The Children's Book Garden

Reading and weeding through the best and worst of children's literature

The Problem with the Penguin Book November 3, 2009

s-GAY-PENGUIN-BOOK-large… is not, as many have complained, that it makes homosexual dads raising a child seem normal – rather, the book’s framework of normal has the opposite effect.

I had heard about this book because a friend of a friend is doing a research project on it – I’d been complaining about the dearth of children’s books featuring diverse family structures – and so this sounded ideal – a true story of two penguin dads? How could it get any better?

I should say that my interest in books with diversity is not because I have some liberal agenda, but because I want the landscape of literary imagination to be varied, wide, and realistic. I want my children to be exposed to single moms, grandparents raising kids, biracial families, mult-religious families, poor families, rich families – because that’s real life; because it’s part of my story; because I don’t want just one story to dominate their view of what is okay and possible. I want them to experience a range of patterns and ideas for living, so that they have the resources for freely choosing what will work best for their lives.

Instead, most books for preschoolers feature the nuclear dream team of a mom, a dad, a kid, with a pet and a car and maybe a black neighbor.

So, back to the gay penguin book. My girlfriend bought it for my daughter’s fourth birthday, but after a quick perusal, she took it back.

She summarized the beginning as framing heterosexuality as the norm – ‘at some point, boy penguins start to notice girls. And the girl penguins start to notice the boys. But one penguin…’

No, no, no! This sets it up as if the gay penguin is a freak. K said it – “like Happy Feet only instead of dancing the penguin is gay.”(Someone is sure to joke about those things not being very different. )

If a book or a movie is trying to present diversity as a norm, setting up a background of usual behavior from which one person sticks out is not going to do the job. Showing a range of choices, behaviors, identities, all plausible and acceptable – that would work.

Heather Has Two Mommies, cliche though it may be, does in fact do this when all the kids in Heather’s playgroup draw pictures of their families – and they are all different. I actually liked this book. I came away feeling like it was about the variety of families that exist, not so much just about Heather’s. Still, it does read like a lesson more than an engaging story – I don’t want to read books about diversity. I just want diversity to exist in the stories.

For instance, in the Ella the Elephant series, Ella lives with her mother, just the two of them. In the first book, they are new in town – her mother owns/operates a bakery. There’s no explanation of where they came from, or why there is no father or other family – it’s not the subject of the book. But it’s there, in the background, – a working single mother – and their two-person family is stable, calm, and strong.

My girlfriend pointed out that what disappointed her most about Tango is that it misses such a huge opportunity to take some cute animals and tell a story about love in its many forms that kids would truly enjoy.

What disappoints me is that the book apparently has received a great deal of positive kudos from the gay community, when as far as I’m concerned, it starts off by accepting some clearly heterosexist / biased views of human sexuality. There are enough gay people in the world – not to mention people who are transgender – that it’s not factual to set up the norms as being heterosexual attraction. So, I’m disappointed in this penguin book. It’s a “true story” that ducks being completely true.  And don’t we have enough of that in the world, and in our stories, already?


2 Responses to “The Problem with the Penguin Book”

  1. Christine Gresser Says:

    Everywhere Babies is a wonderful picture book for the littlest ones (well, ones who don’t rip paper pages, that is) and it isn’t “about” diversity, it’s about how cute and great babies are. It just happens to show babies in their various families, and those families are widely diverse. A single mom, a family with grandparents, two moms, a hetero family, two dads hanging with others at the park (but the dads are clearly together, there’s some sweet loving affectionate handholding/touching going on). Multiracial families. Kids going in strollers, backpack carriers, bike carriers, slings, you name it. I seem to recall there’s breastfeeding and bottlefeeding going on, too. Anyway, it’s a great book that normalizes all sorts of makeups of families.

    There’s also a great book about a big sibling and little sibling with a single mom, very sweet and nice. It’s called Tell Me What It’s Like To Be Big. The characters are bunny rabbits. Very sweet. Nice sibling relationship portrayed, not sickeningly sweet, but loving, helpful.

    I’m glad you’re doing a blog on children’s books!

  2. Have you read this new book (came out in spring of 2009):
    In Our Mothers’ House by Patricia Polacco?

    This gem of a book illustrates how love makes a family, even if it’s not a traditional one. —School Library Journal

    Here’s the link to the book at Amazon:

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