Penguins, permission slips and preempted provocation

If you’re approaching your 20s (or already in them), you might have read about “Tacky the Penguin.” Written by Helen Lester and illustrated by Lynn Munsinger, the book was first published in 1988, so by the time most UT undergraduates were perusing picture books — the early 90s, we’ll presume — “Tacky” had made its way to the easy-to-reach library shelves. The title character of the book “was an odd bird,” as the text explicitly states on page five, making it clear from early on that it celebrates nonconformity. While the other penguin characters, named Goodly, Lovely, Neatly, Angel and Perfect, greet each other quietly and march 1-2-3-4, Tacky slaps hellos on the back and marches out of line. With their tuxedo-like feathers, the penguins, standing upright, have just enough humanness to make it clear to children that the story relates to their world, but just enough distance to make it inexplicit enough to be fun.

UT’s College of Fine Arts students recently scheduled to perform for 10 Austin Independent School District schools’ second graders a play titled “And Then Came Tango.” The storyline, according to a Daily Texan news story, is about two male penguins who adopt and hatch an egg. The Daily Texan reported that after the UT students performed the play for Lee Elementary School for the first time on Oct. 16, AISD administrators stopped the tour to discuss the play further.

“UT was supposed to perform the play for Campbell Elementary School on Tuesday, but instead UT students will perform it for AISD elementary school principals, who are still reviewing the play,” the article said. AISD spokesperson Alex Sanchez told the Daily Texan that the issue is whether the play’s content is appropriate for second graders.

“All of our principals and teachers support a message of love and acceptance for all. This has never been a question,” Sanchez said. “The question is one of age-appropriateness based on the subject matter and parent permission.” The storyline of “And Then Came Tango” follows, according to The Daily Texan account, two male penguins at a zoo who try to hatch a rock, and are frustrated until a girl provides the pair with an abandoned egg, which — after bad publicity for the zoo threatens to split up the family — eventually hatches and all ends happily.   

Since we haven’t seen “And Then Came Tango” or read the script, we acknowledge that our initial impulse to side with the penguin play producers stems largely from our impulse to defend a story in which characters, albeit penguins, who triumph in spite of a world that reacts fearfully and towards their differences. We wish AISD’s first reaction did the same. So far, the AISD objections have been vague, although AISD spokesperson Sanchez told the Daily Texan that AISD “is still in discussion with UT about whether to require permission slips, present the play to fifth graders, or proceed with an alternative solution.” While withholding judgment until AISD makes a final decision, until we get to see “And Then Came Tango” or at least until we get a review from an articulate second grader, we still think based on how this likely unreasonable censorship has unfolded to put on high alert all lovers of children’s literature that allows penguins or  other animals to teach hard-to-explain ideas about the adult world. As Tacky might say with a loud slap on the back, “What’s happening?”