Opinion Avoiding our ‘gay penguins’ book? Better steer clear of these kids’ classics, too!

(Henry Cole for The Washington Post)
(Henry Cole for The Washington Post)
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Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson wrote the 2005 children’s book “And Tango Makes Three,” which has been one of the most banned or challenged books in the United States.

[Florida’s] HB 1557 … widely known as the “don’t say gay” bill, prohibits classroom instruction on “sexual orientation or gender identity” in grades kindergarten through three or in a manner that is not “age-appropriate.” …
LGBTQ groups argue the law is vague, “creating a scheme in which parents can use the threat of litigation over vague statutory terms to menace school boards and intimidate teachers.”
— Orlando Sentinel, March 31, 2022

Dear K-3 teachers of Florida,

Thank you for your kind messages! Please don’t feel bad. We totally understand why you have to stop reading our “gay penguins” book in school. You’re doing great and deeply important work at an extraordinarily difficult time to be a teacher. You shouldn’t have to worry about being slapped with a lawsuit for discussing homosexual seafowl.

We’ve been thinking this law leaves some pretty key terms undefined. Take “sexual orientation.” There are lots of them! Answering a question (“classroom instruction”) about any of them could land you in hot water. So just to be safe, you probably ought to pull more than our book from your curriculum. In case it’s helpful, here are a few we thought could run you into trouble.

“The Story of Ferdinand” by Munro Leaf — for gender identity

We know, we love it too! But a bull that doesn’t roughhouse and prefers to sit in the shade and smell flowers? This is going to lead you right into some verboten gender-identity discussions. “Do some boys like flowers?” “Why don’t cows get invited to bullfights?” “Can ungulates be nonbinary?” You don’t want to go there.

• “Make Way for Ducklings” by Robert McCloskey — for sexual orientation

Such a gem, but sadly, there’s no way around the sexual orientation of this mallard couple. One is male; the other is female. They go island-hopping, hatch eight ducklings and look after their little ones together. Heterosexuality is a sexual orientation, people! Unless you want to be hit with newly illegal questions such as, “Are Mr. and Mrs. Mallard married?” or “Why would a girl duck want to marry a boy duck?” you should probably nix this one, too.

• “The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes” by DuBose Heyward — for very sexual orientation

“The little girl Cottontail grew up to be a young lady Cottontail. And by and by she had a husband and then one day, much to her surprise there were twenty-one Cottontail babies to take care of.” Tempting at Easter time, but skip it.

• “Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel” by Virginia Lee Burton — for gender identity and sexual orientation

A hard-working backhoe named Mary Anne is bound to raise gender-identity questions. “How can you tell if an engine is a boy or a girl?” “Can boys be backhoes?” Steer clear. Ditto for the author’s books about a tractor (“Katy”) and cable car (“Maybelle”), as well as Watty Piper’s titular Little Engine That Could, who uses she/her pronouns. Meanwhile, all these machines appear resolutely single. Could they be asexual? Probably best to give a wide berth to all books featuring gendered heavy machinery, at least until we can figure out what’s what.

• “A Kiss for Little Bear” by Else Holmelund Minarik — for pansexuality

Grandmother wants to pass along a kiss to Little Bear, and so we watch a female bear kiss a female chicken, who kisses a male frog, who kisses a male cat, who kisses a male skunk, who gets into some serious necking with a female skunk (they marry) before giving the kiss back to the chicken, who kisses Little Bear. It’s like Berlin in the 1920s. Pass!

• “Good Night, Gorilla” by Peggy Rathmann — for that bedroom scene

A male zookeeper shares a bed with a woman who calls him “dear,” only to be joined by a mouse and an ape (who look as though they’ve been there before). You do not want to discuss “polyamory” with your principal.

• “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle — for fabulousness

A ravenous, and possibly gender-fluid, male caterpillar mysteriously transforms into a “beautiful butterfly.” Trans parable? Don’t risk it.

Now that we think of it, eliminating all books with characters who have a gender identity or a sexual orientation doesn’t leave a lot. You’ll probably want to avoid all books that touch on love or relationships. Also, books with people or animals or things that are male or female or some other gender or non-gender.

Actually, it’s probably best to skip books altogether. Maybe stick with games.

Is duck, duck, goose okay?

Hang in there,

Peter and Justin

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