Review of the Day: And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
Though fellow blogger Books From the Windowsill did a post on this not too long ago, my reasons for reviewing "Tango" now were a little more personal.
I am a children’s librarian and my husband is a graduate student at Columbia University. Generally these two occupations do not intersect all that often. Then my husband started taking TV Writing classes with a professor by the name of Peter Parnell. We neither of us thought that much of it. I didn’t recognize Mr. Parnell’s name and my husband doesn’t exactly walk up to every person he meets asking, “Hey, have you written a children’s book?”. Then one day my husband came home all ah-flutter because he had finally discovered something remarkable. Peter Parnelll and his partner Justin Richardson wrote a picture book together. And not just any picture book either. No sir, these two wrote the sole well-written well-illustrated picture book about a gay family in the history of the English language. I kid you not. What they wrote was, “And Tango Makes Three”, and I was stunned. My husband even came close to suggesting that his professor see my review of his book on Amazon.com.... but then he realized that I never wrote one. Honest-to-God that is not my fault. I’ve been meaning to review “Tango” for months and months but it’s on a list of roughly 532 OTHER picture books that I also need to review. I just haven’t had the time. Today, however, I made the time. Long before I realized that I had an oblique connection to its authors, I was promoting “And Tango Makes Three” to anyone and everyone alive. Not only does it involve the hottest fowl today (penguins are very “in”) but it’s a touching tale of finding a family, no matter what.
At the Central Park Zoo in New York City there are all kinds of animal families. There are red panda families. There are cotton-top tamarin families. And then there’s Silo and Roy. About the time the boy penguins started noticing the girl penguins and the girl penguins started noticing the boys, two boy penguins started noticing one another. They did everything together and the keeper, Mr. Gramzay, noticed their relationship. Eventually Roy and Silo noticed that the other penguin couples were making nests and having babies. They wanted a baby too, so they built a nest and attempted to hatch a rock. Mr. Gramzay saw what they were trying to do, and he had an egg that needed caring for. The egg was given to Roy and Silo who hatched it successfully and, together, raised baby Tango “because it takes two to make a Tango”. Now the three penguins swim together and rest 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”. A note at the back points out that this is a true story.
I think we all recall the brief scandal when a library was forced to reshelve adorable “Tango” in its non-fiction section. It’s not the worst fate a picture book can suffer, but it is a bit of a pity. The charm of this book is how straightforward the storytelling is. Justin Richardson previously wrote “Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid They’d Ask)” or EYNWYKKAS(BWATA) for short. I'm kidding. He has a degree in psychiatry and with Parnell the two have a very good grasp on what does and does not work in a picture book. In this particular case, the story is key. We don’t need a didactic text about accepting differences or a detailed explanation of what makes a penguin gay. We just want the story. We want to know what Roy and Silo’s situation was, what problems they had (in this case, a literal empty nest syndrome), and how it was solved. We get that. The book acknowledges that families like Tango’s are different, but I think Parnell’s playwriting skills have been key in at least one concrete way: He knows how to utilize that old authorial advice show "show, don't tell". It is clear as crystal that this is a family. They love one another. And because this is the message and this is the format you’d have to be a pretty hard-hearted customer not to be swayed by this tale of common family values.
Here’s where Richardson and Parnell lucked out. I’ve read plenty of first-time picture book authors who had a great story under their belts. But if the publisher of their book gives them a two-bit hack of an illustrator, it doesn’t matter how great the story is. This is the lesson we can all take away from the oft-banned, “King and King”. In the case of “Tango” Simon & Schuster actually decided to get someone good. Someone along the lines of Henry Cole. Cole wasn’t a sure-thing either. Obviously he wasn’t afraid of courting controversy, since this was the same illustrator that brought us Harvey Fierstein’s own picture book, “The Sissy Duckling”. But “Sissy” for all its charms, was a sloppy affair. You would never guess from that work alone that Cole was capable of the touching understated pictures found in “Tango”. In this book the pictures are some of the sweetest ever made of penguins and certainly the nicest illustrations to ever accompany a picture book with gay characters. Who knew that penguins could have such bemused little faces? I think the cover illustration probably will give you the best indication of how a picture can be sweetly touching without overdosing on the saccharine.
The fact that this book is considered contentious is absurd. Yet we live in absurd times and we must face up to the fact that there are people out there for whom “And Tango Makes Three” represents something hideous. With that in mind, I encourage all librarians and booksellers to carry “Tango”. Buy it for your friends’ children. I can’t tell you how happy I was when I went to the Central Park Zoo and found that their gift store prominently displayed the book front and center. Every year Gay Pride Week comes along and have almost no books to display for the event. Now that has changed. A beautiful book that does not preach or smack you over the head with a “message”. It’s just a great story.