When princes kiss

From Cinderella to Shrek, royal love stories have been a childhood staple. But one regal tale of the heart, the story of two princes who decide to marry each other, has landed a pair of grown-ups — UNCA’s head librarian and a North Carolina congressman — in a rhethorical jousting match that’s now playing out on the national stage.

At the heart of the controversy is King and King, a book by Dutch authors Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland (Tricycle Press, 2002). The book caused a stir in Wilmington last year when an elementary-school student brought a library copy home to disapproving parents.

In the controversy’s aftermath, Rep. Walter B. Jones, a Farmville Republican who represents 17 eastern counties (and whose constituency includes the city of Wilmington), introduced a bill this summer called the Parental Empowerment Act of 2005 (H.R. 2295). (Jones made headlines in 2003 with his campaign to change the name “french fries” to “freedom fries.”) The new bill would withdraw federal education funds from any state that didn’t institute pre-acquisition parental review of elementary-school library and instructional materials.

That raised a red flag for Jim Kuhlman, university librarian at UNCA, who chairs the N.C. Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee. Such legislation, he maintains, would erode free access to information. In July, the NCLA’s Executive Committee adopted a resolution opposing Jones’ bill.

Among other things, the NCLA promotes intellectual freedom and literacy throughout the state. “Our role, as we see it, is to bring attention to freedom-to-read principles,” Kuhlman told Xpress. “What we hold very dearly, and I hold especially dearly, is trying to provide access to information for the entire community — those who are underrepresented or whose views would be unpopular in the community. And I think that’s what’s at stake here.”

In a recent telephone interview, Jones defended his bill, saying: “The majority of people don’t even know these books exist. Parents need to know what [their children] are exposed to.”

Asked about the Library Association resolution, Jones said he was disappointed in “any association that would not be concerned about a book that encourages a lifestyle of two men marrying each other.” The association’s members, said Jones, “need to go back to UNC and learn some Judeo-Christian principles.”

“Fractured fairy tale”

To be sure, King and King is not your typical love story. According to the publisher, the 32-page book targets readers ages 4-8. The School Library Journal called it a “postmodern fractured fairy tale” in which a prince who “never cared much for princesses” falls in love with one Prince Lee. The two men get married, share a kiss, “and everyone lives happily ever after.”

Jones maintains that much of the public would share his negative view of the book. “I’ll bet you money that 75 to 80 percent in the country would be offended,” he said.

Under his bill, each agency that buys print materials for public elementary schools would establish a parental-review board with five to 15 members. Purchasing recommendations would be made by majority vote. Any state that declined to set up such boards would lose its federal education dollars.

All the bill does, Jones told Xpress, is require that parents will know before material such as King and King is provided to their children. If a majority of people “want this book in their school, that’s fine with me,” he said. “This is not to restrict. … This is to inform parents what is coming into their libraries.”

Kuhlman, however, believes such review committees would amount to “pre-selection restraint upon the judgment of library and education professionals.” American Library Association President Carol Brey-Casiano, quoted in the NCLA resolution, says the bill would “empower a small review board to decide for all families in a community what materials will be available.”

Censorship by committee?

In the Wilmington case, a copy of King and King was taken home by a first-grader whose parents then challenged the book’s availability to children. As a result, the school board restricted the book to the adults-only section of the library. “That worked out,” said Kuhlman, though he admits to disappointment that “children of gay parents are deprived of a chance to see [it].”

But the proposed federal legislation moves what had been a local dispute to the national level.

“There is no need for federal interference in a local community’s decisions, the ALA’s Brey-Casiano argued in her statement on the bill, since “communities already elect parents and community representatives to local school boards.”

“That level of censorship,” says Kuhlman, would work against the standards of the educational and library professionals within the school systems. Individual parents, he argues, don’t have the right to “determine what other people’s children look at.”

A mandated preselection committee “very quickly gets into what is the accepted community standard,” Kuhlman observes. “And a lot of people don’t fit into that accepted standard.”

Jones’ bill, which has five co-sponsors from other states, is now in the Subcommittee on Education Reform. The congressman says he anticipates a hearing next year.

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