My life doesn’t seem very radical most days: I teach my students how to write, come home for family dinner around the table, put my daughter to bed, and then start picking up the abandoned Barbies, empty water glasses, and half-read magazines that comprise the domestic detritus of my house. But the American Library Association’s newly released list of “Most Frequently Challenged Books” confirms that I am a rebel--I’m the proud owner of the single most banned book in America last year: And Tango Makes Three, a children’s book about penguins.
Of course, Roy and Silo, the true-life leads of this troublesome tome, are not just any penguins. Like me, they’re gay, and that makes them dangerous. Their very existence threatens the sanctity of the arctic pool—other penguins, good penguins, might find their own feathers bent, if they don’t watch out.
Also like me and my husband, Roy and Silo became parents, which makes them rare. When word spread about the new family at New York’s Central Park Zoo, crowds gathered around for a look at Roy, Silo, and Tango, the kind of novelty you just can’t see at Six Flags every weekend. As gay dads, The Hubby and I know the feeling of being an unusual species—two-dad households account for slightly less than 3 of every 1,000 families. This does make us something of an object of fascination. My family has never been on exhibit formally, but we have, more than once, been stopped so that well-intended strangers could gush about how much they support us, or at least have no problem with us, or once had a gay cousin. (Maybe we know him?)
Family-structure uniqueness landed Roy and Silo a book deal—and, actually, it landed me one, too. But no one protested my book, Homo Domesticus, because it was a grown-up book, the sort of thing you’d actually have to purchase yourself, and the word “Homo” was a dead giveaway to its contents. You couldn’t accidentally read a few chapters and only then discover that the missing bride was never ever going to show up.
But And Tango Makes Three is a children’s book, which means it must be meant to recruit innocents, or at very least to inure them to the vagaries of penguin affections. Worse, the title doesn’t shout “gay” in any way, so that you might think you were getting a book about dancing or counting or both. The cover illustration shows three penguins but with no helpful genitalia to distinguish their genders and thus reveal the awful hidden truth.
You must actually open the book and read it to discover the deviance lurking within. And it’s pretty sick: there’s rudeness (the boys ignore female penguins), mental delusion (they think a rock is an egg), and child abandonment (another penguin has too many eggs to care for). Such dark themes for a children’s book!
But it’s the positive themes that rile critics: the boys find love, they want a stable family, and they nurture a child. What is objectionable is that this teaches children that gay people can be loving, healthy, and well. Even if families like mine live out this truth every single day, what the fevered critics of this book—and of us—really want is to only allow for representations of the gay lives that they imagine. If a childless Roy and Silo went clubbing, took ecstasy, and made bitchy comments about puffins while redecorating their expensive nookery, the book might not only fall off the banned list—it might well become a key fundraising tool for a certain stripe of politician not long on intellectual gifts.
Instead, the book tells what actually happened in that zoo, and does so in language even a child can understand. That’s the real problem: sometimes, the simple truth is uncomfortable for grown-ups who’d rather all our children stick to made-up stories about magical worlds that none of us (including them) live in.