In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two small girls and a baby boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Searching for great gay-friendly picture books

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Over the last few months, quite a number of my friends have welcomed new babies into their lives -- they seem to come in waves, like weddings did in my mid-twenties.  I found myself heading to my favorite independent bookstore multiple weekends in a row to buy a few first board books for each family.  As I did so, I found myself wondering, as I have in the past, about whether there are any really great children's books out there involving gay characters, especially families with gay or lesbian parents, that aren't purely Message Books.  You know the kind I mean: well-meaning, but didactic, more about Showing Gay People are Normal than about telling a story.

For pretty much any new baby, I gravitate towards the books I highlighted in my "brand-new babies" section of the Top 25 (well, 33) picture books list I wrote up a couple of months ago.  Several of these books depict animal characters rather than human ones, and a couple of them (Baby! Baby! and I Love Colors) have terrific photos of babies, but no adults at all.  But it's nice for kids to have books which reflect the families they have, and do so in natural, easy ways.

For white friends of mine who have just adopted an African-American baby, I included Vera B. Williams's fabulous "More, More, More," Said the Baby, in which the illustrations to the three brief stories show racial diversity unobtrusively, in the context of a beautifully-written celebration of chasing after and playing with your small child.

For my college roommate and her partner, welcoming their first child, one of my choices was Everywhere Babies, by Susan Meyers, illustrated by Marla Frazee.  Frazee's illustrations are the reason I like this book, and the reason you first recommended it to me.  In the packed pictures of babies being hugged, fed, rocked, and played with in various ways, there are depictions of a number of different kinds of families, including what appears to be an interracial lesbian couple passed out on a bed next to a sleeping baby in a cradle, and a few pairs of dads who might be couples themselves.  The text accompanying these pictures is general and rhythmic:

Every day, everywhere, babies are born --
fat babies, thin babies, small babies, tall babies, 
winter and spring babies, summer and fall babies.
...
Every day, everywhere, babies are fed --
by bottle, by breast, with cups and with spoons,
with milk, and then cereal, carrots, and prunes.

You get the idea.  It's fine, and scans well, but it doesn't cry out for multiple rereadings.  The pictures are inclusive, but the last whole family shown on the page celebrating the baby's first birthday is still white and hetero.  I'd like to find a book I love as much as the others on my list that depicts families which look more like the families my gay friends are now creating.

I've written before about Patricia Polacco's In Our Mothers' House, which tells the story of a lesbian couple and their three adopted kids, each of a different race (the eldest daughter narrates).  There are a lot of things to like about the book, as with pretty much anything Polacco writes, but it's not the book I'm looking for.

At the library today, I picked up the infamous Heather Has Two Mommies, Leslea Newman's oft-banned book which made so many headlines 15 and 20 years ago.  I'd never actually read it, but it's -- okay.  It's clearly an Issue Book, and while it shows a sweet, loving family made up of two moms and a daughter, it's also a little odd in the way it opens up the issue.  Heather goes to a playgroup for the first time, and realizes for the first time that all the other kids have daddies, and she doesn't.  She feels bad, and cries, and the teacher consoles her, and has all the kids draw pictures of their different families, so everyone can appreciate that all kinds of families provide love and support.  It is, of course, the most diverse preschool group EVER, so there's another girl with two daddies, and an adopted kid, and a kid with divorced parents, and multiple races represented.  Maybe still useful for getting across the Message, but odd in its implication that Heather would never have run across other families different from her own before going to playgroup, and that her moms would never have talked to her about their own family.

On the same shelf, I found the more recent A Tale of Two Mommies, by Vanita Oelschlager (spoiler alert: it has nothing to do with Dickens).  In this one, a little dark-skinned boy answers the questions of two other kids on the beach about which of his moms (here, "Momma" and "Mommy") takes on which responsibilities of parenting:

Which mom coaches your T-ball team?
Which mom's there when you've had a bad dream?


Mommy is the coach of my T-ball team. 
Both mommies are there when I've had a bad dream.

The mommies appear largely from the waist down, as two pairs of long white legs -- I think the facelessness is supposed to represent a child's-eye view, but I find it a little disconcerting.  Again, it's -- okay.

In doing a quick online search, I came across some good reviews for Leslea Newman's newer Mommy, Mama, and Me -- have you read it?  I'd love your suggestions on some of the newer stuff out there.  Our foray into gay YA generated a nice long list of options (which you can find here under "Gay and Gay-Friendly YA"); I'd love to do the same for picture books.


Love, Annie

3 comments:

  1. Thanks for the post Annie. We still read Mommy, Mommy and Me to nathan, because it's one of the few books that does not present having two moms as an issue. Even at 3 1/2 he still likes reading it. It's become the " ok, one more before lights out" book.
    I agree with your review of heather has two mommies. We never read it. That along with Molly's family, which is similar as an "issue book." it drives us crazy!

    Books we love:
    Tango Makes Three
    About two male penguins ar the central pk zoo that try to make a baby together. The zookeeper helps them out by giving them an egg to take care of. They start a family together! The sweetest book, I cry every time I read it.

    King and King
    A story about a queen trying to marry off her son, the prince. After many prospective princesses come to meet him, he finally finds true love with one of the princesses' brother, another prince!

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  2. Oh yeah... There is the sequel to king and king.
    King and King and family.

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  3. Thanks, Beth! I'd forgotten King and King, which you recommended to us a while back.

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