Trouble With Gay Characters

Times Staff Writer

Martha Freeman got the bad news at lunch from her publisher and literary agent. Although “The Trouble With Babies” had received good reviews, the sales of her children’s book about a young San Francisco girl were poor compared with the first title in her series, and the paperback rights would not be sold.

But more stunning was the reason: A brief passage buried in the book about two gay fathers and their adopted son apparently had discouraged many librarians across the country from buying the title. Although they had enthusiastically purchased Freeman’s previous book, “The Trouble With Cats,” the mere mention of the gay couple in her newest work raised the possibility of a public backlash.

In one case, a Pittsburgh-area mother who described herself as a Christian demanded that the book be removed, writing to an elementary school librarian that the author obviously had a “homosexual agenda” inappropriate for young readers. Soon afterward, the title was taken off the library shelves.


“You could have knocked me over with a feather,” Freeman said recently, folding laundry in her home here near the Pennsylvania State University campus. “The story I wrote had nothing to do with gay issues, and the reference to those fathers was strictly in the background, to show you the kind of people who live on a city block.”

Now, Freeman faces a dilemma: Her publisher, Holiday House, has asked her to produce a third installment, and she has not decided whether to retain the gay fathers, as an act of independence, or eliminate them in an effort to sell more books.

“Part of me is tempted to put in even more gay characters, because these are my stories and I really don’t like being censored,” she said. “But I write books at home to earn money and send my three kids to school. My future earnings could be hurt if I keep these two gay characters in the plot. So what should I do?”

At a time when gay culture is gaining wider acceptance in American society -- as reflected in television shows, movies, magazines, fashion trends and recent court decisions -- Freeman’s experience is a reminder that sensitivities still run high on the issue, especially when it comes to marketing new books for younger children.

While there has been an explosion in the number of books with gay and lesbian themes written for teenagers, sales of similar titles for younger children in school and public libraries remain “very dicey and very different,” said Roger Sutton, publisher of the Horn Book Magazine, a monthly that covers children’s literature.

If a library refuses to acquire a gay-themed book for teenagers, he explained, they can still find it in other places -- like bookstores or online -- because they have disposable income. But most younger children do not have this freedom and are dependent on adults for books to read.


This puts immense power in the hands of librarians, because books like Freeman’s are most commonly sold to libraries. If the titles aren’t sold in sufficiently large numbers, there is little chance they will be reprinted in less expensive paperback editions. If that happens, the books may quickly go out of print.

Publishers typically market books like “The Trouble With Babies” by sending out a limited number of review copies, and presenting them at book fairs and trade conventions. Most librarians, however, learn about new titles from reviews in professional journals -- and this may have created problems for Freeman’s book.

A majority of reviews mentioned the presence of the two gay fathers, thus tagging the book as one with “alternative lifestyle issues,” Sutton said. Never mind that Freeman’s title is mainly about Holly, a 9-year-old who meets new friends and has zany backyard adventures when she moves to a new neighborhood.

“For some readers, the mere use of the word ‘gay’ is inappropriate, and they can’t separate the word from the idea of sex,” said Mary Cash, Holiday House’s executive editor. “It’s a problem we’ve seen over and over with books for children, especially when it comes to getting them on the shelves of public and school libraries.”

Indeed, several gay-themed books for younger readers have remained atop the list of the nation’s most-banned library books in recent years, according to the American Library Assn., which tracks the issue.

Titles such as “Heather Has Two Mommies” and “Daddy’s New Roommate” have sparked legal battles across the nation, causing many books to be removed or segregated in special collections.


Yet many experts believe a more subtle and prevalent kind of censorship happens when school or public librarians simply decline to buy a book like Freeman’s, fearing it may cause a political furor. These decisions are made in private, but they are no less crucial to the life -- and public availability -- of certain children’s books.

“There are well-organized community groups, not to mention parents, who simply don’t want these kind of books available to kids,” said Penny Kastanis, executive director of the California School Library Assn. “You have parents who will say, ‘Never mind what our kids are seeing on television at night or at the movies.’ They’re going to make sure their children never read a book at school that they don’t like.”

Some children’s authors withstand the heat better than others. Leslea Newman, who wrote “Heather Has Two Mommies” in 1989, got valuable publicity from the controversy over her book. It is now a fixture in many bookstores. But Freeman and other writers whose books sell modestly and rarely make headlines rely heavily on librarians’ goodwill and word of mouth to keep their books in circulation.

There is no precise way to measure how many gay-themed books have been taken off library shelves for political reasons. Yet the American Library Assn.’s Office of Intellectual Freedom reports that from 1990 to 2000 there were 515 reported cases in school and public libraries in which critics sought to remove books with alleged homosexual themes. Many more cases were never reported, the group noted.

Host of Legal Fights

In recent years, there have been legal battles over gay-themed library books in Maine, Wisconsin, Texas, Virginia, California, Florida, Maryland and other states. Freeman’s book has now inadvertently become part of this cross-fire, but the continuing irony for her is that “The Trouble With Babies” is not about gay issues.

“She faces a classic problem here,” Sutton said. “On the one hand, I’d say, this was an outrage, an overreaction by both the parents and the librarians, and she should keep writing those characters into her future books.


“But that’s easy for me to say in my ivory tower,” he added. “I’m not a librarian who has to make these decisions in the real world and fight these battles every day.”

Connie Cauvel, the Pittsburgh-area librarian who took Freeman’s book off the shelf, said she believed “The Trouble With Babies” was well-written. Librarians need to speak out for freedom of speech, she added, especially when critics attack “Huckleberry Finn,” “The Color Purple,” “Of Mice and Men” and other literary classics.

But after 38 years of battles with parents and other critics over library books, she added: “You get to the point where you can’t win every confrontation. The reality is, the parents who objected to this book would have taken this to our school board, and I would have been overridden. I only have so much energy for these fights.”

Many such battles require parents or others to describe what they object to in a book and make presentations before public or school library officials. The proceedings often involve legal counsel, and one school district in Maryland estimated that a challenge could cost $2,500.

Some critics, however, say these public debates are the very essence of democracy, because they give parents a voice in how their children are educated.

“It’s the librarian’s job to be a censor, to choose what books do or don’t go into a library, and we live in a time when American libraries are overloaded with homosexual themes,” said Phil Burress, president of the Ohio-based Citizens for Community Values, a nonprofit advocacy group that monitors such issues nationwide.


Although he was not familiar with Freeman’s book, Burress said the notion that an author would put gay fathers in a children’s book proved that a “gay agenda” was creeping into American children’s literature. “For many people, this is not something you simply put ‘in the background,’ ” he said. “They don’t think librarians should be promoting this view of the world, saying it’s normal for our society.”

But what might seem alarming and provocative to some readers is for others an honest, nonjudgmental portrait of modern American life. The sole reference to gay parents in “The Trouble With Babies” comes on Page 52, when Xavier, a neighborhood boy nicknamed Dr. X, tells Holly that he has two dads and no mom:

“Oh, now I get it,” [Holly] said. “You mean they’re gay.”

Dr. X nodded. “Exactly.”

Mom and William have friends who are gay. Some of them have kids. But this was the first time I had met a kid with two dads and no moms.

“Okay,” I shrugged.

“You don’t think that’s weird?” Dr. X asked me.

“It’s not usual,” I said. “But it’s not weird.”

“The Trouble With Cats” featured the same main character and has sold nearly 10,000 copies in hardcover and paperback, mostly to school and public libraries. Based on those modest but encouraging sales, several book clubs for young readers included the title in their offerings, and this in turn convinced Random House Inc. to bring out a paperback edition, Cash said.

Yet “The Trouble With Babies” has sold only 2,292 copies since it was published last year. Holiday House officials told Freeman that, based on its performance, they may not keep the $15.95 hardback edition in print.

Told about Freeman’s experience, several experts on children’s literature and libraries were astonished. If someone objects to a book, they said, that doesn’t give them the right to impose their views on others who want to read it.


“When you take books off the shelf for these reasons, that’s censorship,” said Beverly Becker, associate director of the American Library Assn.’s Office of Intellectual Freedom. “It has a damaging impact on the community at large, which includes a lot of different voices, and it also has a chilling effect on an author.”

Librarian as Censor

Ultimately, experts note, the economy may have the biggest chilling effect of all. At a time of funding cuts, public and school libraries have less money to buy new books. In such an environment, it is tempting for librarians to pass on books like “The Trouble With Babies” that might trigger controversies, in favor of less controversial titles, the California School Library Assn.’s Kastanis noted.

“No librarian wants to be a censor,” she said. “But these pressures make it easier for them to say, ‘Why should I buy this book? Who needs the trouble?’ And that’s how some deal with these tough issues, under the cover of a larger concern over funding.”

So what is an author to do?

Fellow writers offered a range of advice. Newman, author of “Heather Has Two Mommies,” said: “If anyone ever says I can’t write something, then that’s what I write about. But it’s a real struggle, because I don’t have a kid to send to college. Martha should follow her heart on this issue.”

Alex Sanchez, who has written several gay-themed novels for teenagers, including the just-published “Rainbow High,” said he has encountered similar problems when deciding how to balance the content -- and commercial viability -- of his books.

“I struggle with how to write the story I want and at the same time make it most probable that a book will wind up in libraries,” he said. “My editor and I are mindful of this. We proceed very carefully with the kind of language and scenes we portray.”


Freeman, 47, lives with her husband and three children in this small, central Pennsylvania town that seems light-years from New York, Los Angeles and other big cities where battles over gay and lesbian rights surface more frequently.

She remains torn about the plot for her third episode, but refuses to blame librarians for her troubles, saying they are on the front line of a tough battle and deserve more public support for their efforts on behalf of freedom of speech.

“I don’t write books as a public service,” Freeman said with irritation, “and it’s stupid for me to produce things that won’t be read because kids can’t get at them. I didn’t get into this [writing] to become a spokesperson for any point of view.

“But on the other hand, I should be able to write what I want, without fear of censorship. That’s my version of America, for me and other writers.”

“The Trouble With Babies” may be a lost cause commercially, but there could be smaller victories for Freeman. Cauvel, the librarian who pulled the book, said she recently put it back in circulation. Several children checked it out; others are waiting for it, and no one’s complained.

“I take the long view,” she said. “If you call me 10 years from now, we’ll probably laugh about this. The world changes, and you can’t keep books from kids forever.”