Two kings and one inspiring teacher
Once upon a time in a far away place called The Netherlands, two artist friends, Stern Nijland and Linda de Haan, decided to work together once a week illustrating a project. Because they both loved fairy tales, they established the parameters of their project: it begin with “once upon a time” and end with “happily ever after.” Working side by side at the same table, at the same time, on the same paper, they focused on their drawings. Their illustrations soon bore a story about a prince who doesn’t fall in love with the most beautiful princess in the world, but instead with her brother. The artwork was their main focus. The story they ended up with they say, was “sort of a nice side effect.”
When their book was published in 2002, De Haan and Nijland were thrilled. Little did these artists from this faraway land know that their whimsical illustration project would become a much talked-about book across the Atlantic for more than a decade to come. Since 2000, attempts to ban the book have ended up in court across the nation.
In Oklahoma in 2005, senators wanted to relegate the book to the adult section of the library. Because of its “controversial content” it was decided it would be placed out of reach of children and must not be placed on bookshelves lower than sixty inches or five feet from the ground. (Side note: to ride most roller coasters you must be at least forty-two inches tall).
The book’s most recent controversy was stirred up last week in a North Carolina elementary school. As it happens all over the world, children were being children in Mr. Omar Currie’s class. When the bullying began, Mr. Currie did what came naturally — he seized the moment, recognizing it as teaching opportunity. He decided to read his third grade class “King & King” by Linda De Haan and Stern Nijland.
“When the student first approached me about the bullying I considered reporting it to the office, said Currie. “I quickly decided against this because I knew that would end with the student only encountering more bullying in retaliation. Many mistakenly see punishment and consequences as the way to solve behavior issues in our classrooms and schools. While consequences can have a short term benefit, it is unlikely that the punishment will change the student’s behavior. However, if I read a book about acceptance that reflected the very difference they were bullying the student over, it might begin a dialogue and then a lasting change.”
And begin a dialogue it certainly did. When we reached out to the authors of “King & King” about their book being in headlines across the U.S. as a result of Mr. Currie’s actions, they had this to say: “First of all, it was very surprising to us that the book stirred up so much commotion. This is still the case, after all those years, since we made the book not as a special theme book but more as another, special fairy tale about love. The picture does not really show a kiss. It’s more like when you watch a cartoon and zoom out at the end: living happily ever after. In our opinion it is not a shocking image in any way. Did we have a preconceived idea that this was the first same sex kiss? No, we did not even think about that,” says Nijland.
“We heard about the teacher and have seen a few reports about it,” says de Haan. “Bizarre. We think the teacher (and the children and school) don’t deserve all this commotion. We hope he stays at the school, parents should be proud wt h a brave teacher, and we think he might make the difference over there.”
When he made the decision to read the book, the thought his school would be supportive of his decision. “Oh how wrong I was,” Currie said. In an article written by Billy Ball in Indyweek.com says that since his decision to read the book, “…school officials—prompted by parents’ complaints—held a public hearing in the school’s gym and reviewed the book twice to determine if it should be banned. Both times the school’s Media Review Committee sided with keeping the book, but the school’s principal, Kiley Brown, mandated a policy forcing teachers to notify parents of every book read in the classroom—a policy Currie adamantly opposes.”
“I truly believe love, compassion, and understanding are the three things that could fix the root of bullying,” Curry says. “As their teacher, my students trust I will keep them safe. I cannot do this when I fail to give certain groups equal representation in my classroom and within my instructional decisions. When we are silent we “otherize” groups, and we create the social structures that lead to bullying.”
Silence is the true danger. Currie recognizes this as do entire cultures, like the Dutch, which have a history of being a more open and accepting society than the U.S. About those who’ve wanted to ban the book over the years, Nijland says, “For me this is simply unbelievable. Because it is an innocent children’s book. When you tell small children this is a forbidden book, it probably only makes them want to read it even more. Parents can make the decision not to take the book home, or not to by it. There is nothing explicit or sexual about the book. It is a happy colorful love story about two princes. I believe some parents are afraid of the contents of the book and how it might affect their children. Maybe some people believe same sex love is a disease, even contagious. Maybe they are afraid it will plant some seeds in their children’s minds, which I believe is not possible in a bad way. Maybe if people read the book it will change their mind and maybe that will see it has no shocking content.”
De Haan and Nijland believe it’s important for children to learn about different kinds of families. “…when you tell them in a nice, friendly way about this, especially at a young age, children take for granted that this is just a part of life,” says Nijland. “Small children don’t feel it’s strange or bad about it. There are all kinds of families and relationships in life, why not in books? A fairy tale picture book seems like a nice way to do that. For older children, who struggle with their identity or sexuality, it is important that there a stories and book that they can relate to! And for all children that grow up in ‘different’ families, it is important that these books are available, to show them: look, your family is normal too, for them to feel accepted by for instance classmates.
Nijland and Stern have not let the controversy stop them from forging ahead. In 2004, the artists wrote a sequel to “King & King” called “King & King & Family,” about how the kings visit a jungle while on their honeymoon and see that all kinds of creatures from different walks of life have families. They feel something is missing in their life but they aren’t quite sure what. When they return home, a little girl pops out of their suitcase and they decide to name her Daisy, adopt her and raise her as a princess. (The book, however, we were disappointed to hear, is unfortunately out of print.)
As the Dutch artists had hoped, Mr. Currie has indeed made the difference. A teacher who embraces lifelong learning, he works tirelessly and passionately to enable discovery for his students. “I purposefully chose the theme of ‘explorers’ for my classroom so my children will be ready to face the challenges of a twenty-first century global society. It is my goal to push both my children and myself to be innovative thinkers and strive for a compassionate understanding of the world we live in.”
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