When I was a child, my mother read to me most of the standard 19th- and 20th-century children’s classics, and I doubt she worried whether The Wind in the Willows was elitist or The Jungle Book was imperialist or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland were the repressed imaginings of an Oxford don.
The parents in Dada Woof Papa Hot do, however, worry about such things. The character Serena lets her young son, Zach, be read Babar the King but insists on skipping “the racist bits.” The character Alan allows his daughter to experience The Little Fur Family, by Margaret Wise Brown, but admits he is “not a big fan” of Brown’s The Runaway Bunny.
Michael, who is Serena’s husband, is concerned about the “parental control and attachment issues” in a 1986 book called Love You Forever. Those issues, he says, “make Grimm’s fairy tales look like Beatrix Potter.”
Some of these exchanges read as fictional reflections of the current generation of educated, helicopter parents. They can also be seen as real-life concerns of the playwright, Peter Parnell, who throughout his career has shown an abiding passion for influence exerted by various kinds of literature.
But the world of kiddie lit and its social repercussions also involves Parnell professionally. His 2005 children’s book, And Tango Makes Three, which he wrote with his husband, the psychiatrist and author Justin Richardson, is the proof. Illustrated by Henry Cole, the book is about two male penguins at the Central Park Zoo who together hatch an egg.
The book is a sweet, charming tale whose subject matter has aroused controversy. According to the American Library Association (ALA), the book was the most challenged title at public libraries in the United States from 2006 to 2010, and remains one of the 10 most challenged to this day.
Parnell told me recently that he has mixed feelings about the book’s notoriety, which lately has been more heated abroad (Tango has been translated into a dozen languages) than at home. He said, “The fuss has been good for sales, but the fact is that books shouldn’t be banned.”
In the wake of Tango’s challenging decade, Parnell, Richardson, and Cole will this Tuesday be honored at a party thrown in New York by the National Coalition Against Censorship. That date also happens to be the Parnell and Richardson’s 20th anniversary as a couple.
The parents in Parnell’s new play don’t tell us whether Tango is part of their children’s bedtime reading, but I suspect that they would be as happy as I am that Parnell and Richardson are being recognized on such a landmark occasion. Congratulations!
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.