WATERBURY, Vt. – On a recent Sunday afternoon, Vermont’s lieutenant governor was at a local library, reading a book about two male penguins to a crowd of nearly two dozen. This was not the first stop for Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman nor would it be the last.
While officials in some other states are banning or restricting certain books in schools and libraries, Zuckerman, in liberal Vermont, has taken a different tack: reading and discussing them at libraries and bookstores around the state.
″ These bans often target books that feature LGBTQ+ characters; talk about gender and sexuality; highlight racial disparities; or talk about difficult issues such as substance abuse and cases of police violence,” Zuckerman, a Democrat, said in a statement when he announced the tour in June. “Students, teachers, and curious minds should be able to access materials that spark critical thinking, cover difficult topics, and appeal to diverse interests without fear of government interference.”
While Vermont hasn't “fallen victim" to the trends in some other states, Zuckerman said that does not mean that books have not been challenged in this state. He said individuals have run for school board seats with the idea of curriculum management in mind and topics around race, and gender and identity have been elevated at school board meetings in recent years.
He hopes the book reading tour will highlight what he sees as the value of representation, free speech, open dialogue and the exchange of ideas.
According to the American Library Association, attempted book bans and restrictions at school and public libraries set a record in 2022. The association compiled more than 1,200 challenges in 2022 — nearly double the previous record total in 2021.
PEN America also said it found more than 2,500 instances of books being banned — affecting more than 1,600 titles — from July 2021 to June 2022. Texas and Florida were the states with the most bans, according to the organization's 2022 report.
During his reading at Bridgeside Books in Waterbury on Sunday, Zuckerman read the book, “And Tango Makes Three,” which is based on the true story of two male penguins who were devoted to each other at the Central Park Zoo in New York. A zookeeper who saw them trying to incubate an egg-shaped rock gave them an egg from a different penguin pair with two eggs. The chick that hatched was cared for by the male penguins and named Tango.
The book, written by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson, is listed among the 100 most subjected to censorship efforts over the past decade, as compiled by the American Library Association.
Zuckerman was joined by three Vermont authors, who each read segments from other banned books, including “Monster,” by Walter Dean Myers, and the bestselling children's picture book “Where the Wild Things Are,” by Maurice Sendak, which was pulled off some shelves when it first came out in 1963.
“I think books are a place for kids to explore and to be things that they’re not or see what it’s like to be something else," said children's author and illustrator Sarah Dillard. “To take that away from them I think is putting them at a huge disadvantage for being in the real world.”
Paul Macuga, of Essex Junction, who attended the reading, said what frightens him about the move to restrict or ban books is that it's coming from organized groups like Moms for Liberty — a conservative “parental rights” group that has gained national attention for its efforts to influence school curriculum and classroom learning, as well as its conservative support and donor funding.
“It’s not a bunch of disorganized kooks," he said. "It is a very well put together, with a lot of professional backing of people that know how to do this stuff,” he said.
Moms for Liberty co-founder Tiffany Justice said “school is for age-appropriate material meant to educate children.”
Several other attendees, including the local library director, recommended that people keep tabs on what’s happening in their communities, and get on their library commissions and attend board meetings to rebuff any moves to restrict books.
Tanya Lee Stone, who is the author of a banned book — “A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl,” which she described as a cautionary tale about three very different girls consecutively dating a stereotypically bad guy — said there are organized people on the other side, too.
“The National Council Against Censorship is a very large organization that’s dedicated to this,” she said.
Stone said people who ban books often have not read them. And a number of people at the reading, including attendees, authors and Zuckerman, said the bans are based on fear.
She said her goal in life is to write material that will educate, help and inspire young people. "To basically be accused of hurting young people is sort of the farthest thing from what you want to have happen. And that’s basically what people who are banning books and censoring books are doing,” Stone said.