The One Where I ‘Protested’ Outside The Library (With Penguins)

I did a crazy thing last weekend.

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It started when word got out that our National Library Board had unceremoniously pulled three titles from the children’s collection in response to public feedback, for being not “pro-family”. (Here is a relevant news article.) I don’t believe that it’s the library’s prerogative to censor the reading options available to parents and kids, so I started a Facebook page called Singapore’s Parents Against Library Censorship.

A friend of a friend, Jolene, reached out to me via the page to ask if I would be interested to co-organise a peaceful reading event to raise awareness of this issue. It sounded good to me. Then the library announced that the withdrawn books would be pulped. Destroyed. And I officially decided I was very angry and had to do something about it.

We thought a guerilla-style approach to the event – everyone just show up and read – would be the way to go. Then the police got in touch to make sure we had considered the safety and security of all present. (What if someone decided to hijack our little read-in to make a political statement or a hateful one?) So with just one day to go before our read-in, Jolene and I applied for a police permit and we got it. We also got the official permission of the library to hold our event in their open-air atrium. I’m glad they said yes. The headlines would’ve been spectacular if they’d said no: LIBRARY FORBIDS READING EVENT ON ITS PREMISES.

That was a lot of likes for one selfie.

Hmm. That was a lot of likes for one selfie.

Things were getting progressively uglier on the internet, in the corners that believed strongly that a book about two real-life penguin dads was a threat to the moral fabric of society. People were threatening to gatecrash our event, steal our copies of the withdrawn books borrowed for the occasion and other such miscreant activity. I was getting worried for the kids who’d be present. I was getting worried for MY kid.

With the help of some eleventh-hour volunteer vigilantes, we beefed up on security. (Thanks, boys.) I devised a slightly clunky system to ensure that everyone who borrowed a copy of our books left a valid mobile phone number. And on a wing and a prayer, we started our read-in. Jolene made a speech about what reading meant to her, and why we believe the library should make available a diversity of reading material to kids and parents. I hollered a bit about security guidelines.

The people came and read, and just kept coming. Friends – some of whom I hadn’t seen for years – came up to say hi. Strangers too.┬áMy favourite cousin and her fiance were prepared to help me run security, and when they saw we were sorted on that front, they hung out and read with people’s kids.

Three generations of Tricia and Eugene's family came, in matching t-shirts designed by Germain. I love these guys.

Three generations of Tricia and Eugene’s family came, in matching t-shirts designed by Germain. I love these guys.

Leon, whom I used to yell at a lot for his bad spelling when he was my intern, brought me flowers and chocolate. "Is it Mothers' Day?!" He also wrote me a very sweet card, and helped me count the crowd when reporters asked for numbers. <3

Leon, whom I used to yell at a lot for his bad spelling when he was my intern, brought me flowers and chocolate. “Is it Mothers’ Day?!” He also wrote me a very sweet card, and helped me count the crowd when reporters asked for numbers. <3

Priscilla and Russel, Chufang and baby-in-oven, me and Katy. I've known Fang for over 20 years and Pris for nearly 15. We don't hang out a lot, but I was so glad they came and supported the cause.

Priscilla and Russell, Chufang, me and Katy. I’ve known Fang for over 20 years and Pris for nearly 15. We don’t hang out a lot, but I was so glad they came and supported the cause.

James and Katy hung out and read till Katy needed her nap. Then she napped.

James and Katy hung out and read till Katy needed her nap. Then she napped.

Many folks showed up with kids, read a book quietly, and left within half an hour. Others stayed, made new friends to read with, and hung out longer. Local writers came to show their support. Ivan Heng spoke to the press. At least one politician made an appearance.

And then the Penguin Person arrived.

One of my security boys came over in a slight frenzy. "GERMAINE. IS THIS OKAY." It was. It absolutely was. Though I later found out that when Marla - the lady behind the mask - went into the library, the guards asked her to leave because her mask could scare children. (Certainly didn't deter said children from approaching her for selfies, though!)

One of my security boys came over in a slight frenzy. “GERMAINE. IS THIS OKAY.” It was. It absolutely was. I later found out that when Marla – the lady behind the mask – went into the library, the guards asked her to leave because her mask could scare children. (Certainly didn’t deter heaps of said children from approaching her for selfies, though!)

Our little lending library was buzzing frantically with activity for the whole two hours. And when the event wrapped, all our books came back intact.

Somewhere out there in someone else’s camera there is a photo of me and Jolene at the end of the event, looking tired but happy. We absolutely did it. We got hundreds of people together to read because they believed in the power of books. That our kids need access to a variety of books to learn about the world. That we, as parents, have the responsibility of not just teaching them their ABCs but guiding them toward the path of knowledge. That it’s okay for us to read things we don’t agree with because it makes us think and question, and become better people for understanding a diversity of viewpoints. And that if our kids read anything we personally consider objectionable, it’s on us to discuss it with our kids, reflect on what it is that we object to, and why.

We also accidentally made history. This event was the first organised act of anything-resembling-protest to be held outside Hong Lim Park with the permission of the authorities. (HEE.)

The conversations are far from over and there’s a lot more work to be done. That’s the part that’s both scary and exhilarating.
So it’s important to me to occasionally remind myself why I set out to do such a crazy thing.

Someday Katy is going to be a library user. Someday she's going to read books and love them. She may not have been too impressed at the end of Sunday's event - "TOO MANY PEOPLE. TOO HOT. NOT FUN ANYMORE." - but she remains the reason I've taken on this cause.

Someday Katy is going to be a library user. Someday she’s going to read books and love them. She may not have been too impressed at the end of Sunday’s event – “TOO MANY PEOPLE. TOO HOT. NOT FUN ANYMORE.” – but she remains the reason I’ve taken on this cause.

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