Thursday, September 30, 2010

And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell

A news account about two male chinstrap penguins in New York’s Central Park Zoo that hatched and raised a baby penguin inspired the authors to create this picture book. Their retelling emphasizes the family feelings of the animals without turning them into fantasy “people in fur coats.” The penguins don’t talk and the story is told primarily through their observed behavior.

“Roy and Silo watched how the other penguins made a home. So they built a nest of stones for themselves. Every night Roy and Silo slept there together, just like the other penguin couples.” But of course there is no egg in their nest. They try sitting on a rock, “But nothing happened.”

Then the zoo keeper gave them an extra egg from another nest. They sat on it and eventually hatched Tango. “Roy and Silo taught Tango how to sing for them when she was hungry. They fed her food from their beaks. They snuggled her in their nest at night.” And the story concludes, “Like all the other penguins in the penguin house, and all the other animals in the zoo, and all the families in the big city around them, they went to sleep.”

In the first three years after the book’s publication there were at least twenty six challenges of its fitness as a children’s story and it was the most frequently challenged book in America through 2009. It was accused of being anti-ethnic, anti-family, promoting homosexuality, offending a religious viewpoint, and unsuited to any age group. It may be that because And Tango Makes Three was published the same year as the movie March of the Penguins, people who had enjoyed the movie were more likely to encounter the book. Certainly both penguin stories purport to document true behavior while many people see underlying messages in both stories.

For example, one blogger wrote, “We enjoyed the movie and we later checked out books at the library to read and study. Some are whimsical, like Mr. Popper’s Penguins. Others are factual and informative. But one book was so awful, we were shocked to find it on the shelf in the same section as the Berenstain Bears and Curious George.”

Others accused the authors of only telling part of the story. “Critics say the book does not explain that the real penguins -- on which the story is based -- split-up as soon as a potential female partner was introduced into their environment. And one of them later mated with her.”

On the other hand, Justin Richardson stated in the New York Times in 2005, “We wrote the book to help parents teach children about same-sex parent families. It's no more an argument in favor of human gay relationships than it is a call for children to swallow their fish whole or sleep on rocks.”

Certainly there are children who live with two parents of the same sex and, like other children, want to see families like theirs in picture books. There are other children who may be their friends or relatives. Some parents find that a story can offer an opportunity for a family discussion where they can share their values with their children. Other parents may choose to avoid stories that conflict with their beliefs or that raise issues they don’t feel their children are prepared to understand. One thing And Tango Makes Three illustrates is why librarians urge parents to help their children choose books in order to avoid surprises.

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