In the light novel series Toshokan Senso (Library Wars) by Hiro Arikawa, libraries employ armed soldiers to fend off government agents aimed at enforcing a strict censorship regime in a dystopian 90s Japan. The plot may be bizarre, but the social commentary is real. Public libraries house the collective cultural and intellectual product of their society. Because of libraries, when authors die, their knowledge and ideas do not die with them, but remain accessible to future generations.
The role of public libraries is therefore to preserve ideas, not propagate them. Thus, the decision by the National Library Board (NLB) to remove two children’s books due to a complaint by a single customer, Teo Kai Loon, that they are “not pro-family” ought to raise some eyebrows.
The first book in question, And Tango Makes Three features two male penguins that behave as a couple. The second, The White Swan Express, features two female partners trying to adopt a baby from China.
This is an excerpt of the reply from Ms Tay Ai Cheng, Assistant Chief Executive and Chief Librarian of the NLB to the complainant:
“I would like to assure you that NLB takes a strong pro-family stand in selecting books for children. We take a cautious approach in identifying titles for our young visitors… when library visitors like yourself highlight to us any conflicting content within books, we review such books thoroughly and withdraw them from circulation.”
From this reply and the content of the banned books, it is apparent that NLB removed the books because they featured two same-sex parent figures, which is allegedly anti-family.
While it is impossible to advocate for an absolute lack of censorship when it comes to books for young children, some precaution must be taken by the NLB in justifying the removal of books in the way they did.
First, defining the books as non pro-family is questionable. The book features, after all, a family of two parents and a child – and a happy loving one as well. Perhaps what the NLB is trying to say but lacked the willpower and the vocabulary to do so, was that the book features a family unit contrary to the heteronormative conception of the ideal family unit consisting of two parents, one male and one female.
If this were the reasoning, they ought to say so. Even so, it does not justify a library removing any content contrary to societal ideals. In that case, shouldn’t the library remove all children’s books that feature orphans, single parents, divorced parents or any main character not belonging to a family since it would fall short of the “ideal” family unit?
Second, why the special place for family units? How about religion, or gender or even career interests? Take career for an example. Since the “ideal” path we subscribe to is to attend school, work hard, score good grades, get a good job and live a happy life, would the NLB also be removing books that feature children growing up to be poets, painters and magicians?
Third, the book features a same-sex couple; it does not promote one. There is a difference between featuring something and promoting it. If we were to assume that just because a book features something, it must be promoting it, and that on this basis it should be banned, then shouldn’t all NLB books that feature say, a religion of some sort, whether through words or images, be banned because promoting a particular religion over others is contrary to our secular values?
Fourth, suggestions of a homosexual agenda or social commentary are made by adults, who interpret the books from an adult point of view. The last I recall these books were written for children.
You may have seen this optical illusion before. Researchers showed it to both children and adults who were asked to describe what they saw. Almost all the adults reported seeing a couple making love; all the children reported seeing eight dolphins.
Children are the ones reading these books, not adults.
Fifth, there may be no harm even if children come to learn about homosexuality. Homosexuality exists in society, and they will come to know about it eventually. There are children’s books that ease children into discovering difficult themes like death in a gentle, non-explicit manner; books that feature alternative family units are no different. Just because an adult disagrees with something does not mean she must stop her child from discovering or asking questions about it. This differs greatly from books featuring pornography or violence which are clearly not designed for children.
For the less informed, I’d like to clarify that there is an exactly zero per cent chance reading about homosexuality will make a child a homosexual. Similar to how there is also a zero per cent chance that reading about death would kill a child.
Finally, and perhaps most obviously, parents have the choice not to let their children read any particular book as they please. It is not the library’s job to ban books parents could have easily taken from their child’s hands and put back on the shelf, or simply not have picked out for their children in the first place.
The threshold for banned books ought not to be unreasonably low. Given the reasons above, unless the NLB can think of a better reason, it really should not betray its esteemed status as a public library, and as the beginning of this article suggests, its position of neutrality and the public responsibilities it carries.