Erie, Illinois: Not Up to Parr

Award winning children's author Todd Parr had a book banned by the school district in the small town of Erie, Illinois this spring.

Parr Books

Yeah, that Todd Parr.  He is such a badass.  Always writing about love and acceptance and puppies and things like that.  Total thug.

Parr's offending book, The Family Book, was banned because of a single page with the text, "Some families have two moms or two dads," accompanied by his signature stylized drawings of two moms and two dads.  A perfectly factual statement that drew the ire and fear of small town America.  This begs the question, How does this even happen?

Based on local news accounts, it appears that The Family Book was used as part of a larger curriculum approved by the Gay-Lesbian-Straight Education Network (GLSEN) to teach about diversity and tolerance in elementary schools.  Seems that some Erie parents took offense to the single page in the book about a family structure sometimes involving two moms or two dads.  These parents brought their concerns to the local school board that, like every fine tuned bureaucracy under the sun, created a panel to review the materials being presented to the elementary aged kids (grades K-4 in Erie).

Offending Page

Interestingly, the panel voted in favor of the book and the curriculum as is.  They found the book appropriate for elementary age children and embraced the mission of educating children about tolerance and diversity.   Well, the parents of Erie would have none of that.  At least a loud and vocal portion of the parents of Erie would have none of that.  When the panel's recommendations were presented to the school board, to appease the homophobic masses (75-100 in attendance at the meeting) of Erie, the board did the cowardly thing of not only banning the book, but also of limiting the use of the GLSEN curriculum to grades 5-12.

What this means is that as of school year 2012-2013, integrated lessons about bullying, diversity, and tolerance will only be provided to older students.  Those youngsters in K-4 can fend for themselves, yo.  Or, you know, receive that type of important life lesson at home.  From a parent who clearly fears diversity and tolerance.  Ugh.  Brad Cox (Oh the irony -- I would make a joke, but that would be mean), Erie School District Superintendant, on interviews on CNN and local news stations simply reiterated the company line -- the content about diverse families was not appropriate for elementary age children.  This despite HIS OWN APPOINTED PANEL stating the opposite.

On the one hand, this story is heartbreaking.  Hate is a learned concept and clearly the adults in authority of Erie, Illinois are, if not promoting hate, certainly promoting fear and disdain.  If something or someone is "different," the message sent by this action is that difference is unacceptable.  It is to be shunned, rejected, avoided, put back into the proverbial closet.  A resident of Erie, a young woman in her 20s, was interviewed by KWQC out of the Quad Cities on a piece that aired last week.  "By the time we got to middle school and high school, it was too late.  People were already being made fun of because they were "different."  Different, of course, is code for gay.  This makes me angry.

On the other hand, what good does anger do?  Might more progress be made if this backwards, regressive, prejudicial thinking could be better understood?  Brought out into the light and honest conversation be had about how and why these parents and this school board believe their children would be better served by marginalizing gay and lesbian families?  What do we know about Erie, anyway?  Well, let's see:

Per the town's official webiste, here is Erie, Illinois (italic snark is mine):

  • Erie is looking for commercial and industrial growth.  Good luck with that.
  • Winner of the Governor's Home Town Award in 1999.  No great honor, considering Governor Ryan went on to be a felon.
  • "We have many fine churches of varied denominations."  My guess is this means Methodist and Baptist.
  • "We take pride in our most important resource, our citizens. Volunteers from all walks of life strive to make Erie the best it can be."  But not two moms or two dads.  Or probably Jews or Muslims.  Let's not even get into two Jewish moms or two Muslim dads and a Jewish mom and Muslin dad creates friction all around this great big globe of ours, so we can't pin that on Erie. 
  • As of the census of 2000, there were 1,589 people, 630 households, and 466 families residing in the village
  • The racial makeup of the village was 98.80% White, 0.25% African American, 0.13% Native American, 0.38% from other races, and 0.44% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 0.88% of the population.
  • There were 630 households out of which 33.5% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 61.4% were married couples living together, 8.6% had a female householder with no husband present, and 26.0% were non-families.  If anyone can tell me what a "non-family" is, you will be the happy winner, winner of a chicken dinner, and it is not singles, because they have that stat accounted for (23.7%).
  • The median income for a household in the village was $41,806, and the median income for a family was $46,435. Males had a median income of $35,000 versus $21,447 for females. The per capita income for the village was $18,775. About 4.7% of families and 5.1% of the population were below the poverty line, including 8.3% of those under age 18 and 3.8% of those age 65 or over.

Maphoto

It would be easy to make this into a 'small towns suck' litany, but I happen to be a fan of small towns.  My Mom and Dad, lifelong Chicagoans, born and raised, retired to a minute town, Apple River, Illinois, population 366 (2010 census).  The reality is that small towns do not have the diversity that large towns or cities have.  They are lacking culture and art and exposure to different ways of life.   But that doesn't make them bad places.  They have, often, lovely networks of neighbors and community initiatives that put cities to shame.  Random gun violence is at a minimum in most small towns.  Traffic is non existant.  Fresh air and hospitality are often in equal abundance.  Small towns are fine and dandy -- it is small minds that suck.

But no place, large or small, population 300 or 300,000 or 3,000,000 is immune from stupidity or ignorance or problems.  I can practically guarantee you right now that there is a child in Erie, Illinois who is gay or lesbian, and afraid.  And that 26% of "non-families" listed on the Erie, Illinois website?  Yeah, you can be pretty certain that within that non-family statistic are at least one or two of the families that Todd Parr was speaking of, with two moms or two dads.

The Erie, Illinois school district can ban all the books they wish to, they can rely on families to teach their little ones about the mysterious and different ways of the world, but in the end, the truth is the truth -- some families have two moms or two dads.  Just like Todd Parr said.

Full Disclosure Time:  I happen to be a big fan of Todd Parr.  In 2007 I wrote to him to ask for his help decorating Donna's stem cell transplant room, e.g., a poster or something, as I REFUSED to look at Dora or some other licensed character staring at me from the walls for a month as Donna recovered.  Todd sent along the nicest note, a few signed books, and a DVD that both Donna and Mary Tyler Son have enjoyed.  We met him in summer 2009 and Donna blushed.  Yeah, total badass thug, that Todd Parr. 

Signed Books

Comments

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  • We love Todd Parr (and you, MTM) in our house, and I love this post. My 7-year-old recently borrowed EVERY Todd Parr book from the library. Good stuff.

    I'm glad you wrote about this. If it brings Mr. Parr more recognition for his work, you've done a service. Silly Erie.

  • In reply to fromthebungalow:

    Hello, Bungalow! So glad your guy is reading Todd. His message is simple, but important. And Todd certainly doesn't need little ole me to bring him more recognition. He is doing just grand on his own. Silly Erie is right. MTM.

  • Our family loves Todd Parr, too! We received this very book as a baby shower gift and I've been reading it to my kids for the past 5 years - not only to normalize for them that some families have two moms or two dads, but also to normalize that "some families are different colors" - like ours! I love how the different type of families are presented so matter-of-fact. Research shows the younger we can get kids talking about diversity, the better. What a shame and disappointment this school district made this decision.

  • In reply to MusingMomma:

    We got our first Parr book when Donna was losing her hair to chemo. She was just under two at the time, but the images were so very joyful and engaging to her. We've gotten quite a few more since then.

    What Erie is doing is simply a mistake, especially as the recognition of the harmfulness of bullying is on the rise. I hope they learn something from the national spotlight on them, but it is just a hope.

    Thank you for reading and commenting, MusingMomma. MTM.

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    I saw something about this last week (maybe from you?), which prompted me to immediately order the book from Amazon. It arrived last night and that was our bedtime story with our 19-month-old. In my humble opinion, it is NEVER too early to begin teaching her about differences and acceptance. Thank you!

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    I moved to Erie in the 6th grade and experienced the full range of small town intolerance to difference. I am not gay. Being different in a small town where generations of people have been in congregation and community together for decades can stem from appearance, beliefs, values and virtually everything in between. I spent my adolescence always feelling like an outsider despite being a cheerleader, a yearbook editor and having friends and participating in a variety of community activities. Homosexuality is not the only topic of ignorance in small town America. Attempting to force acceptance of homosexuality on communities like Erie will only breed more divisions and contempt. How about starting a lot simpler. Empathy for all human beings seems like a better place to start to me:)

  • In reply to Diana Ault:

    Empathy for all human beings is a perfect place to start, and, ironically, is THE message in every single one of Todd Parr's books.

    I totally agree with you, Diana, about forcing something in a small town, and how all differences are magnified in a homogeneous setting like Erie, but yet, it was the same sex topic that got Erie so riled up. I also think it must be shocking and divisive to have the national media suddenly interested in their sleepy hamlet. Not everything works for every community, but basic human rights must always be respected, everywhere. My two cents.

    Thanks for reading and bringing some Erie perspective. MTM.

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    MTM,

    I think you were a little quick to judge the "non-family" as being directly related to gay partnerships. The non-family household could very well be a man and woman cohabiting--they are not single yet are not married either, but one would still be considered the head of the household or foster kids would not be related either.

    When can I get my chicken dinner?

  • In reply to Rebecca Cooper:

    Hi, Rebecca. Thanks for your comment. I fear my writing was not clear. It was not meant to be taken literally -- "non-family" is a statistical term used to define families that exist without a legal designation, e.g., co-habitants with or without children in gay or straight relationships. I was more taking a swipe at the language itself -- "non-family" sounds so harsh. There are so many families out there that have nothing to do with the legal designation of familiy, but who are clearly and obviously a family. Brangelina and their brood are who immediately come to mind.

    Tell you what -- next time I make chicken, consider yourself invited over for dinner! You are always welcome here at MTM. Thanks for reading and for commenting. MTM.

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    In reply to Mary Tyler Mom:

    Thanks. I will stop by next time I am in town.

    I just wish the whole "labeling" of everyone would just go away. The whole non-family is harsh. Every day we tell our kids that the most important thing is family--especially when the siblings are hating each other.

    My kids have friends in the neighborhood who have 2 moms. We don't know the whole situation and frankly I don't care, but it is interesting because their "main" mom moved back home (which is why they are here) and their "other" mom now has a boyfriend. We don't ask questions, but it is going to be hard on these poor little girls when they get older and their friends DO start asking questions.

  • MTM wrote: "Fresh air and hospitality are often in equal abundance [in small towns]." Please allow me to qualify that statement: Fresh air and hospitality are often in equal abundance IF you are white and heterosexual. I wonder how hospitable folks would be in Erie, IL, if a biracial or, God forbid, a lesbian couple stopped in for lunch at the local diner?

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