Monday, September 17, 2012

Roy and Silo Broke Up

That's what I learned this weekend.  If you read a lot of children's book, or follow trends in book challenges (bans), or are a gay parent, you probably know that Roy and Silo are the two penguin dads of Tango in the picture book And Tango Makes Three.

Apparently, Silo abandoned Roy and took up with a lady penguin, who he has since left.  Roy joined a group of single male penguins.  When Tango reached maturity she also found a lady penguin to keep her company-one of a different penguin species.  So, should the author of Tango updated the book's notes to reflect these facts?  Can we tell kids a story about non-monogamous, bisexual, cross-speciesist penguins? And do they want that story?

At the conference where I learned about Roy and Silo, there was a strong anti-anthropomorphism sentiment. The problem wasn't so much characters that are human in animal skins-like Frances the badger, but those characters and books that blur the lines between human behavior and motivation and animal thought and motivation.  Watership Down got some strong condemnation, because apparently the author presented rabbit colonies as naturally patriarchal, while knowing full well that rabbits are actually matriarchal.  The problem being that those  patriarchal rabbits were made to seem natural and biologically determined.  The takeaway: simplifying nature to fit our own political and cultural projects is dishonest and does a disservice to child readers.

As gay parents navigating popular culture it's easy to get sucked into the normalcy trap.  If the choice is between complete silence about families like ours, or gay druggy satanist penguin families, we'll take the monogamous gay penguin book and love it.  We are normal people raising children in a culture that sometimes sees us as abnormal, unnatural, perverted, etc.  So shouldn't books about and for families like ours make us seem as natural/normal as possible?  The dangers of normalcy are many.  There is the social realism problem.  For examples, you should definitely click over and look at the Sweet Juniper blog, where the author has a series of posts tagged "terrifying Nixon Era children's literature."  I think the book I Wish Daddy Didn't Drink So Much is my favorite in the series.  It's not that I think alcoholism is necessarily an inappropriate topic for a kid's book, but rather that hyper-realistic problem book genre offends my aesthetic sensibilities.  Don't the children of alcoholics deserve lovely, lively, vibrant books?  Must the kids from "problem" family always have the dull books?  It seems like we should be able to have beautiful, cozy, charming, fantastical books about all kinds of families and all kinds of lives-even the lives of bisexual, non-monogamous penguins. 

I'm also uncomfortable embracing the status of a "privileged" minority.  Should all the gay family books be about middle-class, educated, white, married families like ours-because that makes us more palatable to the world?  I don't want "our books" to be limited to those that are a close approximation to idealized straight families, but I suppose LB doesn't really need to read Mommy Drinks a Bottle of Wine and Cries, While Mama Checks Out Hotties at the Club (not a true story, because our book would be titled Mommy and Mama Watch Grimm Together and Fall Asleep), or My Adoption Day! On Which Mommy Had to Pay a Large Amount of Money to Adopt My Ass Because the System Fucking Sucks.  But neither does she need to be confined to the gay version of Dick and Jane (and she could also do without that pathetic ending to the Harry Potter series).  A friend of mine is one mom in a two-mom family that is also racially mixed, and includes adoptive and foster children some of whom have disabilities.  She cannot find books that reflect their experience as a family, and likely if she did that book would focus only on their differentness.

One of the learned scholars at the conference where I learned about Roy and Silo made the point that the most important thing about children's literature is that it should be multiple and varied.  Kids should encounter a rich world of words and pictures.  We should be creative enough to offer our children a world of children's books that includes their usual and their unusual-and can find the beauty and excitement in any reality.


  1. Love the "My Adoption Day!" title - we're going through that now. I agree with the idea that books should be varied, but I think varying them requires that parents are able to have "tough" conversations with their kids when the kids ask questions that don't need to be had if the storybook characters fit into convention (or what is conventional for that family). Of course, presenting lots of stories as part of the range of life experience might also be good too.

  2. Definitely, I know we are going to be having some complicated conversations about things like Ma's hatred of Native Americans in the Little House books. When I was a little kid, I loved the Bobbsey Twin books, but I was totally offended by their anti-feminist message, so I do think even young kids have the capacity to critique books. But, it is alienating when ALL of the books have characters that don't look like you or don't have families like yours.