On Book Banning: An Interview with Banned Book Authors Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell

In the last year, the US has seen a dramatic rise in book banning. Schools and libraries across the country are removing books about gender, race, sexual health, sexual orientation, and even the holocaust. It’s hard to discuss the rise in book bans without discussing the introduction of bills restricting schools from holding classroom instruction about sexual orientation or gender identity. HB 1557 or the “Don’t Say Gay Bill” and others like it are being introduced in 22 different states.

These bills are said to, “reinforce the fundamental right of parents to make decisions regarding the upbringing and control of their children in a specified manner”. In other words, these bills were written to allow parents to decide when their children should learn about the existence of LGBTQ+ people.

While some may believe these laws will protect their children, I’m here to tell you that they are dangerous for a number of reasons. First and foremost, they strip access from children who need these books. For many children, these books represent them, their families, and their community. What message are adults sending these children when they say those books don’t belong in school?

The conversation around these bills also implies that adults are harming children, and that children must be protected from the influence of queer adults. We see the lie that queer people are predatory repeated more and more with every bill that’s introduced. It’s a very old rhetoric gaining steam in the mainstream again. Rhetoric that I know to be false as a queer person who writes picture books.

I can’t speak for all queer writers, but I know that I write queer books because I know the pain of feeling “different”, “wrong”, or even just “other”. Growing up in rural Alabama (the same state that just passed their own “Don’t Say Gay Bill” with Bill 322), teachers didn’t read books about bisexuality. Not because it was illegal, but because we didn’t talk about identity at all in my community. In fact, no one said the word “bisexual” to me at a young age at all. I didn’t even have the words for what I was until I was a teenager. But that silence didn’t stop me from becoming who I am today. It didn’t stop my queerness. It just made me feel alone and broken. Today I write the books that I needed in my childhood, because there are still children who need them.

So, understandably, this whole topic has been hard for me to wrap my arms around lately. I knew I wanted to talk about it here, but I wasn’t sure how I was going to approach it. To my luck and delight, one of my favorite publicity contacts who works at Simon & Schuster reached out to me with the perfect idea. He asked if I would like to interview Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, the authors of one of the American Library Association’s most frequently banned books, And Tango Makes Three.

Title: And Tango Makes Three
Authors: Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
Illustrator: Henry Cole
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers
Published: June 1, 2015
Format: Picture Book

This delightful picture book is based on the true story of two male chinstrap penguins who paired themselves up and tried to hatch an egg in their nest. When another penguin couple laid two eggs, a zookeeper stepped in to save the abandoned egg by giving it to the penguins. They hatched that egg and made their family grow by one. This wholesome book provides readers ages 4-8 with an approachable introduction to the concept of diverse family structures and creates “representation” for kids who might have two moms or two dads (who are obviously humans and not penguins).

Though it was originally published seventeen years ago, And Tango Makes Three continues to be included in the American Library Association’s list of most frequently challenged books.

Justin Richardson, MD, is the coauthor, with Peter Parnell, of the award-winning picture book And Tango Makes Three. Dr. Richardson is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Columbia and Cornell and the coauthor of Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid They’d Ask). Dr. Richardson and his advice have been featured in The New York Times and The Washington Post, on the Today show and NPR’s Morning Edition, and in numerous magazines. Dr. Richardson lectures to parents and teachers on parenting and the sexual development of children.

Peter Parnell is the coauthor, with Justin Richardson, of And Tango Makes Three. He is a playwright whose plays have been produced at the Public Theater and Playwrights Horizons in New York City, the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, and the Seattle Repertory Company, among others. His play QED was produced on Broadway. He has written extensively for television as a producer for both The West Wing and The Guardian; he has also written episodes of Maurice Sendak’s series Little Bear. He lives in New York City.

Justin, Peter, thank you both for joining me today. I’m going to start with the question I always ask. What inspired you to write And Tango Makes Three?  

Justin had a longstanding interest in parenting and in children’s sexual development. Around the writing of his book with pediatrician Mark Schuster, Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know about Sex (But Were Afraid They’d Ask), he’d spoken widely with parents across the country about their challenges in talking to children about a range of issues related to kids and sex. One of the things that impressed him was the way parents, even those who wanted to raise their children with progressive ideas about sexual orientation, were haunted by the fear of speaking them about topics or with language that wasn’t “age-appropriate.” When we read the new coverage of Tango and her two dads, it was instantly clear that telling this story would give many parents the way in they were looking for to talk about the diversity of families in the world. 

More personally, we were working on having a child of our own at the time. We so wanted to be able to share literature that depicted a family like ours with our little one.

This title has been in ALA’s annual top 10 banned book list 9 times since it was originally published back in 2005. Did you ever imagine your adorable story about gay penguins would get this much backlash when you wrote it back then?

We thought there might be some resistance to Tango from conservative parents. But we never imagined the scale it would reach, nor could we have predicted how broadly the book would be celebrated and defended around the world. At first, there was nothing. The conservative press was almost eerily quiet. Then the documentary March of the Penguins came out. It was a huge hit, and conservative writers pointed to the movie as proof that monogamy was right and abortion wrong. Others countered, pointing to our book and arguing that by the same token, penguins also proved that homosexuality was natural. Michael Medved called Tango propaganda in USA Today, Frank Rich rebutted him in the Times, and the challenges began to roll in. Did we ever imagine that it would become the single most banned book in the United States or that the government of Singapore would decide to pulp every copy in its library system? Some things you just don’t anticipate.

As both a writer and reviewer, I generally try to stay focused on the target audience of children. Because that’s really who these books are for, right? When you interact with your audience, what kinds of reactions do you get from children? Have you ever had a child get as upset about the book as the adults around them seem to be?

If Tango works as a picture book, it’s because it offers children a story they understand and enjoy returning to. Two little birds, different from the others, deeply want something they probably can’t have. They try and fail. Then a kindly grownup gives them just what they need. And their dream comes true. When we turn the page and children see Tango burst out of her shell with her silly beak and feathers, there is always such joy in the room! Most of the questions we get from children are about penguins. Some about how you make a book. Occasionally a child will make the connection to their own family structure, or a friend’s. With older children, starting in the fourth grade, we may mention that the book has been banned. The looks of incomprehension are the most powerful rebuttal to the rhetoric we’re hearing from Florida legislators and their defenders. 

What would you say you learn from your readers? Have any of the children who read the book taught you something?

One of the most moving experiences we had was receiving an award from three schools in New York City where the 5th graders spent a year reading books and together selecting a recipient for award to honor one book they felt honored the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr.. We all sat in the gym of one of the schools and listened as students from each school stood up and read aloud their essays about TANGO, of the lessons of tolerance and understanding towards members of the LGBTQ community that it gave them. They were extraordinarily sensitive essays. For us, it was a lesson in how the proper kind of teaching can engender the most sophisticated thinking from young readers.

If you could say anything to the lawmakers who are writing and passing these laws, what would you say?

Please read our book. Just sit quietly and read it. Then meet a child with two moms or two dads and read it to them. And allow yourself to reconsider the effect on this child of eliminating our book from their classroom.

I saw your article for The Washington Post mentioning other classics that should be reconsidered under the vague terminology of the Don’t Say Gay Bill and I just have to say the rule follower in me loves this idea of fighting back with malicious compliance. It’s brilliant! Do you think this could be a tactic teachers in Florida who are opposed to the bill could use in their classrooms to highlight the vague language of the bill?

Absolutely. The dead serious joke of our piece was that, since the law prohibits discussion and instruction about “sexual orientation,” countless books, including Make Way for Ducklings, which depict heterosexual animals forming and raising a family are just as impermissible as Tango. The law empowers parents to sue if these books are taught. Countless frivolous lawsuits over the reading of Ferdinand (“gender identity”) and Make Way for Ducklings seem very much in order. Have at it!

What other banned books would you recommend to parents who want to support the titles that are being challenged and banned in schools across America?

We are big fans of anything written by Robie Harris!

Is there anything else you’d like to share with Mutually Inclusive’s readers?

Thank you all for caring about literary freedom and standing up, in small ways or large, for books like ours!

Thank you so much to Justin and Peter for their thoughtful answers to all my questions. I also want to thank my friend, Alex, for making this interview possible and giving me a productive outlet for all my complicated feelings about these dangerous bills and the book banning they are encouraging.

If you would like to learn more about bills like these being passed in your state, check out openstates.org to track and follow your local legislation. You can also find your local representatives at commoncause.org and speak out about any bills you think will be harmful to your community.

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