A children’s book shredded in public by a member of the parliament. A poster outside a bookstore warning customers of books with “homosexual propaganda dangerous to children.” A mayor demanding that a book should be removed from a library display, upon (alleged) complaints from the public. Finally, a newsletter polling librarians whether professional organizations should raise their voices.
What year is this? What century?
While we were celebrating the freedom to read during Banned Books Week in 2020, alarming news inundated the media elsewhere. A book Meseország mindenkié (in various translations: Fairyland belongs to everyone, Fairy tales are for everyone, Wonderland belongs to everyone) was shredded by a young, female, right-wing politician in my native Hungary. A publicity stint, one would think at first.
Published in 2020 by Labrisz Lesbian Association, the book features 17 classic fairy tales, with a twist. The gender-diverse characters represent ethnic, religious and socio-economic backgrounds rarely seen in children’s stories, including the LGBTQ+ community, diverse families with children growing up in a single-parent home and children living with disabilities or in deep poverty or coming from minorities and other stigmatized communities. With several contributions by LGBTQ+ authors, it is the first children’s book about LGBTQ+ topics published in Hungarian.
The book was immediately labelled as homosexual propaganda and condemned by the Hungarian government as reported in a Reuters article, including a slideshow of pages.
“The book is sold as a fairy tale, called so on its cover and designed accordingly,” the Government Office in Budapest said in a statement. “But it hides the fact that it depicts behaviour inconsistent with traditional gender roles.”
In past years, the Hungarian government launched a series of measures to violate and ban the rights of LGBTQ+ people, such as recognizing only sex assigned at birth, banning same sex couples from adopting children, and restricting sex education in schools to organizations specifically designated by state authorities. In July 2021, a new Hungarian law was passed by the Parliament, initially designed to combat pedophilia. However, conflating pedophilia with homosexuality, an amendment added later also prohibits the portrayal or promotion of homosexual content to minors now.
Banning and destroying books can be compared to Nazi book burning or censorship in Communist states in East Europe, both aiming to eliminate any material considered “detrimental”, “immoral”, or “counterproductive” to their political system. With increased media presence and publicity through emerging communication tools, it has become gradually impossible to hide facts and events from the public or completely silence authors over time, as proven by Samizdat publications in East Europe.
2022 is an election year in Hungary. The current government, i.e., the fourth Orbán government, recently also aspired for media coverage in the United States by inviting Tucker Carlson for a week-long tour.
But the incident that hit us librarians hard affected a colleague, and as such, indirectly all of us. Just two weeks ago, a librarian in a small public library north of the capital was instructed by the mayor to remove the same title from the shelf at the children’s section, “upon public complaints.” Labelled as “You don’t know how to tell? We will help you!,” the book was meant to be a conversation starter rather than a political statement. According to the local newspaper, the librarian “consented and complied,” removing the title immediately. However, addressing the largest Facebook group of Hungarian librarians, our colleague confirmed what everyone had suspected: In fear of losing her job, she did remove the book, but never agreed with the decision. One source corrected their article striking through their previous sentence of the librarian c̵o̵n̵s̵e̵n̵t̵i̵n̵g̵ and complying.
A surprising poll followed in the weekly newsletter of librarians and information specialists. The editor posed the question whether Hungarian professional library associations should make a statement to support freedom of speech or they should stay silent. A quick search and a few emails confirmed that no form exists in Hungarian to handle cases like this in the library, such as the various Library Request for Reconsideration of Material Forms in the ALA Selection & Reconsideration Policy Toolkit.
Prior to this incident, IFLA had already issued a statement related to Hungary in August, 2021 standing by its Statement on Intellectual Freedom (1999), which “underlines that library collections shall reflect the plurality and diversity of society, and that selection and availability of materials should be governed by professional considerations and not by political, moral and religious views.”
Negative propaganda in this case resulted not only in increased popularity and a sold out first edition plus 30,000 more, but also a listing of Editor and Project Coordinator Dorottya Rédai, a professor at Central European University in Time 100. Time called the book “a symbol of resistance in Hungary’s Fight Over LGBT Rights” in an earlier article. Translation rights have been sold to large international publishers, according to the Facebook page maintained by the organization.
With the story still evolving, here is a reminder “why we always need librarians and archives” (Ovenden, 2020, p. 225), yet to be translated into Hungarian, along with those forms.
Ovenden, R. (2020). Burning the Books. Harvard University Press.
Downing, J. (2001).Samizdat in the Former Soviet Bloc. In Radical Media: Rebellious Communication and Social Movements (p. 354–). SAGE Publications, Inc.