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Penguin papas lead a list of literary controversies

Chicago Tribune

new york -- The story seemed like a surefire hit for children. A pair of penguins take care of an egg that isn’t theirs and, after it hatches, raise the baby as their own.

How heartwarming. And who doesn’t love penguins?

Plenty of people, it turns out, when both penguin parents are male.

That plot twist earned “And Tango Makes Three” the distinction of being the most-challenged book of 2006, according to the Chicago-based American Library Assn., which compiles an annual list of titles that have been targeted for removal from public and school libraries.

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“Tango,” by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, and other controversial titles from the 2006 list, such as two books by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison and the popular “Gossip Girl” series by Cecily von Ziegesar, were the center of attention this month during Banned Books Week, organized by the library association and other groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union.

Last year, the number of challenges -- ranging from written complaints to full-blown hearings -- jumped to 546, more than 30% higher than 2005 . Such fluctuations are not unusual, according to Judith Krug, head of the library association’s office for intellectual freedom.

And, despite the increase in challenges, the vast majority of efforts to ban specific books came up short: Only 29 titles were removed from some library shelves last year. Among the titles that disappeared were “Siddhartha” by Hermann Hesse, Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” and Judy Blume’s “Forever.”

Even one removal is too many for Krug.

“You’re taking choice away,” she said. “If it’s removed, no one in that library or school has the opportunity to read that book.”

Organizers of efforts to have books removed from public libraries or school reading lists say that their efforts are aimed at keeping graphic material, such as obscene language or sex scenes, out of the hands of young children.

The library association has been “very successful in spreading their message that anything goes,” said Dan Kleinman, who runs the website SafeLibraries .org, which calls for greater parental say in which books are used in schools and available to children at libraries. Banned Books Week is “propaganda to convince parents to allow school boards and libraries to continue making inappropriate material available,” he said.

Kleinman cited the decision by the school board in Oak Lawn, a Chicago suburb, to keep a book on a summer reading list for eighth-graders despite its use of profanity and description of adolescent sexual desires. The board issued an apology for not notifying parents about the contents of the novel, “Fat Kid Rules the World.”

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Challenges involving books aimed at children or young adults make up “at least 75" of every 100 efforts to have a title removed, Krug said.

“Absolutely, parents should have the right to decide whether their children should have access to a book, but that right ends where my nose begins,” she said, meaning that other parents might think that book was appropriate for their children.

Objections to books come from all points on the political spectrum, she said. If the issue is homosexuality, the challenge is likely to come from religious conservatives. If the issue is racism, the complaint is more likely coming from the left, “because they’re concerned about eliminating ‘isms,’ ” Krug said.

In past years, Mark Twain’s use of an offensive term for blacks landed “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” on the most-challenged list. Twain is missing from 2006’s list.

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So is Harry Potter. The Potter series, which concluded this year with the seventh book, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” tops the list of most-challenged titles from 2000 to 2006, but no new Potter book was published in 2006. Objections have been raised about the series because of its frequent violence and because some opponents maintain that author J.K. Rowling’s stories about her young wizard hero promote Satanism.

One of the most common themes running through the titles of this year’s 10 most-challenged books is homosexuality, cited as grounds for objection in four books, starting with “And Tango Makes Three.” Simon & Schuster, the book’s publisher, described “Tango” as intended for 4- to 8-year-olds, but parents in many communities, including Shiloh, Ill., contend that is too young for a story about a same-sex couple, whether they have two legs or two wings.

“The huge majority of parents would avoid this book if they knew it was brainwashing their children to support and experiment with homosexual behavior,” said Randy Thomasson, president of the California-based Campaign for Children and Families.

The library association declined to disclose how many challenges have been mounted against “Tango,” citing the association’s confidentiality policy. But despite the challenges, the book was not removed from any library last year.

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Parnell, a playwright and TV writer, and Richardson, a psychiatrist, based their illustrated tale on a real pair of male penguins at New York’s Central Park Zoo.

“We felt that there was an opportunity in this story to talk about different kinds of families,” said Parnell, noting that the book recently won an award voted on by fifth-graders at three Manhattan schools. “I don’t think any child at that age is thinking about it in terms of the practice of sex as much as about love and trying to be a family.”

To Thomasson, the inclusion of “Tango” in public library collections is proof that libraries are “very different from 30 years ago.”

“Parents can no longer trust libraries to protect their children’s innocence or uphold appropriate standards,” he said. “Voters should demand that books with harmful content be removed from school and city libraries.”

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To Krug, the way to avoid conflicts is for a library’s governing board to set clear standards for what it will acquire. But including books that deal with diverse subjects is one of the most important functions of a library, she said.

“Libraries are one place in the community where everyone is represented on the shelves,” she said. “That’s one of our roles.”


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