"And Tango Makes Three," Banned Books Week, and the Nature/Nurture Discourse

Curator's Note

In this interview with Judith Krug of the American Library Association, broadcast on a public access show, Krug explains Banned Books Week by discussing examples of books on the ALA’s list of most petitioned books.  One of these books, Pete Parnell and Justin Richardson’s "And Tango Makes Three," has been one of the most challenged books for several years.

The book, based on a true story at the Central Park Zoo and written for a young picture book audience, tells a tale of a pair of male penguins who form a parenting bond that looks like all the other penguins’ male-female couplings.  It has drawn ire from adults who claim that the book is an endorsement of homosexuality, a position the host of the program finds understandable.  

So what makes this book such a lightning rod for controversy?  The book, though it is an attempt at using anthropomorphic storytelling to encourage compassion for same-sex partnerships, provides an easy example and target for those eager to engage in the nature-nurture debate over whether homosexuality is biologically based or a conscious choice — a false dichotomy but easy escape for queer politics and its enemies alike.  The fact that the book is based in fact allows it to be easily taken up within this discourse.  As Jon Mooallem astutely (and somewhat reluctantly) elaborates in his New York Times Magazine essay "Can Animals Be Gay?," the observation by biologists that animals sometimes pair in same-sex couples for various social reasons causes people with varying agendas to politicize these findings.  Placing ideals of love, devotion, and monogamy (same-sex or otherwise) onto selected pockets of the animal kingdom, ideals which our species so irregularly can honestly uphold, enforces the simplified nature/nurture debate.

It is the ALA’s self-designated responsibility to report on controversy.  Krug’s interview reminds us that libraries provide books so that they can be read by those who want to read them.  The written word (and illustrations) can inspire a multitude of interpretations and affect (…and controversy…).  This book gained importance by being heavily publicized and readily taken up as a cause celebre and subsequently challenged by others.  Perhaps like other banned books, inclusion on the list signifies something more than just offensive content; perhaps there is a call to actually go to the text to dig deeper and to be affected — to take one’s own perspective.

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