Tales and Their Tellers: 4. We’re Here! We’re Queer! And We’re Anthropomorphic!

4. We’re Here! We’re Queer! And We’re Anthropomorphic!

So, speaking of Brer Rabbit and his kin:

Last column I was able to review several variations on the characters and never once mention the infamous Disney film, Song of the South.  It was released initially in 1946, yet is still unavailable to this day, so afeared are the Disney executives in their ivory towers that charges of racism might be hurled against them for its romantic view of slavery.  I only mention it at the beginning of this column, as you may think it seems a somewhat overblown reaction for something that is – after all – based on only a mere children’s book.  But in truth, children’s literature is often at the forefront of such controversies, and acts as a testing ground for the social mores of a society.  You may think we’re all progressing along at a fine rate, but if you really want to see where we’re at, stick it in a children’s book and see what that gets you.

In 1989, Leslea Newman – Brooklyn poet laureate who once served as Allen Ginsberg’s apprentice, to my immense envy – wrote and self-published a quaint, little picture book for children entitled Heather Has Two Mommies.

“Heather’s favorite number is two.  She has two arms, two legs, two eyes, two ears, two hands and two feet.”

It went on to become one of the most challenged books of the 1990s.  Opponents checked the book out in droves from their public libraries and then ‘lost’ them.  School Boards found themselves having to take votes on the whether or not to remove the book from their curriculum.  This, after all, was tangible evidence of the militant homosexual agenda to subvert and to undermine!

Heather Has Two Mommies has since entered our pop-culture subconscious.  Whether you’ve ever picked up a copy of it or not, we’ve all read it through cultural osmosis.  Two decades later, the classic book is still in print and has recently celebrated its 20th anniversary with a special edition, but the controversy rages on.

Same-sex relationships and their portrayal in children’s picture books is the theme for this column.  This is my fourth time out, and I’m getting the lay of the land, feeling comfortable enough to dive right into something nice and provocative.  As promised at the end of the last column, there will be penguins.

There have been several picture books in the years since Heather first declared the existence of her two mommies, and they have each tried to garner acceptance for their positions amongst the most impressionable of us in different ways.  Leslea Newman wrote two follow-up books for younger readers entitled Mommy, Mama and Me and Daddy, Papa and Me.  Other titles include Daddy’s Roommate by Michael Willhoite and the very cleverly titled One Dad, Two Dads, Brown Dads, Blue Dads by Johnny Valentine and Melody Sarecky.

Something that these books all have in common is that they deal with their subject manner straight on.  There is no second-guessing what any of these books are about, based on the titles, based on the covers, based on just a cursory flip-through.  These are books you would purchase for a child who has same-sex parents, but probably not for anyone else.  In the same way that a children’s book which deals with the death of a pet would make a great gift for a child whose dog was recently put down, but would not exactly make for a great Saturday morning storytime at the library.

If a wider audience was to be reached, clearly, there needed to be another tactic.

Meanwhile, while all of these books were coming out and being predictably objected to by the same groups, something extraordinary was happening over at the New York Central Zoo.

It was mating season at the Penguin habitat, 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 FinnThe 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!”

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There are several gay couples in our lives.  The church we attend recognizes homosexuals as full members and as church officers.  We’d never really made an issue of it with Arlo, never went out of our way to bring the concept to his attention.  I’m sure someday it will come up, but for now we’re been very content for him to be surrounded by normal examples of same-sex couples without any heedless indication that anything is out of the ordinary.  I am proud to be raising him in our liberal footsteps, but it has occurred to me that reading And Tango Makes Three to him that afternoon was probably the first time he’d had to contemplate the issue.

Something tells me that we were not alone in this.  As I said, there’s is nothing outwardly provocative-looking about the book.  I can imagine that for many children this was their first exposure as well.  Parents who would never in a million years bring Heather Has Two Mommies anywhere close to their impressionable offspring may very well bring home a cute little book about penguins and not think anything of it.  It is this aspect of the book, I believe, which has made it such a dangerous book in the minds of its haters.

And Tango Makes Three was the most challenged book for three years running, from 2006 – 2008.  Enraged parents called their local libraries and politicians, demanding that the incendiary book be removed all together, or at least placed in a restricted area so that only adults wearing gloves and protective headgear could check it out.  The ACLU got involved and rightly declared this a first amendment issue.

Watch this Fox News report about the issue to get an idea of the passions involved on both sides of the spectrum.

There are two other picture books which were published following And Tango Makes Three which I thought were worth mentioning.  They are Uncle Bobby’s Wedding by Sarah S. Brannen and The Different Dragon by Jennifer Bryan and Danamarie Hosler.  Both of these books use talking animals – always a plus – and for both of them, the same-sex aspect of the story is not the central theme, but is marginal (not that that stopped Uncle Bobby’s Wedding from nearing the most-challenged list)

The main character of Uncle Bobby’s Wedding is a guinea pig named Chloe who is upset that her favorite Uncle will soon be getting married.  She is afraid that he will now not have as much time for her and wistfully does she recall long walks, nighttime boating expeditions, and now spends her days in fear and loathing, so certain that her best friend will now be taken from her forever.  Uncle Bobby helps her see that this is not the case, that he will always love her, and when the day of the big wedding finally arrives, Chloe is happy because now she’ll have not just one Uncle… but two Uncles!

Since all the guinea pigs are rather unisex in appearance, the only clue anyone would have that this is “vile propaganda” (as one Amazon reviewer put it) is that fact that both Uncle Jamie and Uncle Bobby are wearing tuxedos.  The fact of their homosexuality does not figure into the story’s arc.

Similarly, The Different Dragon deals with its subject matter with equal unobtrusiveness.  The child of the story, Noah, happens to have two moms, Momma and Go-Ma, but we only see them together once, at the very beginning.  The meat of the tale concerns Go-Ma telling Noah a bedtime story about a young boy who went sailing and looking for dragons.  When we finally meet the dragon, after some initial fierceness, it breaks down and reveals that it does not like being loud and angry at all, but that it doesn’t know any other way to be.  The child befriends the dragon and teaches it to play badminton.

What’s clever about the story is that Noah interjects his own ideas into the narrative as Go-Ma tells it, which is something I do with Arlo.  I can be in the middle of something and have a strong idea of where I’m going with it, and Arlo will suddenly want there to be firetrucks, so okay, I scrap everything and now there are firetrucks.  This interaction between the storyteller and the storytellee is captured here.  The moral is, or course, difference is good, difference should be celebrated.

Both of these books – and there are several others – capture the future of same-sex relationships in children’s literature, as just a part of the normal fabric of life.  Heather may still have two mommies, but if that book were being written today, that aspect of her life would no longer be her defining characteristic.

*********

You might be wondering how I dealt with Arlo’s reaction that having two dads would be deeply disturbing, but two moms would be just terrific.  How could you not take that personally?  I mean, how much can you really love someone if you wouldn’t wish that person cloned and doubled?

“You wouldn’t want two of me?” I asked him.  “What, mom can be gay, but not me?”

Actually, I just took it in stride.  But Arlo, with his sixth sense, could tell I’d had my feelings hurt.  The next day, we’d been joking around at the dinner table and he said, apropos of nothing, “I wish I had two dads so one of you could go to work and the other one of you could stay home and play with me!”

“Really?” I swooned.  “Do you really mean it?”

“Sure!” he responded.  And then later that night, I set him down in this large mixing bowl we have and began spinning the living bejeezus out of him.  It’s something we do.

Anyway, there he was, spinning like a crazy person, hair flying, acting like he’s about to throw up, I stopped the mixing bowl and he came flying out into my arms.

“Woah!” he cried, clutching onto me for dear life, the world spinning around him,  “Now I feel like I really do have two dads!”

Man, he always knows just the right thing to say.

Next: I’ll lighten up a bit and write about something we can all agree on: good ol’ Maurice Sendak!  Everyone likes Maurice Sendak!  Just don’t expect to find any wild things or those danged nutshell kids hanging about.

*********

Links:

Stonewall.org has this great list of children’s books featuring same-sex parents.  I couldn’t believe how many there were, and I find it especially interesting how many you would not be able to guess at the content based on their covers or titles.

http://www.stonewall.org.uk/at_school/education_resources/primary_school_books/4231.asp

In pondering this issue, I came to realize that that children’s literature is filled with gay characters!  Look at Mole and Rat from The Wind in the Willows.  Better yet, look at Frog and Toad from the Arnold Lobel series.  Seriously, read them again, if you haven’t in a long time.  The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became.  Looking the subject up, I found I wasn’t the only person to make the connection:

http://guydads.blogspot.com/2007/11/frog-and-toad-are-gay.html

Opponents of And Tango Makes Three are quick to point out that in real life, the happy penguin couple did not stay together.  Silo broke up with Roy and ran off with a female penguin named Scrappy, and that any attempt to not make this fact widely known is further evidence of the gay propaganda machine.  Lest I be accused similarly, here is a link to the New York Times article which details the break-up:

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/24/nyregion/24penguins.html


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