I've Never Cared Much for Princesses
In March 2003, students at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools selected Linda de Haan's and Stern Nijland's King & King as a finalist for the Zena Sutherland Award. When this news came out, parents were upset to discover the school allowed their kids to read a book that promotes homosexuality.
Recommended for readers between four and eight, King & King is a fairy tale about Prince Bertie, whose mother won't let him become king until he marries. After seeing a series of princesses that don't interest him, Bertie meets Prince Lee. They fall in love and get married, and Bertie finally ascends to the throne.
Although it was first published here in 2002, the American Library Association found that by 2003, King & King was already the 10th most challenged book in the United States. It's likely to be as equally controversial this year, given the polarized reaction to President Bush's recent call for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
This past March, the parents of a student at Freeman Elementary School in Wilmington, NC, announced they planned to challenge the book's presence on the library's shelves. Michael and Tonya Hartsell's daughter had checked the book out, and they are refusing to return it until the school takes it out of circulation. They may also transfer their child to another school.
Back in November, the Myrtle Beach Sun-News published a letter by Christine Schwenke, director of the First United Methodist Child Development Center in Conway, SC. She was upset to find out that a four year old picked to read King & King in class.
"For those who are unfamiliar with this book," she wrote, "it promotes things like a prince marrying another prince and being married more then once is OK. To put icing on the cake, the last page in the book shows both of the princes kissing."
She adds, "...is this really a subject that we want to promote to young children who are not quite ready to understand all that it implies? I think not."
Her implication, however, is that there is never a time when children are ready to understand King & King. The underlying issue is not that children aren't old enough to understand the book, but that they shouldn't be taught that homosexuality is okay. As Michael Hartsell told the Associated Press, "My child is not old enough to understand something like that, especially when it is not in our beliefs."
De Haan said that when King & King first came out in her native Netherlands in 2000, many gay parents were happy she and Nijland had written a book that presented a positive view of their lifestyle. She admits, however, that the Netherlands has a relaxed view towards homosexuality.
In a column for the Chicago Tribune about the Zena Sutherland Award controversy, Dawn Turner Trice quoted a parent who said she wanted to have the option to tell the school that she did not want her daughter to read the book.
"I'm not homophobic," she said. "But I'm also someone who's very careful about what I allow my child to be exposed to at such a very early age. I want to let my child be a child."
Obviously, I'm writing from the point of view that gay marriage should be legal and accepted. But I also understand the idea that issues of sexuality are probably best discussed when children hit puberty. That said, King & King is less about homosexuality than about teaching children acceptance.
"Sexual orientation is one of those diversity markers," said then-Lab Schools director Beverly Biggs. "From the day you have children, you have to think about how you want to respond to these questions."
King & King by Linda De Haan & Stern Nijland