Illustrated by Henry Cole
Text set in Garamond
It was mating season at the Penguin habitat in the New York Central Zoo, love was in the air. Penguins began pairing off, including two especially loving, sweet penguins named Roy and Silo.
Yes, they were both dudes, but that’s not the controversial part.
When the other happy penguin couples found themselves in a family way and began spending their days and nights keeping their eggs warm, Roy and Silo – not to be outdone – found an egg-shaped rock upon which to sit. They took turns sitting on that lifeless rock, determined to keep it warm and safe. In their own way, they loved that little rock.
Then, in a fateful moment of inspiration – in an action which would have profound consequences throughout public schools and libraries the country over and serve as a lightning rod for free speech and civil rights issues – a clever zookeeper got the swell idea to substitute that egg-like rock for the real deal.
One day, the egg hatched, and a baby penguin pup was born. His name was Tango.
And Tango Makes Three was published in 2005, written by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell. It is the true account of the birth of Tango, and of the attempts made by Roy and Silo to raise the young penguin pup as their own, and of the acceptance this unlikely family finds in the zoo. It is an incredibly sweet story.
The first I’d heard of the book was thanks to my good friends at Wolfgang Books. Distinctly do I remember that Saturday morning, browsing about their second floor bookshop in Phoenixville, Pa, with Arlo and a cup of coffee, when I saw the display table of banned and challenged books which they had set up in honor of Banned Books Week.
Just the words, “Banned Books” hold a certain, sexy allure. On the table were the usual suspects: Huckleberry Finn, The Giver, Animal Farm, all wonderful titles which I’d of course read and loved. But there was one book which did not initially seem to belong, and it was that book to which I immediately gravitated.
There is absolutely nothing about the look of And Tango Makes Three which hints at anything approaching even slightly controversial content. The cover depicts two gender-neutral looking penguins cuddling with their tiny pup, looking about as snug as a bug in a rug as penguinly possible. There is a golden sticker in the left hand corner showing that this book is a winner for the ASPCA Henry Bergh Children’s Book Award. On the back are glowing quotes from the likes of Maurice Sendak and John Lithgow. If it had been in any other section of the bookstore, I would have most likely barely given it a second glance, though – as I said – there is a certain undeniable allure to the banned book which I am powerless to resist.
Ten minutes later, I bought it, and was thus able to support not only gay rights, but also free speech and my local independent bookshop all with the same purchase.
Later that afternoon, with Arlo cuddled next to me on the couch at our home, I read it aloud.
“Every year at the very same time, the girl penguins start noticing the boy penguins,” I began. “And they boy penguins start noticing the girls…”
Arlo listened, enjoying the playful illustrations of Henry Cole very much, as the penguins swim together, walk together, sing together... They’re not exactly 100% anthropomorphic. I can tell Cole spent a long time studying actual penguins in order to get their look and their body language just right, but he does give them very expressive eyes and half-crescent eyebrows, a slight upturn of a smile superimposed upon their beaks. He does a great job of being simultaneously realistic and fanciful.
As the story moves towards its resolution, there is a loud CRAAAACK! after which which baby Tango emerges from his egg, to the delight of both Roy and Silo, and to the delight of all the schoolchildren who would come to the zoo forever after and celebrate the penguin family.
“At night the three penguins returned to their nest,” the book concludes. “There they snuggled together and, 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.”
I shut the book and set it down.
Arlo silently absorbed what he’d just heard.
“So, what did you think?” I prodded. “Did you like it?”
“Yes,” he said cautiously. He had a bit of a disturbed look on his face. “Except, I didn’t like the part where there was no momma.”
“Oh.” I frowned. “Well… suppose it had been about two moms and there was no daddy? What would you think of it, then?”
In a moment, Arlo’s eyes twinkled, a wide grin spread across his entire face and he exclaimed, “Yeah! That would be great!”