What makes a family, a family?
Syracuse author Seamus Kirst explored this question in his children’s book, “Papa, Daddy & Riley,” published two years ago by Magination Press. The story is about a young girl and her two fathers navigating the complex world of adolescent inquisition and belonging.
“I had always been really interested in (writing) children’s books,” Kirst said. “I feel like the books you read when you’re really young…are so formative for how you experience the world and also so important for how you process the world by seeing characters who reflect your own experiences.”
But, by year’s end, the book had landed a spot on the American Library Association’s (ALA) banned book list, alongside 156 other “controversial” titles. The ALA has been tracking banned books since the ’90s.
Book banning is not new, but a growing, conservative movement to censor what children are taught has experts, teachers and authors alarmed, as reported by Vox.
“It’s the same fights over and over again,” said Ingrid Conley-Abrams, a librarian in New York City. “We’re just concerned about different things.”
In 1958, Garth Williams published “The Rabbits’ Wedding,” a story about two rabbits getting married.
The book was banned in Montgomery, Alabama in the late 1950s.
“People thought this book was a proponent of interracial marriage, which was illegal at the time,” Conley-Abrams said. “The author of the book said he just wrote a book about bunnies, he didn’t know it was going to upset people.”
Nowadays, those pushing to ban books are forthcoming in their derision toward literature containing characters of color, of different religious backgrounds and of varying sexual and gender identities. And what concerns Conley-Abrams is the increasing nature of these challenges.
“I’ve seen more challenges to books in the past couple of years than I’ve seen in my whole career,” she said.
Part of Conley-Abrams’ curriculum for her students is to write a letter to a banned-book author. One of her students chose Kirst. His book by him had been challenged in Wisconsin after a librarian there read it out loud to her students by her.
“The family is very religious and does not agree with ‘that’ (homosexuality), was how it was explained to me,” the Wisconsin librarian said. “And that she did not think that the school should be teaching ‘that’ to their children de ella.”
The librarian spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
The book remained on the shelves, but the parents were allowed to opt out of having their child read LGBTQ+ materials.
Her school board’s policies, which she helped revise two years ago, protect books from being blacklisted based on personal dogmas. The challenged book must go through a formal review process, and language within the policy explicitly states goals of inclusivity and diversity. But even with that protection she worries, as the political climate has grown increasingly hostile.
“The attacks we are hearing about this topic in particular is using words that are really harmful and concerning for educators,” she said. “And so hearing those kinds of words used about people who are working with kids and care about kids is something that is always in the back of my mind.”
Conservative lawmakers are attacking the lives of LGBTQ+ people across the country, from Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay Bill,” to Utah’s anti-trans sports bill, to former-President Donald Trump likening teaching children about gender and pronouns to “child abuse. ” And opponents, both LGTBQ+ and allies, are branded as groomers and pedophiles, despite no evidence to support these claims.
“I think the movement is fundamentally anti-American and (anti) what our country allegedly stands for in terms of freedom of speech and inclusivity,” Kirst said.
There are LGBTQ+ teachers, students and parents, and no legislation can strip them of their reality, of their existence, he said.
Children’s books are often the first teacher a child will have in life, the Wisconsin librarian said.
“If kids go their entire lives with no books or media with certain representations, what happens when they encounter people in the world with those representations and identities?” she said. “It’s not about teaching them to be a certain way. It’s really about how we develop empathy and understanding for all kinds of people who are in the world that we may encounter in our lives and be able to support as community members.”
The growth of this movement makes it pertinent for those in defense of intellectual freedom, diversity and inclusion to fight back, to vote on the local level, to make their voices heard, all three said.
The librarians also encouraged people to contact their local and school libraries, see what is on the shelves and inquire about efforts being made to make the world of literature reflect the world we live in.
“We all do have the power to effect change,” Kirst said. “The side that is censoring is very activated, so we also have to be activated because I do believe that the majority of people do not want school libraries to be stripped of all books that deal with gender, sexuality and race.”
Throughout “Papa, Daddy & Riley,” Riley struggles to understand what it means to be a family after a classmate questions who her real dad is. In the end, the answer was simple.
“Neither of us gave birth to you Riley,” said Papa. “But we carried you in our hearts.”
“We belong together,” said Daddy.
“But what makes a family a family, if every family is so different?” I asked.
“Love,” said Daddy. “Love makes a family.”