I am hardly the first and I won’t be the last person to read a book purely because it was banned. In fact, it’s a bit of a tradition for Banned Book Week: go out and read a banned book. I decided for a couple of reasons to go straight to the top of the banned books: here’s a book that’s the most contested, most banned book in the entire United States for four out of the last five years. (It was knocked down to second most banned book in 2009, but it rebounded back up to first place in 2010.)
This book has owned the American Library Association’s banned book list every year since its publication. Wow.
And then there’s the other reason why I picked this book. It is, in no particular order: nonfiction, a picture book, intended for a kindergarten audience, and about penguins.
“Um…,” I hear you say. “Why exactly was it banned?”
Perhaps you ask tentatively because, well, the mind kind of boggles at the potential horrors that are being done to and with penguins.
They are… nesting and raising babies. This is the kind of thing that penguins do. In fact, most species do. They find themselves a mate, they make for themselves a nest, and they have babies, generally rather cute babies.
“Um…,” you say again. “So why…?”
Well, the book focuses on a specific penguin couple and their specific little baby penguin at New York City’s Central Park Zoo. The two adult penguins are both male. The egg they hatch was given to them by one of the zoo-keepers. (Noted in the author’s note at the back, the egg came from the nest of one of the other penguin couples who had a bad habit of abandoning the second of their two eggs.)
The story is about this couple of male penguins who put together a nest, and raise a baby penguin.
So the fact that this book is so often banned is rather appalling for at least three different reasons:
1st: The reasons for banning this book are depictions of homosexuality and anti-family messages. To which I respond, firstly, that this story is all about having a happy family and is possibly the least anti-family book that I have ever read. Then I will point out that this is a children’s picture book with age-appropriate writing. This means there is no sexuality at all. There is no homosexuality. There is no heterosexuality. There is no sexuality! Instead, there is gender awareness. To paraphrase: at a certain time of year, boy penguins and girl penguins start to notice each other and make nests together, but the two boy penguins, Roy and Silo, noticed each other instead.
2nd: Okay, so ignoring the issue of sexuality versus gender awareness, and just accepting that, okay, this book is about homosexuality… banning the book for that reasons implies that homosexuality is intrinsically disturbing, unpleasant, unnatural, etc. As it turns out, it is demonstrably not any of these. While some people may find homosexuality disturbing or unpleasant, that is probably a personal response on their part and not intrinsic the issue. And it’s certainly not unnatural. Homosexuality in animals is approximately as common as homosexuality in humans. (For more information, check out Evolution’s Rainbow, by Joan Roughgarden, which is an academic publication by a tenured biology professor at Stanford.)
3rd: The people banning this book are complaining about an age-appropriate nonfiction book. They’re complaining about the facts of the world. This story is true. These events took place. These penguins lived in that zoo. Banning a book like this is saying that there are some truths in the world that are not to be acknowledged. And that, to me, is truly disturbing, unpleasant, and unnatural.
But, returning for a moment to look at the book as just a book rather than a particularly contentious banned book, I’ll say it’s cute, it’s fun, it’s nonfiction (which is relatively rare in picture books), and the illustrations are quite lovely.
I recommend it to anyone with young kids.