This post is part of a series on banned and challenged books marking the American Library Association’s (ALA) Banned Books Week 2011.
It’s impossible to let Banned Books Week pass without talking about the book that topped the ALAs list of most frequently challenged books in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2010. It’s a picture book about penguins, based on a true story.
Most people know about And Tango Makes Three, but here’s a quick recap anyway.
In early 2004, the New York Times published an article entitled The Love that Dare not Squeak its Name which told the story of Roy and Silo, a male pair of Chinstrap penguins at Central Park Zoo, Manhattan, who were ‘devoted to each other’. The penguins began trying to hatch an egg. The only problem was, the egg was a stone –
At one time, the two seemed so desperate to incubate an egg together that they put a rock in their nest and sat on it, keeping it warm in the folds of their abdomens, said their chief keeper, Rob Gramzay. Finally, he gave them a fertile egg that needed care to hatch. Things went perfectly. Roy and Silo sat on it for the typical 34 days until a chick, Tango, was born. For the next two and a half months they raised Tango, keeping her warm and feeding her food from their beaks until she could go out into the world on her own.
New York Times, Feb. 2004
Same-sex relationships in the animal kingdom are more common than most people think. In fact, in his 1999 book, “Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity,” biologist Bruce Bagemihl catalogs the unconventional sexual behaviors — including bisexuality and transvestite tendencies — of almost 200 different animals.
The story of Roy and Silo captivated ass. professor of psychiatry Justin Richardson and playwright Peter Parnell, and they decided to turn it into a picture book. “It had the same elements as some of the books we’d grown up with,” says Parnell in the Guardian, “where an unlikely character tries and tries and eventually succeeds.” But this is no The Little Engine that Could.
There are, according to some, a couple of problems with the book. In 2006, 546 formal requests for the book to be removed from libraries were reported to the ALA. This number may appear modest considering the outcry surrounding And Tango Makes Three, but there are other points to consider: Firstly – in 2008, the ALA received fewer formal challenges in total (513) than it did against And Tango Makes Tree in 2006, and secondly – the ALAs Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) ‘estimates that its statistics reflect only 20-25% of the challenges that actually occur‘. Given these facts, the number of informal challenges against this particular book is likely to be significantly higher than official figures suggest.
The first supposed problem is the representation of a homosexual pairing. One parent, Lilly Del Pinto of Illinois, complained,”Of course, we know the kids eventually are going to learn about the homosexual lifestyle,” she said. “That’s not the issue. Please let us decide when our kids are ready. Please let us parent our kids.”
Note the use of the phrase ‘the homosexual lifestyle’. This is not a complaint, as Del Pinto frames it, of allowing parents to decide when to introduce the concept of same-sex relationships; it is a complaint against promotion of ‘the homosexual agenda’. The homosexual agenda, expanded upon by Thomas Clough, an anti-anyone-who-isn’t-a-straight-white-man author who doesn’t know what ‘erstwhile’ means, is, apparently, a set of outragous demands for things like equal marriage, employment and adoption rights and strong anti-hate speech laws.
There is, over the 32 pages of And Tango Makes Three, one overt reference to homosexuality in the text, when the keeper, Mr Gramzay, thinks of the penguins ‘they must be in love’. Mention is made of the fact that Roy and Silo sleep in the same nest, yes, but the book’s intended audience (four to eight year olds) is unlikely to connect this with sexual activity. It is parents that make this connection, and are they really going to point that out?
The book presents homosexuality as just something that happens, which it is. At the bottom line, the complaint against And Tango Makes Three is that it does not reflect the views of homophobes.
The second supposed problem is that And Tango Makes Three is anti-family. This accusation is undoubtedly related to the aforementioned promotion of homosexuality. If you’ll allow me a spot of anthropomorphization, Tango and her daddies are undoubtedly a family unit: there are two parents nurturing a child. The problem, then, can only be that this is not a traditional, heterosexual family unit.
There is nothing anti-family about And Tango Makes Three. Quite the opposite – by recognising that families come in a variety of permutations the book is decidedly pro-family. Families are not just formed by biology, the book teaches us, but by caring and by love. Tango’s family interacts with the other penguins in the penguin house in an entirely natural way and are, to all intents and purposes, completely normal.
These complaints are those of a people desperately clinging to their privilege. One could almost feel sorry for them**.
Another accusation levelled against And Tango Makes Three is that it is – and I assure you I’m quoting here – ‘anti-ethnic’, but it is seeming more and more likely that this charge was made either in a fit of overexcitment or in error.
And Tango Makes Three is a handsomely illustrated tale of triumph over adversity. It approaches the issues it is concerned with – same-sex parenting and adoption – in an age-appropriate manner with prose as accessible but beautiful. It’s not heavy-handed, relying on the readers own ability to intuit the message of equality and tolerance. It’s difficult not to be utterly charmed by the story of Roy, Silo and Tango – moreso when you know that the story is factually accurate.
We are left, in the afterword, with a statement to mull on: there are forty-two chinstrap penguins in the Central Park Zoo and over ten million chinstraps in the world. But there is only one Tango. This – not pushing the mythical Gay Agenda – is the point of the story. We are more than just our situations, and we are all special.
In 2005 the relationship between Roy and Silo ended, and Silo began nesting with a female penguin named Scrappy, but Central Park zoo still has a number of same-sex pairings in its bird population. Among them is penguin called Tazuni, who has for at least two seasons, found a mate in another female named (you guessed it) Tango.
*This whole article, ostensibly about the New York Times, but more accurately an attack on neurodiversity, LGBT issues, and anything that could even vaguely be described as ‘liberal’ is properly hilarious. It’s worth a read, but only if you’ve got gin in the house – you’ll want one when you’re done.