Last week, we launched our new theme, Scarred Souls & Bloodstained Memories: Tales of War & Poetry, Refuge & Peace. Today’s double feature, however, deviates from it. This post looks into the important themes of love and family, as highlighted in Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell’s And Tango Makes Three and Jean Davies Okimoto and Elaine M. Aoki’s The White Swan Express.
These two beloved picturebooks are currently subjects of a controversy but let us not get ahead of ourselves. Both books are products of brilliant collaborations between educators, artists, and therapists. And Tango Makes Three, published in 2005, has won numerous awards including the ASPCA Henry Bergh Children’s Book Award (2005), Gustavus Myer Outstanding Book Award (2006), and Bank Street Best Book of the Year (2006).
And Tango Makes Three
Written by: Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
Illustrated by: Henry Cole
Published by: Simon & Schuster (2005)
Book borrowed from Wayne County Public Library.
According to the Author’s Note, the events in the book are true. And Tango Makes Three tells the charming tale of two chinstrap penguins named Roy and Silo. Roy and Silo live in the penguin house in New York’s Central Park Zoo. They are a little different from the other penguins in the house.
Roy and Silo were both boys. But they did everything together. They bowed to each other. And walked together. They sang to each other. And swam together. Wherever Roy went, Silo went too.
The two penguins were so bonded that they even built their own nest of stones. Roy and Silo’s close relationship did not go unnoticed. Rob Grazmay, the penguin keeper, found an extra egg laid by another penguin couple. Because that couple could not take care of more than one egg at a time, Grazmay decided to place it in Roy and Silo’s nest.
Roy and Silo knew just what to do… Every day they turned it, so each side stayed warm. Some days Roy sat while Silo went for food. Other days it was Silo’s turn to take care of their egg.
Roy and Silo patiently and religiously sat on the egg until it hatched. A baby penguin with fuzzy white feathers and funny black beak came out of the shell. Gramzay decided to call the baby penguin Tango “because it takes two to make a Tango.” She was the first penguin in Central Park Zoo to have two daddies take care of her.
Roy and Silo may be an odd couple but they have as much right as the other penguins to love and build their own family. This lyrical and tender tale of love shared by Roy, Silo, and Tango was brought to life by Henry Cole’s gentle watercolor illustrations. Cole’s online gallery shows some of his works and reflects his versatility as an artist. Justin Richardson is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Columbia and Cornell, while Peter Parnell is a playwright whose most recent play, QED, was produced on Broadway.
The White Swan Express
Written by: Jean Davies Okimoto and Elaine M. Aoki
Illustrated by: Meilo So
Published by: Clarion Books
Book borrowed from Wayne County Public Library.
Subtitled, “A Story About Adoption,” The White Swan Express tells the story of how seven people in America traveled to China to welcome four baby girls into their homes. The book shows three couples from Miami, Seattle, and Toronto, and a lady from Minnesota prepare for the much-awaited “meet and greet” with the baby girls they are planning to adopt. The babies come from an orphanage in Guangzhou, and each is assigned a nanny that older children refer to as “auntie,” or ayi in Chinese.
They dressed and packed. They looked at their lists and checked their bags. There were diapers and baby carriers, knitted hats and blankets. There were bibs and baby food, booties and warm sweaters. There were burp cloths, cans of formula, and little panda bears. There were baby wipes and medicine and bottles and spoons.
And there were papers – lots of important papers – and baby pictures as tiny as a stamp.
The text in the book is longer than an average picturebook. It presents before, during, and after adoption scenarios in alternating text and picture format. It’s amazing how well the book portrays the excitement of the adoptive parents in meeting their daughters, and the aunties’ expressions of hope and joy for the four baby girls. These people were all brought together and became families on one special day in China.
Jean Davies Okimoto is a psychotherapist and daughter of an adoptee. She is friends with Dr. Elaine M. Aoki who is a director of the Lower School at the Bush School in Seattle and coeditor of Kaleidoscope, the NCTE Review of Multicultural Literature. Meilo So’s illustrations were rendered in watercolor, the same style she used in Kate Coombs’ award-winning picturebook, Water Sings Blue: Ocean Poems.
Howard Suzuki, one of the characters in the book, referred to their group as “The White Swan Express” because they all stayed in The White Swan Hotel. In the Afterword, it was noted that the story was based on Dr. Elaine M. Aoki and her husband’s own experiences of becoming a family. It goes into detail how adoption works in China, as a result of the Chinese government’s family planning policy.
A few days ago, the National Library Board of Singapore decided to ban “And Tango Makes Three” and “The White Swan Express.” Their decision first appeared on Facebook, copied from an email and posted as a status. The news has made the headlines since, provoking outrage and indignation from people in different parts of the world.
“And Tango Makes Three” is no stranger to controversy. According to the American Library Association (ALA), “And Tango Makes Three” was the most controversial book in 2006, 2007, and 2008. The book remains to be included in ALA’s list of the most challenged books in the United States. Articles about the controversy involving “The White Swan Express” pale in comparison to “And Tango Makes Three.” It was not even part of ALA’s list mentioned earlier.
In their email reply, the National Library Board of Singapore stated,
“We have withdrawn the books Tango Makes Three and the White Swan Express following your feedback… While we try to sieve through the contents and exercise our best judgment, it is an arduous task to ensure complete adherence of details to our pro-family stand. However, when library visitors like yourself highlight to us any conflicting contents within the books, we review such books thoroughly and withdraw them from circulation.”
“Family” is a touchy subject, and one that we are all familiar about. What is family, anyway? The Statistics Division of the United Nations defines family as “those members of the household who are related to specified degree, through blood, adoption, or marriage.” Furthermore, it was noted under the “family nucleus” section that “couples living in consensual unions should be regarded as married couples.”
The controversy surrounding “And Tango Makes Three” resulted in parents requesting that the book either be banned or placed in the restricted section of the library. It was deemed an inappropriate reading material for children because of the underlying theme on homosexuality. The “aunties” in “The White Swan Express” were perceived as lesbian couples, and it appeared as if “adoption” does not meet the criteria of what makes a family, at least not for some people.
However, we, as human beings, are constantly evolving. Thus, how we define things and perceive our environment also change over time, as we deem fit. There is no single definition or criterion of family. People give various definitions of family based on their own experience. While writing this post, I looked up quotations about “family.” I find Barbara Bush’s words helpful in putting things in perspective. She said, “To me, family means putting your arms around each other and being there.” She did not state who or what makes a family; rather, she described what a family represents.
Love and family are central themes to “And Tango Makes Three” and “The White Swan Express.” Love is what binds a family. Both picturebooks are testaments to a quote by German poet and philosopher, Johann Schiller: “It is not flesh and blood, but heart which makes us fathers and sons.” (And daughters, too, as in the case of Tango and the Chinese baby girls.)
Thoughts of a Reader and Librarian
When I read about the National Library Board’s decision to ban”And Tango Makes Three” and “The White Swan Express,” I couldn’t help but feel heartbroken and saddened by the news, and I speak in behalf of the entire GatheringBooks team (Myra, Iphigene and myself). Picturebooks are not just reading materials. They also serve as a powerful resource in teaching children about values and helping them understand the world around them.
I have only been working at our local library for a month, but I have loved libraries for God-knows-how-long. I take delight in the fact that everyone is welcome to the library, that most materials are readily available to patrons, and, best of all, that library materials are free.
During my interview, I was asked what I would do if a patron walks up to the desk with a material that is opposed to my beliefs. With a smile, I told the person conducting the interview that I would withhold judgment and gladly assist the patron with check out. People have different beliefs. We need to be constantly aware of this and respect each other.
Wayne County Public Library, the library where I work, recognizes intellectual freedom and strictly adheres to the Library Bill of Rights established by the American Library Association.
Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.
Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.
Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.
Libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas.
A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.
In an article written by the School Library Journal about “And Tango Makes Three,” co-author Justin Richardson stated, “People only challenge a book when they fear it has the power to influence thought and create change. The fact that our little book has been seen as transformative by so many for so long makes us very proud.” With regards to banning said picturebook, Barbara Jones, director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF), stated in the same article,
“While we firmly support the right of every reader to choose or reject a book for themselves or their families, those objecting to a particular book should not be given the power to restrict other readers’ right to access and read that book. As members of a pluralistic and complex society, we must have free access to a diverse range of viewpoints on the human condition in order to foster critical thinking and understanding. We must protect one of the most precious of our fundamental rights—the freedom to read.”
This may sound really cheesy but becoming a librarian is one of the highlights of my existence. On the day that I was signing the necessary paperwork to begin my job as a circulation assistant, the Human Resources Coordinator congratulated me for officially becoming a public servant. It then occurred to me how important the library is as a public institution. A library is a representation of its people who have diverse beliefs and cultural backgrounds. “This,” according to Myra, “is what an inclusive and multicultural society means.” Iphigene notes that, to her, “a library is a symbol of intellectual freedom and must remain so. For those who refuse to expose their children to these things, they are free to not borrow the book.”
While the National Library Board of Singapore has not made further comments about the issue (at the time that this piece was written)*, we at GatheringBooks respect their final say in the matter as they must have good reason(s) for the things that they do (we continue to hope so). While we understand that the libraries have their own policies and reasons for doing certain things given the sociopolitical climate of each respective country and such, our collective personal view in GatheringBooks is that “And Tango Makes Three” and “The White Swan Express” show the beauty of family and togetherness, and love and acceptance.
*Click here to note the most recent statement given by the NLB.
While the controversy involving the banning of “And Tango Makes Three” and “The White Swan Express” is still hot off the press, why don’t we pause for a while and redirect our thoughts to one of the things that we enjoy doing. Let’s read together! which will be held tomorrow, 13 July, Hanis @ NLB, 3 pm. Please visit this link to view the details of the reading event, organized by Germaine Eliza Ong and Jolene Tan in Singapore.
Brilliant article, Fats. I support your views every step of the way. And thank you for introducing me to these 2 splendid books. They both seem wonderfully creative and empowering ‘tools’ to help any child who might feel different/excluded because of their particular circumstances. Any means of removing stigma should be regarded as gifts to share, not as dangerous literature to be hidden away/banned. And yes, too, let readers make up their own minds. Also librarians are most important people in any community, though we do rather take them for granted, and in UK we do have Local Authorities who seem rather keen on shedding both librarians and public libraries. As Joni Mitchell sings ‘you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s lost’.
Thank you, Tish! Both books are wonderful indeed, and the act of banning these books made me wonder if adults use children as an excuse to protect their – the adults’ – own beliefs. Who’s to say that a book is good or bad? Your mention of shedding librarians and public libraries reminded me of a quote by Neil Gaiman: “Libraries are the thin red line between civilization and barbarism.”
We are lucky here in the US that we have free public libraries, unlike other parts of the world, but they are not without their own controversies about certain books, one of them being And Tango Makes Three. It’s a beautiful and full post, Fats. I love And Tango Makes Three, and friends just adopted a young girl from China, will enjoy hearing about The White Swan Express. Since my own children are adopted, along with others in my extended family, it never occurred to me that some might think we aren’t a family. As for censorship, I often wonder if those who protest were asked to take the book they are protesting out to the metal drum in the back that’s kept burning & throw it in would do that too? Would that act itself cause them to understand what they are really doing, destroying someone’s ideas? Thank you for bringing the topic up with your own understanding, and congratulations on the new job!
Thank you, Linda! I love And Tango Makes Three as well. My boyfriend’s mom told me that their hospice facility is planning to acquire two bonded male swans for the newly built pond. These bonded animals reminded me of Roy and Silo. It’s interesting that critics are too focused on the underlying theme of homosexuality and not taking into account family, love, acceptance, and even familial behavior in animals. I love my job and I am grateful that I work with people who value the importance of intellectual freedom of the community.
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