review of picture book And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, illustrated by Henry Cole

Sometimes book banning has a positive effect–the book gains publicity, and it finds new readers. That is how I stumbled over And Tango Makes Three, and I’m very glad I did; it is one of my new favorite picture books. I also think it’s a very important picture book to share with others; it encourages acceptance of diversity, of gay and lesbian families through an entertaining story. I hope, if you haven’t yet read And Tango Makes Three, that you’ll find yourself a copy and read it.

And Tango Makes Three
by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, illustrated by Henry Cole

Simon & Schuster (April 2005)
ISBN-10: 0689878451, ISBN-13: 978-0689878459

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Two penguins in the penguin house were a little bit different.
One was named Roy, and the other was named Silo.
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.
They didn’t spend much time with the girl penguins, and the girl penguins didn’t spend much time with them. Instead, Roy and Silo wound their necks around each other. Their keeper Mr. Gramzay noticed the two penguins and thought to himself, “They must be in love.”

And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, illustrated by Henry Cole, p. 7-9.

Roy and Silo are different than the other penguin couples in the zoo; Roy and Silo are both males, and are clearly attached to each other, and loving with each other. One day, after watching the other penguin couples, Roy and Silo create a nest for themselves; they want to be parents. Roy finds a stone that looks like an egg, and the two penguins take turns sitting devotedly on the stone egg each day and night. Nothing, of course, happens–until their human caretaker brings them an egg that needs to be taken care of. Roy and Silo take to the egg immediately, keeping it warm the way they did their stone egg, until it hatches, and they have a baby penguin of their own. Roy and Silo become a family of three, and their human caretaker calls their baby Tango because it takes two to tango. Roy and Silo are devoted, loving parents, nurturing and feeding Tango, swimming with her, and teaching her everything she needs to know. And that’s how Tango became the first penguin in the zoo to have two daddies. Based on a true story, And Tango Makes Three is a delight.

And Tango Makes Three is told simply, drawing comparisons between traditional heterosexual families and this gay penguin family, and that Roy and Silo are a couple and become parents is told matter-of-factly, all of which encourage acceptance and understanding. And Tango Makes Three is written well, with subtlety and storytelling, and no preachiness.

And Tango Makes Three starts off with a slow beginning, placing the reader in the setting, then moving into descriptions of some traditional nuclear animal families which many readers will be the most familiar with. For me, the story starts when the reader is introduced to the penguin house. We are told how girl penguins start noticing boy penguins, and become couples–and then how two male penguins, Roy and Silo, do everything together. We’re not directly told that Roy and Silo are a couple; instead, we’re shown it through their actions–that Roy and Silo bow to each other, walk together, sing to each other, swim together, and do everything together. This makes the impact more powerful, since the reader can see the real love and devotion the penguins have for each other. It’s also increased by their human keeper’s observation–“They must be in love.” Richardson and Parnell bring up the issue of the two penguin’s gayness sensitively and beautifully; they allow the reader to see it for themselves, and see that it is natural. This takes some deft writing. They also write about the gay penguins matter-of-factly; it’s just accepted. This encourages the reader to also accept the two male penguins in love.

We quickly come to care for Roy and Silo. Richardson and Parnell create reader empathy for Roy and Silo when we see them naively copying what heterosexual penguin couples do–creating a nest, and then trying to hatch an egg–only all Roy and Silo have are a rock. The authors use good word choices to increase reader empathy, and to show how very much Roy and Silo want a family–no baby chick to feed and cuddle and love, empty nest–and also Silo and Roy’s devotion to the rock-egg. This works to create a kind of crisis point in the story, with Roy and Silo clearly feeling pain, and not knowing why they can’t hatch an egg like all the other couples. A solution comes in at the perfect time in the text; the human keeper brings Roy and Silo an abandoned egg. This is moving and heartwarming, especially because of the build up about how much Roy and Silo wanted it to happen.

The authors show how devoted Silo and Roy are to their new egg, and how much they want the chick, and then, once the chick hatches, the authors show what good and devoted parents Roy and Silo are through well-chosen details, such as how they sit on the egg day after day, how they call to the chick when she’s hatching, how they snuggle with her at night in their nest, and swim with her it the day. When the egg hatches, it’s a high point in the book; Roy and Silo’s problem has been solved, and they are clearly good parents.

The authors make it clear that the chick, Tango, has two daddies, stating this as a fact, and thus encouraging reader acceptance. In the closing, the authors also make it clear that the gay-penguin family snuggles together and goes to sleep just like all the other penguins, animals, and people around them–again, showing the normalcy of lesbian/gay families, and encouraging the reader to see that lesbian/gay families are like any other family. The story will make it more palatable and easier for some readers to hear because the characters are animals, which can be less threatening.

And Tango Makes Three is based on a real story; Roy and Silo have been a couple since 1998 in Central Park Zoo. The authors briefly discuss this in the author note at the back of the book. Parents, especially, may appreciate this note, but it may also be fascinating to children.

And Tango Makes Three is an important book; it’s a strong lesbian/gay positive book, yet encourages acceptance through a well-written and entertaining story. It does not feel like it is teaching, and yet readers can learn a lot from it, and realize that there are positive lesbian/gay families, and that lesbian/gay families are just like other families.

Cole’s (On Meadowview Street,, On the Way to the Beach, Moosetache) watercolor illustrations have those soft pastel hues that watercolor often has, giving the book a gentle feeling. There are no harsh lines; pencil outlines are a soft brown or dark grey. A pale turquoise is repeated throughout many of the illustrations, found in the sky, the penguins’ stomachs, and the egg, and this helps bring some visual continuity. Cole has drawn the penguins with expressive faces and body language; it’s easy to tell what the penguins are feeling, especially the main characters. Unlike some of Cole’s other work, these illustrations have a realistic cartoon style.

Many of Cole’s illustrations are simple and uncluttered. Roy and Silo are often drawn looking happy, with smiles on their faces. Although Roy and Silo live in a zoo, we do not, for the most part, see their containment, and this helps add to the good feeling of the book.

Cole’s illustrations “get” the text; they fit the emotional tone, making the story more poignant. Roy and Silo look very loving toward each other, happy and devoted, and this helps make the story more heartwarming. And Roy and Silo’s feeling that something is missing in their nest is made stronger by Cole making the empty nest be the focal point of the illustration, with Roy and Silo’s expressive faces looking worried and upset.

Readers will enjoy some of the fun details in the illustrations, such as the toy penguins found in the illustrations with the human keeper. Visually, the illustrations show many kinds of families in the two illustrations with human families (near the opening and closing); a lesbian couple with children, a heterosexual couple with a child, and a single mother and child are found in the opening illustration, and many single parent families are depicted in the closing, with various races.

And Tango Makes Three offers a positive model that others can learn from, encouraging open-mindedness, acceptance of differences, and a gentle introduction to lesbian/gay families. And Tango Makes Three is a validating and reassuring book for children of lesbians/gay men, and for lesbians/gay men themselves. It may also help children of lesbian/gay parents feel wanted, especially if they’ve been adopted. This is one of those books that I think should be in every daycare and classroom. If you’re looking for a book that helps children be inclusive, or a picture book with a lesbian/gay theme that normalizes being lesbian/gay, promotes acceptance, and is written in an entertaining way, then check this book out. Highly recommended.

Want more books?

Go to Encouraging Acceptance of Diversity: Lesbian and Gay Picture Books to find another great picture book.

Or, go to the Picture
Book reviews main menu
to see all the categories of books.

About Cheryl Rainfield

I write the books I needed and couldn't find as a teen. I write teen fiction--paranormal fantasy and gritty realistic fiction. I'm the author of SCARS (WestSide Books, 2010) #1 ALA QuickPicks, and Governor General Literary Award Finalist, HUNTED (WestSide Books, Oct 2011), STAINED (Harcourt, 2013), The Last Dragon (HIP Books, Sept 2009), and Walking Both Sides (HIP Books, 2011). I also enjoy drawing, surfing the web, connecting with people I like, doing crafts, and being with my dog.
This entry was posted in children's book review, children's books, gay picture books, lesbian picture books, picture book review, picture books. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.