The inspiration for the popular children’s picture book “Everywhere Babies” came to author Susan Meyers more than 25 years ago, after the birth of her first grandchild. It was around Christmas, she recalls, and she kept seeing Nativity scenes everywhere — baby Jesus embraced by his doting mother, surrounded by kindly visitors. Meyers, deeply smitten with her 5-month-old grandson, was struck by the everyday, extraordinary miracle of babies in their earliest months of life, how their development touches the lives of everyone around them. So she decided to write about it.
Since its publication in 2001, “Everywhere Babies” — a whimsical, lyrical ode to infancy, illustrated by Caldecott Medal-winning illustrator Marla Frazee — has become a staple of family bookshelves, a common recommendation in new parent groups, and a celebrated title on Best Books lists.
But for the first time in its history, “Everywhere Babies” was featured this week on an entirely different kind of list: The book was among dozens of works recently banned from public school libraries in Walton County, Fla. School district officials confirmed the removal of the books to WJHG-TV in Florida. Walton County School Superintendent Russell Hughes told the outlet that it was “necessary in this moment for me to make that decision and I did it for just a welfare of all involved, including our constituents, our teachers, and our students.”
Hughes did not respond to requests for comment from The Washington Post. A spokesperson for the Florida Department of Education referred questions to Walton County, noting that “individual school districts are responsible for making these decisions,” and did not respond to follow-up questions.
The decision made Walton County the latest jurisdiction to join a growing number of communities across the country that have sought to ban books that address subjects such as race, LGBTQ people, sex, or other topics deemed offensive by the books’ critics. A slew of titles — many of them classic and award-winning works of children’s and young adult literature — have been stripped from shelves in school buildings and public libraries in states including Texas, Montana, Louisiana, and Florida.
Meyers and Frazee each spoke to me about their book, the experience of seeing it banned from public school libraries for the first time, and what they hope parents might take away from what’s happening in Walton County and beyond. Their responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What message did you want “Everywhere Babies” to convey to little kids and the parents who would read it to them?
SUSAN MEYERS: The opening line “Every day, everywhere, babies are born” is important to me because it’s the most common thing in the world, but it’s also the most miraculous. So I really just wanted to write about these babies and how they affect everybody around them. It always struck me that babies have to figure out the whole world by themselves, and they try so hard — and it’s just this miraculous, universal experience of what it means to have babies in a family. That’s really what it was about.
MARLA FRAZEE: I remember feeling like this text was so universal — it had a classic kind of feeling about it. As an illustrator, I had a couple of decisions to make in terms of how narrow or broad I wanted to go. My first sense of the manuscript was that I was going to set it around a park, and I was imagining a park in New York City — Gramercy Park or something — and then follow a few families that lived around this small park. But I realized that I was narrowing it too much, that there are so many more kinds of families, and I wanted to show as many kinds of families and kids as I could. I think my basic feeling has always been that I want a child who is reading a book of mine to feel at home there, and to relate to it, and feel like it belongs to them. That’s my role as an illustrator.
Q: When did you learn about this book being banned from public school libraries in Walton County? Tell me about your immediate reaction to that news.
SM: I had not heard about this until I checked my email this morning and saw your message. And I thought, “Oh, my God, I’m banned! Wow!” I mean, I’ve been following all this book-banning stuff and wondering what is wrong with these people. And they’re only bringing more attention to these books — there are plenty of people who will then seek them out and want to read them. So I wasn’t really upset. There are various LGBTQ children’s book sites that have included our book in their lists, so I suspect that might be how [the school officials in Florida] found it.
MF: I saw it Wednesday night on Twitter. I wasn’t surprised, given what is going on right now. It’s abhorrent to me, but it’s not surprising. To be honest, I don’t know that I’ve ever been on a list with Toni Morrison before, or Judy Blume — I mean the people on this list, I’m thrilled to be on any list with these people!
Q: When I first saw the news, I grabbed a copy of the book and flipped through it in search of what might have led to it being included on this list. All I noticed were a few illustrations that might be depicting same-sex couples, which are not specifically identified in the text. What is your take on what prompted this? Because the story itself doesn’t delve into LGBTQ issues — all it does is visually present the possibility of different kinds of people and families existing in the world.
SM: Yes, and it’s so odd — I think there’s one illustration they don’t like, where it’s two men. But how do they see this, that any time a man puts his arm on another man’s shoulder, it means they’re gay? It doesn’t seem obvious to me. I don’t know who they are! It seems odd to me that this is banned, because it’s a preschool book, a family book. You read it to kids when they’re 2. But maybe they think we’re trying to indoctrinate kids from the cradle on. I don’t know. I mean, you can’t figure out this mind-set.
MF: If you were a child being raised by two moms, you might look at that image of two women together in one way. If you were a kid with a mom whose best friend or sister or aunt was always around, you might look at it a different way. The two men on the street — that could be seen in a variety of ways by a variety of cultures. Honestly, I’m not that concerned with what adults think about the pictures in the books, I’m concerned about what the children think. I want them to follow the story and understand what the picture is saying. Regardless of what the book is, or what kind of picture story is being told, I often sort of feel like adults miss the mark in a big way. I don’t think adults read pictures all that expertly, but I think kids do. I trust a child’s perception way more.
Q: Is this the first controversy you’ve had surrounding this book?
MF: “Everywhere Babies” has been targeted a few times over the years, but never something like this. It was predominantly right after it came out, and it was maybe a few Amazon reviews, customer reviews. Or maybe I would be in a bookstore in a particular town, and they would tell me they didn’t want it on their shelves, that kind of thing. It was more localized. And always disappointing, of course. I feel pretty strongly that the illustrations can be read in a variety of ways.
SM: There were a few negative Amazon reviews early on, and once I had a website finally, I would occasionally get messages with somebody saying, “your filthy mind,” or something like that. To which I would often respond “you apparently think about sex a good deal more than I do.”
Q: What do you hear most often from parents and educators?
SM: “Everywhere Babies” has been overwhelmingly embraced. It’s been celebrated. I’ve talked to women who run childbirth preparation classes, and some of them give out a copy of that book to every new mother in the class. And it’s been selling well since 2001. There have been many different editions. The 25th anniversary is coming up.
MF: The predominant voices that I’ve heard from, through all these decades — so many emails and letters and all kinds of responses — are so grateful that their child has seen their family in a book, so grateful that nontraditional families are represented in the book. So that is the predominant feeling. The majority of responses have been so positive.
Q: What would you want to say to parents about what’s happening with books like yours and so many others being removed from school libraries and public libraries?
SM: Parents have to open their eyes and see what’s going on around them. If you don’t agree with this take, what these people are doing, you better show up at your local school board meeting. Authoritarian and fascist communities, this is what they always go for, they always burn the books. It actually shows the power of books. If they didn’t have any power, they wouldn’t be burning or banning them. So that’s one thing to remember and celebrate: The power of books.
MF: I watched Mallory McMorrow’s speech the other day, the state legislator in Michigan. I feel like what she said — how either we oppose the rise of this hate or we enable it — that is absolutely the truth. I think that’s exactly where we are. So for parents, I just think what’s important is to stand up for the children who don’t have any voices. Even if you’re not in a county like Walton County, Florida, even if you’re in a county where you don’t think this is going to happen, it very well could happen. I think we all have to be very aware of that possibility and start speaking out. We can’t leave it to marginalized groups to speak out. We all have to speak out.