RSS Feed

Tag Archives: And Tango Makes Three

Where are the fathers in fiction?

Anna Perera; Guantanamo Boy

Anna Perera; Guantanamo Boy

The Sunday just gone was Fathers’ Day. Prompted by this, a friend of mine tweeted a question that I thought I’d be able to answer:

I had a half-hearted stab at naming a couple of father figures who seemed like generally good eggs – Dumbledore, obviously, and The Fat Controller from Rev. Awdrey’s Thomas series. In desperation I added the father from Piggybook, who starts out not very pleasant but grows into a good father. Other friends mentioned Arthur Weasley – Ron’s dad in the Harry Potter series, Pa Ingalls from Little House on the Prairie and  Gilbert Blythe from the later Anne of Green Gables books (from Anne’s House of Dreams onwards).

Contrast this with the number of (kid)literary orphans one can name without taking more than a second to think about it: Harry Potter; Oliver Twist; Giant Peach inhabitant James; Mary Lennox; Heidi; Anne of Green Gables; Dorothy (of Oz), Mowgli; Pauline, Petrova and Posie of Ballet Shoes; Katniss Everdeen; the Sager children of Children on the Oregon Trail or the Chant siblings of Diana Wynne Jones Charmed Life, to name but a few. Read the rest of this entry


Three Picture Books with (incidental) Same-Sex Parents

There are three types of picture book that include same-sex parents. The first is the strictly educational kind which illustrate all sorts of different family set-ups and exude an air of dull worthiness despite their colourful illustrations. Many of these books are great fun for pre-schoolers, but read-along adults may quickly tire of their lack of plot. One or two stand out – the modern illustrations and rhyming text of All Kinds of Families! and the sheer variety of people in ABC: a Family Alphabet Book mean that they are both something special.

The second includes my favourite book about same-sex parenting. And Tango Makes Three, is only a few years old. It’s part of a generation of picture books (and childrens’ books in general) that embrace this newly acceptable sub-genre. Some earlier books have become queer classics (Heather has Two Mommies1990; King and KingDaddy’s Roommate) and some have not (Asha’s Mums, 1990), but all of these books have the same premise  these parents are gay (and they are gay, in these books sexuality is binary), and that’s great. They are books about same-sex relationships, presenting them to be inspected and found acceptable. There is nothing wrong with this, of course; like the books of the first category, they fulfil their objective and on the whole they do it well. But this kind of treatment can only go so far to normalise same-sex parenting in the eyes of a child if sexuality is always key to the plot.

The third category is the one I’ve picked from today. These picture books really do normalise same-sex parents by having them in the background, just as much a part of everyday life as the kitchen sink and Marmite. These books are not common, and, in general, they’re not great quality. Most (if not all) of them originate in North America

The Different Dragon; Jennifer Bryan, Danamarie Hosler (illus.)

The Different Dragon

The Different Dragon is a beautiful book about a bedtime story.

In the story, told by a boy named Noah with a little help from one of his Mums, Noah and his cat Diva take a boat and sail to Dragon Cove where they meet a  dragon ‘with fire in his nostrils and a long red tongue’. Hosler’s illustrations show a ferocious looking beast in artwork that fills the page, supplementing and complimenting Bryan’s words and leaving the space for reader’s to wonder what might happen next.

Just as in Angry Arthur or Where the Wild Things Are, The Different Dragon sees its protagonist use his imagination to deal with his emotions and everything gets a bit meta. As architect of his own bedtime story, Noah can take a ferocious dragon with ‘fire in his nostrils and a long red tongue’ and make him sad and therefore vulnerable.  Noah makes an outsider of his dragon character before gives him the tools to accept himself:

 ‘I’m a smart boy and I know some things, and I know there’s more than one way to be  a dragon.

Noah’s parents, an interracial lesbian couple, are not part of the story that Noah imagines (though their influence is clear). His two mothers, Momma and Go-Ma, are all etre with no raison,  with one engaged in storytelling and one in the background their relationship is never mentioned. It is a story that normalises difference in which a character tells a story to normalise difference; in other words, Noah is doing with the dragon what we are doing with Noah. What’s not to love about that?

The Duke Who Outlawed Jelly Beans and other stories; Johnny Valentine,  Lynette Schmidt (illus.)

The Duke Who Outlawed Jelly Beans

This collection of original fairytales is not without flaws, encompassing one or two elements that are Not Exactly Feminist (but a couple of others that definitely are), and engaging in a bit of cultural whitewashing, but it’s a definite 5/5 for effort.

Aimed at slightly older readers, the book contains large chunks of text opposite full-page illustrations. Traditional fairy stories, myths and legends are aped in both graphic style and literary content – compare Usborne’s Illustrated Stories from the Greek Myths – and feel a little dated (the book was first published in 1991). The first story, The Frog Prince, riffs on the traditional fairytale of the same name. It’s a simple gender swap that includes a slightly…well… rapey request for a kiss from the frog and mars an otherwise Totally Right On collection. The rest of the stories, The Eaglerider (my favourite), Dragon Sense, The Ogre’s Boots and the titular  The Duke Who Outlawed Jelly Beans send a strong, simple message of gender equality, anti-authoritarianism, and self-love with both hetero and homo partners fulfilling parental roles.

Lucy Goes to the Country; Joseph Kennedy, John Canemaker (illus.)

Lucy Goes to the Country

Lucy Goes to the Country is a searingly bright picture book documenting the adventures of Lucy the cat on a trip to the countryside with her two ‘Big Guys’. Lucy is boisterous and full of personality, a little cat with a lot of mischief inside her. When Lucy chases Schmoofy, a dog with ‘with bad hair and an attitude to match’, up a tree, she sets in motion a chaotic chain of events that will have littlies giggling.

The relationship between Lucy’s Big Guys is made clear in Canemaker’s illustrations. The couple project a loving co-dependence complete with petty jealousies. That readers are left to infer this from illustration rather than text is about as normalising of same-sex relationships as it is possible to be.

Like The Duke who Outlawed Jelly Beans, this book is not perfect (frankly, within this criterion, pickin’s are slim); there are jokes for the grown ups that some might find distasteful, and the book does nothing to combat some harmful stereotypes (one of the Big Guys looks lustfully, almost predatorially at a uniformed fire fighter), but it does place a gay male couple in the roles of loving caregivers and  includes explicit reference to a lesbian parenting team.

Were there as wide a range of picture books with incidental same-sex parents as there is about same-sex parents, I wouldn’t be able to recommend Lucy Goes to the Country. It’s low quality – not exactly heirloom material.  But it’s what there is. We should be ashamed of ourselves.


I’m looking for picture books for polyamorous families. Got a recommendation? Let me know!

And Tango Makes Three; Courting and Controversy

Justin Richardson, Peter Parnell & Henry Cole (illus.) And Tango Makes Three

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

Similar stories have made it to the press in 2009, and 2008, and according to sciency types;

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., March 2002

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.


Bans and Challenges: Spurious Charges


This post is the first in a series on banned and challenged books marking the ALAs Banned Books Week 2011.

There are countless books that have been banned by someone or other, and countless more that have been challenged. Governments, religious leaders, librarians and school districts, as self-proclaimed arbiters of decency, all seem to think they have the right to deny us, and our children, access to literature.

Generally, the motivation for the banning or challenging of a book is that the content is thought unsuitable for the reader. Arguments are based, usually, on the preservation of the ‘innocence’ of children and young people. By protecting the young from literature that is morally corrupting, goes the argument, our children can remain children. Childhood is sacred: let it persist. It seeks to defy biology, social awareness and psychology.

There is a strong case to be made for parents to be able to censor the books their own children read; the problem comes when groups like PABBIS (Parents Against Bad Books in Schools) attempt to restrict the reading of other people’s children too. Challenges come from every point along the political spectrum – and always with the best of intentions: our children do not need to know that not all pregnancies culminate with a live birth (or that some end in termination); that racist language exists, and is used; that people have sex (and sometimes for fun, and sometimes with the same gender); that sometimes life is violent or that terrible things have been done in the name of religion. But our children do need to know. It is our duty to teach them and the onus is on us to determine when the time is right.

Book banning is an abhorrent practice, undoubtedly, but in most cases we can see why such action was taken, even if we don’t agree with the ideology behind it. Heather Has Two Mommies and And Tango Makes Three, for example, were banned by some schools for ‘normalizing’ homosexuality;  Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret for mentioning kissing boys and menstruation and thus acknowledging the sexuality of a young girl; The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for use of racial slurs. We may not agree with the decision to ban a book, but at least most of the time we can follow the logic.

In 1952, President Eisenhower made a commencement speech at Dartmouth College which attacked McCarthyism. Among his comments was this:

Don’t join the book burners. Don’t think you are going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don’t be afraid to go in your library and read every book, as long as that document does not offend our own ideas of decency [my italics]. That should be the only censorship.


What follows is a selection of books that have been banned by governments and other authority groups for reasons decidedly more spurious than those mentioned above. Read the rest of this entry