Saturday, October 4, 2008

Read to your kids about gay penguins for banned book week

A few months ago I discovered a book while browsing the children's section of a local book store. The title was And Tango Makes Three. The cover featured a delightful watercolor illustration of a family of penguins.

I picked it up and read it, perhaps because I'd recently seen and loved the movie Happy Feet, and was quickly struck by two surprises: first, that the penguin parents on the cover were two male penguins, and that the story - about their pairing-for-life and eventually "adopting" a needy egg - actually happened at the New York City's Central Park Zoo.

I found both the writing of the story and the illustrations so adorable that the book stayed in my mind. I added it to my wish list, with the intention to purchase once we have children, or perhaps to buy as a gift for the children of friends. And when I started this blog I figured that I would write about it, but hadn't yet found a relevant context to bring it up. Then, this week on Radio Times (10/3/08, hour 2), in honor of the American Library Association's Banned Book Week, I caught Marty Moss-Coane mentioning this title in a list of books which have been either "banned or challenged" in public libraries.

I should expect that a children's book about a healthy, functional family involving a gay couple would raised criticism from social conservatives, but I couldn't help feeling outraged. First of all, this story wasn't made up in some contrived fashion - it really happened. Second, everyone, including kids, should know that homosexual behavior happens in the animal kingdom. It's just a biological fact for goodness's sake! And third, it is a sweet story about the spirit of family. The story is relateable to anyone with has not only homosexuality, but adoption, or any other unconventional grouping, such as a live-in grandparent or close friend in their household. In other words, this book is about what makes family a good and important thing: behaving in a loving way toward each other.

Social conservatives criticized Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials for being anti-Catholic, but I just read it, and I find these critics lacking in imagination and artistic sense. The triology obviously uses a lot of the tone, imagery, and terminology from the history of Catholicism to address the abuse of innocents. While I read certain portions of the book, I found myself thinking of child soldiers and human trafficking. The abduction of poor children from the streets by the "Gobblers" reminded me of a segment I heard on the radio last year about a group of Muslim extremists in Iraq who would desensitize new recruits by making them kidnap children who sell wares in the subway and then murder them. Children are among the most vulnerable in our population, and so they have always been victims. The abused in Pullman's trilogy could represent people from any culture or time in human history. Why did Pullman use Catholicism? Oh, gee, maybe because in the church's history it has often abused its power (just like most powerful institutions in history.) And all those elaborate costumes, titles, and rituals which just makes it perfect for fantasy fiction writing. Not to mention that when we recognize bits of our own world in speculative fiction, it makes the story more real for us.

I find myself thinking back to when the art exhibition Sensation was exhibited in New York City, and the outcry from Mayor Guiliani and other Catholics about Chris Ofili's Madonna:
One of his paintings, The Holy Virgin Mary, a depiction (portrait) of the Virgin Mary, was at issue in a lawsuit between the mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani, and the Brooklyn Museum of Art"Sensation" exhibit. The painting depicted a black African Mary surrounded by images from blaxploitation movies and close-ups of female genitalia cut from pornographic magazines, and elephant dung. These were formed into shapes reminiscent of the cherubim and seraphim commonly depicted in images of the Immaculate conception and the Assumption of Mary. Following the scandal surrounding this painting, Bernard Goldberg ranked Ofili #86 in 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America. Red Grooms showed his support of the artist by purchasing one of Ofili's paintings in 1999, even after Giuliani famously exclaimed, “There’s nothing in the First Amendment that supports horrible and disgusting projects!”
Ofili is of Nigerian decent, and in Nigeria elephant dung is regularly used in religious artwork and other ritualistic objects. In an interview, Ofili mentioned being raised Catholic and how the emphasis on Mary being a virgin made her a sexually charged figure for him, especially when he would go to museums and see painted versions of the Madonna (often of models who had slept with the painters who depicted them.) In this context, Ofili's paintings aren't offensive; they make genuinely unique and thoughtful observations about how some people come to understand religious icons through a subjective point of view.

But more important than this background info on Ofili's ethnicity and what he says about his own work is the work itself. So here, look. Does this look like something made to be blatantly offensive to Catholics? (The elephant dung, btw, are the 3D pieces on the bottom and the stone on her necklace chain, not that anyone would know that if they weren't told.)

Just as the gay dad penguins in And Tango Makes Three are a part of the story discovered along the way, the pornographic imagery and decorative use of the dung are parts of an image that tell a much greater story with a much more broad and nuanced meaning.

What is with the lack of imagination on the part of so many social conservatives? Do they just not understand what fiction and art are and do? They need to stop censoring what kids see and grow up themselves.

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