First, they came for the penguins

Where’s Tango? asks Erica Garman on Living in LoCo.

Answer: Behind the counter, being treated as if she’s a potential danger to children.

Tango, if you have not been introduced, is a lovable little penguin chick who lends her name to the popular children’s book And Tango Makes Three. The book is based on the true story of Roy and Silo, two male penguins at the Central Park Zoo who hatched an adopted egg and raised the chick together. It has received numerous awards, including Nick Jr. Family Magazine Best Book of the Year, Bank Street Best Book of the Year, and American Library Association Notable Children’s Book.

And Tango Makes Three is included in the collection of many Loudoun County elementary school libraries. Recently, a parent at Sugarland Elementary in Sterling complained about the book, wanting it removed. The book was reviewed according to the written policy for book challenges, and was found to be appropriate. The parent appealed that decision, and Superintendent Edgar Hatrick made the decision to remove the book from general circulation and make it available only by request of a teacher.

Update: According to the story published Wednesday by the Loudoun Times-Mirror, the intervention by Dr. Hatrick is even more severe than we had originally believed. We had taken for granted that Dr. Hatrick’s decision was in agreement with the recommendation of the district-level review committee, but that appears not to have been the case. Here, apparently from the Public Information office of LCPS, is the actual sequence of events:

The parent filed a complaint with the principal, who reviewed the book and deemed it to be appropriate for children.

The parent then appealed that decision, and a district-level committee made up of a parent, a teacher, a school librarian and administrators reviewed the book. They ruled it was acceptable for general circulation.

Superintendent Edgar Hatrick III had final say, though, and decided to override that decision [emphasis added].

The Wikipedia entry for the book has already been updated to reflect this, making Loudoun County once again a laughingstock around the world because of our recurring problems with censorship.**

Update 2: Speaking of being an international laughingstock, the story has now been picked up by ScienceBlogs: Gay Penguins! Hide the Children!

The previous post discusses the impossible demands placed on another school district by a parent – that his children be removed from any situation in which other kinds of families might be discussed. It would be difficult to top the absurdity of the Parker’s lawsuit, but the Sugarland parent is certainly making a vigorous effort with this complaint about Tango.

To recap: It’s a story about penguins.

It’s also a true story (my favorite case of attempted censorship: Parents in Missouri who succeeded in getting the book moved from Children’s Fiction to Children’s Non-fiction). What could it be about this sweet tale of parental devotion that would get this persons’ shorts in a bunch?

Let’s see: The book “teaches children that it’s okay to be in, or know someone who has, a ‘non-traditional’ family.” The Sugarland parent must therefore think, despite sharing a school with all kinds of families, that it’s appropriate to teach that these things are not okay. Before passing judgment, maybe he or she should consider what the real-life Tango (“now a healthy young female penguin”) would think about that. The zoo staff who provided Tango’s egg to the male couple took it from a mixed-sex couple “which previously had been unable to successfully hatch two eggs at a time.”

I hate to say it, but perhaps this narrative is just too close for comfort to human stories like this one, in which a drunk mother apparently cooked her baby in the microwave, or the many instances in which parents who would appear to be living the very model of heterosexual married fruitfulness kill their children. Those who insist that a child “needs a mother and a father” might consider how very differently things would have turned out for these children if they had been rescued from these awful situations and adopted by a non-crazy (gay or straight) couple instead. They might consider all the children currently in foster care, and those lucky ones who have found loving homes with people who, like Roy and Silo, really want to be parents. The story illustrates something that is as true of penguins as it is of humans: Fertility does not equal the desire and ability to parent.

Of the 69 customer reviews of Tango on Amazon.com, almost all are highly positive. Some of the things said in the tiny number of negative reviews are silly beyond belief. For example: Use of the phrase “homosexual penguins.” And I’m not at all sure how the behavior of penguins can “go against the Word of God.” Also, the claim that the book is “inappropriate for children” implies the depiction of a sexual relationship; I think that someone’s imagination must be working a little too hard. All that we know is that Ray and Silo were pair-bonded for a time and raised Tango together. We know nothing about whether they had a sexual relationship (and I frankly don’t consider that to be any of my business). There’s no sex of any kind whatsoever depicted in the book – it’s written for 6-year olds, for goodness’ sake.

At the very least, Dr. Hatrick owes the community a full explanation of what he thinks is so unsuitable about this book that he would contravene the decision made by the school principal and staff members – especially in light of the stated criteria for library materials in the LCPS Policies and Regulations Manual (see § 5-7 (6), Selection objectives, in the Regulations document).

Just as in the manufactured controversy over high school plays a few years ago, and in the Parker case discussed in the previous post, this is a case of someone with a particular point of view demanding the special right to silence another point of view with which they disagree. I’m pretty sure that the parent who made the complaint about this book has not been prevented from expressing his or her beliefs about what a family should look like, or from teaching those beliefs to his or her children. I’m also pretty sure that there are plenty of books in the school library that depict the sort of family of which this parent approves. Given all that, why would it be necessary to prevent other parents, who may have different beliefs, from having books available to their children as well? The answer is the same as it was in the other cases: The mere visibility of other kinds of families makes anti-gay indoctrination more difficult.

There is an even more dangerous implication here. If a parent can have Tango removed from circulation by complaining, any book that contains ideas a parent disagrees with could be at risk. What’s next? What would stop another parent from complaining about a book with an affirming portrayal of Muslims, for example? Or of migrant workers? And how would we know about it? For all we know, numerous books have already been challenged and removed because of one parent’s complaint. There is no requirement that these decisions be made part of the public record, and there is no mechanism for challenging such a decision even if the public becomes aware of it. We only know about this particular case because someone left an anonymous tip.

I encourage everyone who has school age children to talk to your school librarian and principal about this book. If it’s not in the collection, request it. If it is, and has been moved to the restricted list, ask what you need to do to challenge and reverse that decision. Also, contact your School Board member with your concerns about the process for challenging books. If another parent has been deciding what your child gets to read, you have a right to know about it. Currently, that right is not being respected.

You can contact Superintendent Hatrick at (571) 252-1020 or schools@loudoun.k12.va.us;
Find and contact your School Board member here;
Read the existing policy governing book challenges here: Policy & Regulations

Feel free to leave your feedback in the comments, or if you prefer, email us.

** In addition to the embarrassing school play debacle of 2005, the 1994 Library Board of Trustees, at the instigation of Dick Black, removed the American Library Association “Freedom to Read” document and other anti-censorship statements from Loudoun’s public library policy. These policies have since been fully restored.

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11 Responses to First, they came for the penguins

  1. Pingback: Wikipedia » First, they came for the penguins

  2. Thom says:

    Has someone requested a FOIA disclosure of all materials relating to the removal of this book? I’d be very curious as to the internal correspondence on this issue.

  3. David says:

    Not to my knowledge, yet. A clear flaw in the policy, as written, is the lack of transparency. If a book is challenged, the details should be a matter of public record, and not require a FOIA request. That, IMO, is the problem that needs addressing – although I am very interested in seeing what both the complaining parent and Dr. Hatrick think is wrong with this book. They are certainly welcome to share that with our readers if they believe they have a legitimate case.

    One thing we know (from the reporter who was initially contacted) is that the school library personnel were explicitly told not to speak to the media about this. Someone must have had the integrity to recognize that they work for the citizens, not Dr. Hatrick. I wonder what the odds are that the original complaint form filled out by the parent and other related correspondence will be mysteriously “lost?”

  4. Emily Lloyd says:

    Sigh. For what it’s worth, I wrote two comic strips about the banning of And Tango Makes Three back in October:

    http://shelfcheck.blogspot.com/2007/10/shelf-check-98.html

    http://shelfcheck.blogspot.com/2007/09/shelf-check-90.html

    I spent most of my life in Fairfax County, VA, home of the “God forbid we distribute the Washington Blade in public libraries” battle (and others). Loudoun appears to be giving Fairfax a run for its money. Thanks for posting the superintendent’s address–I will write.

  5. David says:

    Thanks, Emily! These are great.

    Hopefully some of you caught Lindy from PFLAG on Fox5 News this evening, and I’m going to be on the 11:00 news on WUSA 9. I could have used some water.

    Meanwhile, has anyone gotten a response from Dr. Hatrick yet? Could he possibly think this is going to blow over? I don’t think it is. We’ve been farked, with nearly 8,000 hits since 1:00 pm today. People in this community really don’t like other people deciding for them what their kids can read.

    I just want one simple question answered: Even if we were to accept the premise that a true story about penguins was “controversial,” how would that justify ignoring this section of the LCPS Policies and Regulations manual, concerning the criteria for selecting library materials?

    e. To provide materials on opposing sides of controversial issues in order that students may develop under guidance the practice of critical reading, viewing, listening, and thinking

    And that’s just one of the criteria at issue.

    Can I get an answer?

  6. David says:

    No, evidently not.

    In the meantime, I came across this very nice way of explaining the true story of Roy and Silo. It is intended to be for a very small child, but I believe it would also be appropriate for certain adults who inexplicably have visions of hot penguin sex dancing in their heads. They should pour themselves a nice glass of wine and then read the following:

    1: At a zoo in New York, some penguins had a problem. Two boy penguins wanted to be daddies. They didn’t have mates, so they tried to help each other be daddies by taking turns sitting on a rock, hoping it would hatch like an egg. It didn’t.

    2: Meanwhile, a mommy penguin was very lucky to lay two eggs. Most penguins only lay one egg, and two chicks would have been too much for her to care for.

    3: Instead of letting one baby chick die, the zookeepers had a great idea: why not give the boy penguins their wish, and let them help each other to be daddies?

    4: The zookeepers gave the boy penguins the egg, and they took turns caring for it. After the chick was hatched, they took care of it together.

    5: When the baby penguin was grown, one of the boy penguins found a girl penguin to be his mate, and the other one is still looking.

    6: Because the baby penguin was well-cared for, it grew strong and healthy.

    The end.

  7. Pingback: Equality Loudoun » Penguins and children

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  10. Pingback: First, They Came for the Pengiuns « Snake Lady Librarian

  11. Pingback: Why we need PFLAG, continued |

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