For my first Banned Books Week feature, I’ve picked the book that was most- or second-most-often challenged from 2006 to 2010, with several more appearances thereafter. It ranked #4 in the whole 2000-9 decade. What is this heinous text so many people have tried to censor? And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, illustrated by Henry Cole. It’s a picture book about penguins. Dastardly, am I right?
Of course, there is a reason people want to ban it. It’s actually a picture book about gay penguins.
The basic story is two chinstrap penguins, Roy and Silo of the Central Park Zoo, do everything together just like the boy and girl penguins do. They even try to build a nest and hatch vaguely egg-shaped rocks. The zookeeper notices this, and has an egg without parents to hatch it, so he gives it to Roy and Silo. They hatch the chick, it’s adorable, they take care of it, and the zookeeper names the baby Tango after the phrase “it takes two to tango.” A LOT of books on the banned books lists are there for same-sex content, but Tango is probably the most innocent, not only because it’s an entirely nonsexual story about adorable penguins, but because it’s a true story!
Roy and Silo are actual chinstrap penguins from Central Park Zoo in New York, who actually did form a pair bond and raise Tango. Same-sex romantic behavior is pretty normal for penguins. Biological Exuberance, the encyclopedia for same-sex behavior rates in animals, doesn’t have a section on chinstrap penguins in particular, but did record studies of three other penguin species. Rates of same-sex pair bonds, including male-male and female-female, were around 5% of all Humboldt penguin bonds studied. About 23% of Gentoo penguin courtships were same-sex. Some penguins have a permanent “orientation,” others are sequentially bisexual. (Unfortunately Roy and Silo have broken up since the book was released, but that’s pretty normal among penguins too).
I’m currently doing undergraduate research on the effects of fiction reading. It’s pretty apparent from the studies that people do NOT like didactic fiction, and if fiction does have an effect on people, it doesn’t happen because the book is trying to make it happen. For me, and many people who’ve contributed their anecdotes to the research, reading is about being exposed to new ideas, but I can and will assess their worth on my own. I won’t just go and do whatever I see written in print, and neither will other readers! The concept of banning books means you think those ideas are threatening your own ideas — which means you must not think very much of your own argument, or you’d make it in public instead of trying to silence dissenting voices.
And Tango Makes Three means something to me because I like to see LGBT+ representation, but I like to see that because LGBT+ people (and animals!) exist. Parents can teach their kids about same-sex relationships using this book if they want, but it’s not a didactic story. As the authors have said, “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.” It’s not supposed to teach us anything about morals, it’s just a story about how penguins act. How we relate that story to ourselves is entirely up to us.
Edited to clarify some of the percentages.