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Monday, January 05, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Gay references touchy in children's literature
By Josh Getlin
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. Martha Freeman received the bad news at lunch from her publisher and literary agent. Although "The Trouble With Babies" had received good reviews, sales of her children's book about a young San Francisco girl were poor compared with the first title in her series, and the paperback rights would not be sold.
The reason was more stunning: A brief passage about two gay fathers and their adopted son apparently had discouraged many librarians from buying the title.
Although they had enthusiastically purchased Freeman's previous book, "The Trouble With Cats," the mere mention of the gay couple in her newest work raised the possibility of a public backlash.
In one case, a Pittsburgh-area mother demanded that the book be removed, writing to an elementary-school librarian that the author obviously had a "homosexual agenda" inappropriate for young readers. The title soon was taken off the library shelves.
"You could have knocked me over with a feather," Freeman said. "The story I wrote had nothing to do with gay issues, and the reference to those fathers was strictly in the background, to show you the kind of people who live on a city block."
Freeman now faces a dilemma: Her publisher, Holiday House, has asked her to produce a third installment, and she has not decided whether to retain the gay fathers, as an act of independence, or eliminate them to sell more books.
"Part of me is tempted to put in even more gay characters, because these are my stories and I really don't like being censored," she said.
At a time when gay culture is gaining wider acceptance in American society as reflected in television shows, movies, magazines, fashion trends and recent court decisions Freeman's experience is a reminder that sensitivities on the issue still run high, especially when it comes to marketing new books for younger children.
While there has been an explosion in the number of books with gay and lesbian themes written for teenagers, sales of similar titles for younger children in school and public libraries remain "very dicey and very different," said Roger Sutton, publisher of the Horn Book Magazine, a monthly that covers children's literature.
This puts immense power in the hands of librarians, because books such as Freeman's most commonly are sold to libraries. If the titles aren't sold in sufficiently large numbers, there is little chance they will be reprinted in less-expensive paperback editions. If that happens, the books may go out of print quickly.
Publishers typically market books such as "The Trouble With Babies" by sending out a limited number of review copies, and presenting them at book fairs and trade conventions. Most librarians, however, learn about new titles from reviews in professional journals and this may have created problems for Freeman's book.
A majority of reviews mentioned the presence of the two gay fathers, thus tagging the book as one with "alternative-lifestyle issues," Sutton said.
Never mind that Freeman's title is mainly about Holly, a 9-year-old who meets new friends and has zany backyard adventures when she moves to a new neighborhood.
"For some readers, the mere use of the word 'gay' is inappropriate, and they can't separate the word from the idea of sex," said Mary Cash, Holiday House's executive editor.
Connie Cauvel, the Pittsburgh-area librarian who took Freeman's book off the shelf, said she believed "The Trouble With Babies" was well-written. But after 38 years of battles with parents and other critics over library books, she added: "The reality is, the parents who objected to this book would have taken this to our school board, and I would have been overridden. I only have so much energy for these fights."
The flap doesn't appear to have reached the Seattle area.
The Seattle Public Library has two copies of "The Trouble With Babies" in circulation. Caroline Ullmann, a library spokeswoman, said she had not heard of any controversy involving the book.
The King County Library system bought 25 copies.
Told about Freeman's experience, several experts on children's literature and libraries were astonished. If someone objects to a book, they said, that doesn't give the person the right to impose his or her views on others who want to read it.
"When you take books off the shelf for these reasons, that's censorship," said Beverly Becker, associate director of the American Library Association's Office of Intellectual Freedom. "It has a damaging impact on the community at large, which includes a lot of different voices, and it also has a chilling effect on an author."
Freeman, 47, refuses to blame librarians for her troubles, saying they are on the front line of a tough battle and deserve more public support for their efforts on behalf of freedom of speech.
"I don't write books as a public service," Freeman said, "and it's stupid for me to produce things that won't be read because kids can't get at them. I didn't get into this (writing) to become a spokesperson for any point of view.
"But, on the other hand, I should be able to write what I want, without fear of censorship. That's my version of America, for me and other writers."
Seattle Times staff reporter Ian Ith contributed to this report.
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