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Local libraries grapple with efforts to censor children's books

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Max Schulte
Henrietta Library Director Adrienne Pettinelli says she receives one to two book challenges a year at the library.

In the Henrietta Public Library’s children's section, library director Adrienne Pettinelli opens a picture book.

“So, here's these two penguins and they just have an affinity for each other,” Pettinelli said while flipping through colorful pages. “Aw, little penguins.”

The title is “And Tango Makes Three.” It’s about a true story of two male penguins in the Central Park Zoo in New York City who raised a baby chick from an egg.

“So here is an egg that, I don't know what happened to the parent, but so they started taking care of it. And they hatched it. So sweet,” she said.

Pettinelli then closed the book.

“So,” she added, “that's that book, gets banned all the time.”

According to the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association, “And Tango Makes Three” has been listed eight times in the organization’s annual top 10 most challenged books. It continues to face backlash today.

A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict library materials.

“Throughout my career, I've had one to two book challenges every year, you know, so they are a pretty normal part of any library,” Pettinelli said.

A growing concern

Recently, there’s been a surge of challenges around the country.

Last year, the American Library Association documented nearly 730 attempts to censor library resources, targeting nearly 1,600 books. That’s the highest number of banning attempts since the organization began compiling records 20 years ago.

This year, the ALA said the number of challenges is on track to break that record.

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Max Schulte
Beth Hightower looks for books for her two sons at the Henrietta Public Library. Hightower says she checks out about 40 to 50 kids' books a week for her family to read.

Elsewhere in Monroe County, a local right-wing fringe group has been using social media to target school libraries in a suburban district.

Fairport Educational Alliance has used certain young adult fiction books in the Fairport Central School District’s high school and middle school libraries to claim the district is attempting to “groom” children. Most of the excerpts the group has shared depict sexual experiences or LGBTQ+ stories.

Fairport Superintendent Brett Provenzano said in a statement that the district is aware of the posts objecting to books in the schools’ libraries.

“We take these objections seriously and are reviewing them internally on a case-by-case basis,” Provenzano said. “The district will also examine the vetting process by which new materials are added to our collections.”

WXXI News emailed the group for comment but did not receive a direct response. Instead, the email was screenshot and shared on the group’s Facebook and Twitter pages.

“We’re glad they (WXXI News) are covering this story and encourage them to ask the BOE (Board of Education) & Brett Provenzano for an explanation as to why these books are available to children,” the group tweeted.

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Max Schulte
Henrietta Library Director Adrienne Pettinelli receives one to two book challenges a year at the library.

Provenzano’s statement answered that question: “The district is committed to creating diverse, welcoming and affirming library spaces that ... provide information that will enable our students to make educated judgments in their daily lives.”

More censorship efforts

At the Henrietta Public Library this past spring, Pettinelli said a different challenge came up over another children’s book called “Making a Baby,” which includes depictions of nudity.

“It is informative, for sure … this shows pictures of body parts, it labels them by their name. It's explaining the process of how babies are made,” she said. “Obviously, a lot of families come together because of adoption, surrogacy and fertility treatment. So, this addresses that for those families.”

Around late March, a parent complained to a staff member that it was too much information for her child and she wanted it removed from the children’s section.

It turned into a localized firestorm on social media. One post on March 31 garnered 126 comments and 16 shares. Another posted on April 1 drew over 200 comments and 30 shares.

“People were talking about burning books, they were talking about coming in en masse to do what? We didn't understand. They were talking about taking the books and throwing them out,” Pettinelli said. “I mean, it was just really disturbing to see.”

In early April, Pettinelli was copied in an email to the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office. The sender was calling on law enforcement to investigate “alleged dissemination of pornography targeted at children.”

A spokesperson with the Sheriff’s Office said they looked into the case, and the book’s presence in the library was deemed “not criminal.”

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Max Schulte
Librarian Megan Stoffel reads "Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus" by Mo Willems during story time at the Henrietta Public Library.

An argument for access

Eva Goldfarb, a Montclair State University professor who helped write the National Sexuality Education Standards published in 2020, said it's important to examine where young children are getting information about sex and sexuality.

She listed the internet, television and peers as common sources.

“There is so much in culture that is teaching our young children about sex and sexuality, and I would argue, not necessarily in a healthy way," Goldfarb said.

Goldfarb said when parents and educators don’t teach or talk about aspects of sex education — like anatomy, healthy relationships, and setting boundaries — it creates a culture of silence.

And she said that taboo and the shame that comes with it can harm children more than it can protect them.

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Max Schulte
Caitlin DeMayo and her 2-year-old son, Miles, talk about their next activity at the Henrietta Public Library after they attended story time.

“By taking books off shelves, and curriculum out of schools, you're basically leaving it up to culture at large for kids to learn things," Goldfarb said. “And it can lead to so much more confusion.”

Finding solutions

At the circulation desk in the Henrietta Public Library’s children’s section, Pettinelli sets down the picture book “Making a Baby.”

After the online outrage and the email to the Sheriff’s Office, two people submitted formal requests to have the book removed.

One said the book is pornographic in nature, but also acknowledged it “could be a great resource for (much older!) ‘children,’” they wrote. “This is a sex-ed book, not a children’s book!”

Another said they understood the book’s purpose was educational but called its pictures “very graphic” and requested it be moved to a parenting resource shelf.

“I would be appalled if (my six-year-old daughter) ever opened the book and looked at the pictures at her age,” the person wrote.

With the challenges in hand, Pettinelli formed a committee. Within two weeks, they came to a decision.

“We decided to put it in the nonfiction section for the sheer amount of information it had,” she said. “It’s still in the children's room, but it's just in a different section.”

Pettinelli said she believes it’s up to parents to decide what’s right or appropriate for their children. But she said no parent has the right to unilaterally decide that for everyone else.

“We are here to protect the First Amendment and to give people access to information,” she said.

Noelle E. C. Evans is an education reporter/producer with a background in documentary filmmaking and education.