It Takes Two to Tango

There are many ways to push for social justice, but perhaps one of the subtler and more unexpected ways to do so are through children’s literature, especially since many children’s books aim to inculcate some form of moral value at the end of the story. In this post, I will be discussing the popular children’s book And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson (Richardson & Parnell, 2005), and how books like these, that spread positive messages about LGBT families, can be a starting point for challenging the notion of heteronormativity from home.

Tango and her two fathers!

The book is about two penguins, Roy and Silo, who wish to have baby just like all the other heterosexual penguins in their enclosure. However, they are biologically unable to lay an egg, so their zookeeper has an idea and gives them an egg that needs to be cared for to hatch. After much dedicated time and care for the egg, it finally hatches into a baby penguin, whom Roy and Silo decide to name Tango, as it takes two to tango.

Roy and Silo do everything together.

The interesting thing about the book is that the label ‘gay’ is never introduced, even though it is made clear that Roy and Silo are romantically attracted to each other. We previously learnt in class and from the readings that there are there are powerful effects to the discourse of labelling. Given that the word ‘gay’ is now often viewed as the unmarked term and has become a widely accepted ‘in-group’ term (Cameron & Kulick, 2010), I thought that it might be mentioned at least once in the book, perhaps as a form of solidarity. However, there were no LGBT labels in this book at all, and from a child’s perspective it merely seems like two penguins who are a little different but have the same want for family love as all the others.

Perhaps that is what makes this book so powerful. By choosing not to use any labels, the authors reinforce their stance against heteronormativity by showing that there does not need to be a label as labels often indicate a sense of markedness, no matter how subtle.

The usage of penguins to bring to light the discussion of a LGBT family rather than human beings is likely to be the author’s way of softening the social message of the book, as putting the protagonists in an ‘animal world’ distances the them from the reality of the human world. Using penguins instead of human beings also prevents any possible homonormative messages from being sent out in the book, which some children’s literature has been accused of (Taylor, 2012).

Above all, And Tango Makes Three has been often named as one of the most impactful books about an LGBT family in recent years, despite the fact that it has been banned in libraries all around the globe and has been named as one of the most challenged books from 2006 to 2010 (And Tango Makes Three, n.d.). By portraying an LGBT family without ever labelling it as one, the authors are able to instil the moral value of inclusiveness and show that love is not exclusive to a male and female. The focus on family love, first between the penguins as partners and then between the parents and child, sends the subversive message that above all, the gender or sexuality of parents does not matter – only that their love, both for each other and their child, is genuine.

*note: images were taken from a free preview of the book online*


And Tango Makes Three. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved March 1, 2018, from

Cameron, D., & Kulick, D. (2010). Language and Sexuality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Richardson, J., & Parnell, P. (2005). And Tango Makes Three. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

Taylor, N. (2012). U.S. Childrens Picture Books and the Homonormative Subject. Journal of LGBT Youth, 9(2), 136-152. doi:10.1080/19361653.2011.649646

4 Replies to “It Takes Two to Tango”

  1. I agree with Clara that this is a very powerful book, and the authors have obviously went through a very vigorous thought process when writing it. I thought it was very clever how the authors did not use labels in the book, but rather let the audience assume that the penguins are homosexuals. As Clara mentioned, labels need not be used to portray markedness, the absence can also perform the same function.

    Additionally, upon googling the book, I found out that this book is actually based on a real story. Roy and Silo are real, and they attempted to hatch a rock as if it was an egg before the zookeeper gave them one. This chick was Tango, who formed a homosexual relationship with another female penguin.

    This makes me wonder about the backlash the book got – why are some people so opposed to homosexuality, when it is simply something natural? Why not focus on the love that they share instead, and just let the couple be happy? Hetronormitivity is not the law, one should be allowed to deviate from it – be it whether he is human or a penguin.

  2. Clara did a good in-depth analysis as to the possible reason with regards to author’s choices. I agree that the author did deliberately choose not to use the label gay as it is possible that the author does not want to reinforce heteronormativity as using the label gay deliberately shows that the characters are deviants.

    It is nice to have books like this that shed a positive light on this issue. Most of the media today portrays gay characters as evil or bad or will at the end of the day die. With this book, I love how it does not subliminally condition our young children to heteronormativity but help our children be open to accepting deviant sexualities

  3. I think it is indeed interesting that the label ‘gay’ wasn’t introduced in the book at all. As mentioned, it would not have been surprising to see  the word ‘gay’ in the book because of how two male penguins are attracted to each other. I think that this actually makes this book a great read for children, as they are exposed at a young age to how there can be different kinds of families – even those with two male ‘dads’ with a child and that these kinds of families are similar to what the society considers as ‘normal’ with a female and a male adult. This book shows that even in such families, the child is still being cared for and receives the love that children in ‘normal’ families receive, and the parents are also as loving as any couple around. This is also why I do not really understand the banning of the book in libraries around the world. As mentioned in the post, the book does not send out any homonormative messages and I feel that children will be able to enjoy this book as they do not have any concepts of heteronormativity yet. However, the banning of this book in libraries around the world seems to send out a message that homosexuality is frowned upon and I hope that this can be re-evaluated as there is nothing wrong with homosexuality.

  4. I think it is interesting for Clara to use a book as a material for this post. I do agree with the points raised by her as well.

    Children of the past generations have been taught to judge or see LGBT as a taboo topic. The typical love stories or fairytales that we used to read would be of princesses being damsels in distress, having their Prince Charming to come rescue the day. This is a typical heteronormative story structure that builds the impression of man-woman relationship for children.

    However, with the approval of gay marriages in recent years, I think that government should focus on changing the education that children of this generation receive. The modern education should educate children how to have an open mind. This is not only useful in teaching them how to embrace all types of love, it helps in their problem-solving skills. Only with an open mind of believing that anything is possible can great ideas or ambitious dreams come about.

    This book serves as a good example of how modern love stories should be like. To slowly transit and make people accept such story structure, it was a smart move to use penguins instead of humans. Penguins are cute generally, hence this not only attracts attention but allows easier development of empathy. It is also a good initiative to not use any labels in this book since the focus is on love itself. Labels would only encourage people to be judgmental.

    In conclusion, I hope the ban on this book would be lifted. More of such books should be published as well, so that the open concept of love could be spread and educated to humans from young.

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