A Florida school district voted this week to ban a book on penguins—yes, penguins—from its libraries, claiming the book’s “sexual innuendo” was inappropriate for elementary students.
In a 3-2 vote on Monday, the Escambia County School Board, near Pensacola, deemed And Tango Makes Three unsuitable for students, overriding the recommendation of a district-mandated review committee made up of administrators, teachers, parents, and community members.
“The fascination is still on that it’s two male penguins raising a chick,” board member David Williams said ahead of the vote. “So, I’ll be voting to remove the book from our libraries.”
Those books, along with more than 100 others, were initially challenged by Vicki Baggett, a Northview High School English teacher who has previously been accused of holding racist and homophobic views.
“I started profusely reading books. I actually went into a dark place and it was because I had been exposed to pornography, to put it bluntly,” Baggett said last year, the Pensacola News Journal reported.
However, Tango co-author Justin Richardson, a psychiatry director at Columbia University with an interest in sexual development and parenting, told The Daily Beast that sexual innuendo claims are “clearly a screen for something else.”
“They're targeting books that are depicting acceptance and warmth towards a homosexual family,” he said. “They're simply not saying that because, I believe, they're aware that it's a violation of the First Amendment to remove a book from a public school library because you disagree with a message.”
Baggett did not immediately return The Daily Beast’s request for comment Wednesday.
In the picture book, Richardson and Peter Parnell tell the true story of two male penguins at New York City’s Central Park zoo adopting an orphan female chick, demonstrating a nontraditional family dynamic. And Tango Makes Three was published in 2005 and has won, and been nominated for, a slew of children’s book awards.
The district’s Instructional Materials Review Committee reviewed the book and found that it didn’t violate Florida’s statute, as Baggett had argued, and was not only harmless for students but was even beneficial because having same-sex parents is not “abnormal in our society.”
Richardson said attempts to remove the book were “bullying behavior” and involved “violent language that's destructive to…kids.”
“It's very difficult for [children of same-sex parents] to find a book that represents their family,” Richardson said. “But then to get the message that a book that does represent their family—that they very likely have on [their] own bookshelves at home—has to be taken out of the library because it's inappropriate is sending a clear message to these kids, that there’s something wrong with their family and that they and their families are unwanted in the community.”
Before the five members of the board cast their vote Monday, many members of the public voiced their support of the book’s content.
“This is a true story. It's something that actually naturally occurs in nature with 1300 species of penguins,” parent Nora Trotman said. “To say that it advances some sort of agenda is factually incorrect because it is science, a scientific fact.”
Former middle school and high school teacher Alma Woods implied the district should be more concerned about students’ “abysmal” reading scores instead.
“I don't see a problem with this book,” she said. “The complainant says, ‘Indoctrination,’ ‘LGBTQ agenda.’ So, if a kid reads a book, he's indoctrinated into the subject?”
By that logic, she argued, Goldilocks and the Three Bears could be detrimental to kids because Goldilocks has the ability to “indoctrinate a child to be a criminal.”
“Books provide a safe way for children and all of us to experience situations and other points of view in safe ways,” said children’s author Michelle Nelson Schmidt. “Books create an understanding that life is not the same for all of us. Books transfer us into another’s shoes so that we can…ultimately understand and connect with others not like us.”
Rev. Dr. Rick Branch of First United Methodist Church in Pensacola called out the alleged hypocrisy of hardcore Christians, saying Jesus “offended a lot of religious people” and did not just surround himself with the so-called righteous.
“Instead, he went with tax collectors, ministered prostitutes, and made a Samaritan a hero of the story about what it means to love your neighbor,” he said. “If Jesus…was born 30 years ago in Pensacola and began his ministry now, he would not dine with me or any of the other religious people in this room.”
One Christian mother who said she was conflicted over the idea of gay marriage still spoke in support of And Tango Makes Three because she said it helped her understand her LGBTQ+ son.
“This entire effort, it seems to me, is pretty darn quickly designed to put LGBT people back in the closet and keep us there,” said community member Alice Harris.
The district’s ultra-conservative board nonetheless banned the book in 32 school libraries.
A few speakers quoted Biblical scripture as a reason to remove it.
“I think we can all agree that the reason the person is telling the story is to normalize a redefinition of the institution of marriage,” said Joshua Luther. “When we mess with his institution of marriage, we are fighting against God.”
The Daily Beast reviewed And Tango Makes Three, which does not include any reference to sexual behavior. However, Luther made it a point to ask the board whether or not they believed sodomy was a sin.
“There has to be some other manufactured explanation as to why the books should be removed, such as, ‘It’s age inappropriate,’” Richardson said. “There's absolutely nothing age inappropriate about this book.”