By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 17, 2008
A children's book about two male penguins that hatch and parent a chick was pulled from library shelves in Loudoun County elementary schools this month after a parent complained that it promoted a gay agenda.
The decision by Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III led many parents and gay rights advocates to rush to the penguins' defense. Many say that the school system should not have allowed one complaint to limit children's literary choices. Some are calling for an overhaul of the book review policy. Besides, many say, what could be wrong with a book about penguins?
The book is based "on a true story . . . of what happens in the animal kingdom," said David Weintraub, director of Equality Loudoun, a gay rights organization. "It's about the joy of being part of a family. These penguins love each other. They take care of each other."
The book, "And Tango Makes Three," by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, draws on the real-life story of Roy and Silo, two chinstrap penguins at the Central Park Zoo in New York. It also appears to make a point about tolerance of alternative families.
The publisher, Simon & Schuster, offers discussion questions about the book on a Web site. One says: "Tango has two fathers instead of the traditional mother and father. Do you have a nontraditional family, or do you know someone who does?"
As the book says, Roy and Silo were "a little bit different" than the boy and girl penguins who noticed each other and became couples. "Wherever Roy went, Silo went too." After they tried to hatch an egg-shaped rock together, a zookeeper gave them a fertilized egg to nurture. Experts say male chinstraps typically share incubation duties with females.
The 2005 book, written with simple words and colorful pictures and dedicated "to penguin lovers everywhere," topped the American Library Association's list of banned or challenged books in 2006. Parents challenged the book in Shiloh, Ill., and Charlotte. Administrators in Charlotte initially yanked the book but later restored it, according to news reports.
In Loudoun, the book was challenged at Sugarland Elementary School several months ago, officials said, by a parent they declined to name.
Following school system policy, the principal convened an advisory committee of principals, librarians, teachers and parents to review the book. The group deemed it acceptable, and the principal concurred. The parent appealed. Another committee of administrators, librarians and parents reviewed the book. That committee, too, recommended that it remain in the collection.
Hatrick made the final call. Wayde B. Byard, a schools spokesman, said Friday that Hatrick made a "split decision." Although "Tango" was pulled from the shelves, it will remain in the librarian's collection. At 16 elementary schools, the book is now part of the professional collection, where it is stored with instructional texts and can be checked out only by parents or teachers. It's still in the general collection at one middle school and two high schools.
Hatrick thought the book's content might not be developmentally appropriate for some students, Byard said. "He thought the book, for some of the younger students, would be better read with an adult or a teacher," he said.
But censorship watchdogs say Hatrick's decision still sends a strong message.
"If you are putting something behind a desk, you are saying something is wrong with it," said Judith Krug, director of the office for intellectual freedom at the American Library Association. "It's a degree of censorship, because they are making access to information extremely difficult."
Nikki George, a Sterling parent, said her daughter, a second-grader, tried to take the book out of her library at Forest Grove Elementary in Sterling last week and was told that she could not. She had heard the story last year, when a minister at her Unitarian Universalist church read it to a group of children during a service.
George said that the book helps teach a lesson that she wants her children to know: There are all types of families.
"We happen to be a mom and dad and a boy and a girl," she said. "But sometimes you have a grandmother and a mother, sometimes you have just a dad, sometimes you have two moms or two dads. The important thing is that it's a family of love."
Some parents and activists want to challenge Hatrick's decision and put the book back on shelves, but school system officials say there is no process to do that.
John Stevens, a school board member from Potomac, criticized those policies. Under the heading "Put The Penguins Back," he wrote on his blog that the policies, last reviewed in 1993, are "deeply flawed and led to a bad decision."
Stevens wrote that parents should determine what is appropriate for their children. "The school should not be an instrument of censorship for parents who want veto power over the judgment of other parents," he wrote.
Stevens intends to propose a new set of policies at a committee meeting March 4.
Last school year, a Loudoun parent challenged a school library book titled "Math Curse" because of a concern that it could be associated with witchcraft, said David Jones, supervisor of library media services.
A local committee recommended keeping "Math Curse" in the library. The decision was not appealed.