Of People, Penguins, and the Book Banning Tango

Dr. Malcolm Cross

Efforts to ban books from public school libraries remain in the news.  Although would-be book banners and other activists demanding more say for parents on issues of children’s education are frequently denounced as bigots, religious zealots, domestic terrorists, and political extremists, a major story in the Washington Post raises the possibility that they may have at least a partial point.  Is there anything that can be done to satisfy both those who want to ban books and those who want to read them?

A poster in the lobby of Tarleton’s Dick Smith Library is announcing that in the upcoming week, the Library will sponsor “Banned Books Storytime.”  It urges students, faculty members, and staff to “Join the Library as we support the freedom to read by reading children’s books from our collection that have been banned in schools.”  The poster further explains that “Banned Books Week is intended to promote intellectual freedom and encourage readers to examine challenged literary works for themselves .”

But the poster also adds “Warning:  Some content may make you feel uncomfortable or be against your personal values.”  Fair enough.

I’m not scheduled to participate in this year’s program, which will be conducted between noon and 1:00 p.m. each day from Monday through Thursday.  But I’ve participated in previous programs featuring both children’s and adult books where I’ve read selections from the Bible, Charles Darwin’s On the Origins of Species, George Orwell’s 1984, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.  Tarleton’s Library and its staff are to be commended for continuing this worthy program.

And in one of those programs I encountered for the first time an example of a children’s book that has been widely banned, And Tango Makes Three, which one of my colleagues read to the assembled audience.  The book, based on a true story, tells of Roy and Silo, two male penguins in New York City’s Central Park Zoo trying to hatch a rock which they think is a penguin egg.  A zookeeper gives them a real egg which had been abandoned by the penguin who laid it.  Together the penguins care for the egg from which a female penguin, Tango, eventually emerges, and Roy, Silo, and Tango live as a family together happily ever after.  

For its positive description of a family with a same-sex couple and an adopted child, And Tango Makes Three has been widely condemned and suppressed by advocates of more traditional family structures.  Librarians who purchase and make available And Tango Makes Three and other children’s books featuring unconventional and nontraditional social and family arrangements have been accused of being “groomers” who are preparing children to be sexually molested.

And their extremism has been met with self-defeating overreactions from those who oppose their attempts to influence public education.  The National School Boards Association denounced book-banners and other activists as possible “domestic terrorists” whom the FBI should investigate.  In the 2021 race for Governor of Virginia, the Democratic nominee went so far as to say, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” and that he “was not going to let parents come into schools and actually take books out and make their own decisions,” after which he lost to Republican Glenn Youngkin.

But the irresponsible name-calling and extremist rhetoric coming from both sides of the book-banning controversy should not obscure the possibility that the book-banners may have at least a partial point which is currently being overlooked.  A lengthy story in the 9/28/23 edition of the Washington Post profiles one Jennifer Petersen, a practicing Buddhist and one of the most prolific book banning activists in America, who’s bought, read, reviewed, and in most cases condemned over 70 children’s books in her efforts to have them banned in Virginia’s Spotsylvania County Public Schools.  The Post reported that “The majority of school book objections center on titles by or about LGBTQ individuals or people of color…Petersen, though, has just one criterion by which she judges a book.  Does it contain material that [in Mrs. Petersen’s Opinion] under Virginia law, qualifies as sexually explicit, pornographic or obscene.” Mrs. Petersen apparently has no objection to And Tango Makes Three.  

But what of the books Mrs. Petersen does want banned?  The Post reports that when Mrs. Petersen has tried to read what she considers to be sexually explicit passages from the books, she has been denounced by school board members for reading material, out loud and in public, they consider “offensive.”  And the Post also says it can’t publish examples of the “graphic passages from the books she is challenging—mostly sentences too explicit to be printed in this newspaper.”  Which raises the following questions:  How can one justify the inclusion in a public school library of a book whose content is considered too graphic and offensive to be read out loud in public or printed in a family newspaper?  If its material is publicly banned, shouldn’t the book itself be banned as well?

Not necessarily.  Of course, books adjudged through due process in a court of law as pornographic or obscene have no business in a school library.  But in most instances 

I oppose outright book banning because to do so may deprive those who want to read the books in question of the right to do so.  A more fair and workable policy may be to require parental consent before students can access more sexually graphic and explicit books, thereby allowing parents more freedom to make decisions on their children’s behalf without interference from both the book banners and those educationists who think parents are too stupid or bigoted to legitimately question what their children are being taught.  Live and let live—a rule that should apply to both people and penguins alike.

Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton from 1987 until 2023. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present).  He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014.  He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.

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