRTS EXIST”. If you’ve only worn green, and someone wearing red walks past, you might just start to question the slogan on your shirt—but nobody’s going to force you to wear a red one.

But urging people to believe in huge, unreported, and fictitious plans by scary institutions (usually public ones) to force you into giving up your various shirts has become a very popular way to muster outrage. The cultural reasons for this are long-ranging and complex, but you can’t rely on unqualified bigotry to muster broad popular support the way you used to. Whether or not this has means political discourse has changed for the better isn’t clear; on one hand, it’s good that certain blatantly discriminatory views carry less political heft than they did twenty years ago. But on the other hand, a shift in rhetoric doesn’t always mean a shift in actual values. Phrasing isn’t conviction, and just because it’s a dog whistle doesn’t make it any quieter

What is clear is that arguments against progressive children’s books all contain the same core of fear, underscored by the particular framing and rhetoric with which they’re being delivered: if kids are allowed to read them, they might actually enjoy them.

Now as promised, here are some bookstore corgis who encourage shy children to read out loud. See you next week, I’m sure.

Liam O'Brien is the Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.