Alli Harper: We Need Everyday Books With Families Like Ours

The State of Picture Book Offerings with Same-sex-parented Children

Anna was born in our 2008 Subaru Outback on a cold night in January 2013. She is named after a Tolstoy character. We, Anna’s two moms, were married in a library. Our local bookstores and public library are our family’s second homes. Anna is nearly five now. She is getting close to asking the same question we’ve been asking since the day she was born: “Why do none of these books have a family like ours?”

Of course there are not none. There are some. Thanks to some heroic book creators and stewards, there are a very few board and picture books with kids who have same-sex parents.

And yet, in 2018, we remain so far from where we need to be. We must collectively act to prove the currently untapped market demand for books celebrating our communities’ beautiful and colorful diversity. While similar discussions do and should continue to grow around the many kinds of currently under-represented children and families who should be portrayed in children’s literature, with this post, I focus on books featuring children who have same-sex parents.

Most of the very few of such books that do exist are issue-based, meaning the book is about or focused on the existence of the same-sex parents in one way or another. Without undervaluing the importance of these more issue-oriented books, with this post, I point out that what’s almost entirely missing in this picture book market are everyday children’s books—featuring everything from superheroes to dreamland adventures—that include our families. And this must change. If you agree, join us.

First, I describe the content and distribution problems existing in the picture book marketplace when it comes to featuring children with same-sex parents. Second, I suggest that alongside these problems lies an opportunity worth seizing. I then offer a summary of the current offerings of these board and picture books. This summary underscores the aforementioned content and distribution deficits while also providing three next action steps in proving the demand for these books.

Content Problem

I’ll name three aspects of the content problem here.

First, there’s not enough content, period. Consider your bookshelves. You are likely someone who would value having same-sex-parented children in your picture books.

If you’re in such a family, you may have a few of these books. Your desperate search has rewarded you with a very few, probably earlier, titles to span your children’s picture book years.

If you’re not in such a family, you likely don’t have any of these books. Not because you don’t want them, but because what you’re looking for is so hard to find.

A second aspect of the content problem is that the category of same-sex parented children (and the category of LGBTQIA characters more broadly) contains much diversity within itself, which deserves reflection in our picture book offerings as well. This analysis is critical, but is outside the scope of this particular post.

The third part of the content problem is that nearly all the books that are available are “issue” books—meaning, the book is about or focuses on the existence of the same-sex parents in one way or another.

What’s missing are the stories in which families with same-sex parents are present . . . and that presence is simply okay—from beginning to middle to end. Not the issue to be addressed in the story. Not giving rise to the problem to be solved in the story. Not the focus of the story in any way. We crave stories in which our families are so okay, all right, and accepted that the story is not about whether we are okay, all right, or accepted, but instead, assumes so. Stories in which our families are so okay that the tales are about something else entirely. Like discovering other galaxies, dreamland escapades, bathtime bubble kingdoms . . .

After all, while it is true that we are a same-sex-parented family living in a largely heteronormative culture which many “issue” books importantly address, we are fellow humans too. Who, in our family for example, just last night discovered a new galaxy out our northeastern window. Who tonight will ride the Dreamland Slide to a brontosaurus’s birthday bash. Who tomorrow night will engineer a bubble fortress with a drawbridge that only opens at the solving of an ancient riddle. These are the kinds of stories our children, like so many other children, enjoy. And our children, like all children, deserve to see their families in such stories too. They deserve to see themselves just being children.

As S. Bear Bergman, visionary founder of Flamingo Rampant, describes the books his micropress creates: “We make . . . books that are both ‘delicious’ and ‘nutritious’—that is, they are fun and colorful and contain stories of interest to actual children (Superheroes! Fairies! Pirates! . . .) rather than just being explainers, AND they provide both validation for kids who don’t get to see themselves/their families in books often or ever and [demystify] for kids” not in such families.

Bergman goes on to point to the importance of this demystifying in the context of reducing bullying and violence: “How do we teach little kids that queer and trans people exist and that this is lovely or at least not a problem in any way? Violence against LGBT2Q+ people, especially people of color, is a tremendous problem that goes largely [unaddressed] . . .” Demystifying and humanizing our children and families through picture books at a young age is one way to support all children in internalizing a more inclusive baseline from the start.

So these stories not only affirm our children as situated in their family type, but they also importantly introduce children not in our families to our children as fellow and relatable kids. Little Anna is first and foremost a “kid like me.” The fact of Anna’s two moms is in the background, but significantly present and visible as okay. That worldview is modeled and shown as possible. After all, a diverse and inclusive worldview is what we’re trying to cultivate through our children’s early experiences with each other and the stories we share with them.

How shall we refer to these everyday picture books in which we seek to include our children? What descriptive word should be used to distinguish them from the more issue-oriented books? I have consulted with great thinkers on this question and agree with their findings—existing language leaves us wanting. Some language used to describe these books perpetuates our culture’s labeling of in and out groups while other language confuses, rather than clarifies, in this context.

For the purposes of this post, I will use the term, “everyday books,” to refer to the stories that allow our children the freedom to see themselves just being children and that allow others to connect to them as fellow children first and foremost.

A few thoughts here though: First, categorizing books at all, even assuming adequate language, involves its own problems, which again warrant further conversation but must remain outside the scope of this post. Second, the term, “everyday books,” is far from perfect itself. We must continue conversations around reclaiming and exploring alternative language for this sort of analysis. And yet as a mom of a daughter in a same-sex-parented family, I’m balancing these discomforts with the need to point out the lack of almost any everyday kids’ books in which kids like mine can see families like their own. With that in mind, we proceed.

Do any everyday picture books with kids in same-sex-parented families exist? Ask the teachers, librarians, booksellers, parents, and other caregivers in your world who care about depicting the beautifully diverse children and families of our communities. Most will sheepishly point you to the very few, if any, issue-oriented books they have and say, “I wish we did.”

Yet, there are some. The challenge is the masses of people seeking them (yes, I said masses—hold that thought) cannot find them. Hence, the distribution problem.

Distribution Problem

Those with strong distribution channels—the major American publishers—generally aren’t (yet) creating these books. While I’ll provide further discussion about the current offerings below, for now I share that I know of only two everyday picture books published by major American publishers—one in 2008 and one in 2017. Two more are in the pipeline for 2018. All four with same-sex-male-led families. None with same-sex-female-led families. There is an opportunity here for more major publishers to take part in making history.

Most of the everyday content is coming from inspiring grassroots publishing efforts. The challenge here is that these efforts generally lack the resources to let larger audiences know they exist. Therefore, the wider population seeking this content is still too often not able to find it. We must help build the bridges to connect these stories to those who will cherish them. Please join the collective voice seeking these books.

Opportunity Before Us

There is an untapped market demand for everyday picture books that include our families too.

Yes, I’m talking masses. The Pew Research Center tells us that in the U.S., in 2017, 74% of Millenials (age 18-36), 65% of Generation Xer’s (37-52), and 62% of our nation’s population support our families. And these folks buy books. A lot of books. Further, in this political climate, we’re all looking for support in raising more loving, inclusive, open-hearted children. We’re also searching for communities—in people and in books—in which our children can experience the aforementioned worldview we hope to cultivate with them.

We must now strategically organize and leverage our market demand to reward publishers who create, market and widely distribute this content (among other diverse content).

What would it take for all children to be able to find these books on the shelves of every supportive home, classroom, library, bookstore and other community hub in America? We should answer to nothing less.

One place for us to start proving this market demand is with the (still too few) existing offerings.

Current Offerings

I separate these books into three categories for the purposes of this discussion—1) Issue Books, 2) Hybrid Issue/Everyday Books, and 3) Everyday Books. Nearly all existing content falls into the first two categories. While we must increase content across the board, with this post, I suggest we must allocate significantly more attention and resources to this third category of books where an opportunity is waiting to be seized.

Please note that the book list offered here is not intended to be exhaustive, but rather to exemplify trends in the offerings to show what exists and what does not yet exist.

Issue Books

heatherhastwomommiesFor the purposes of this post, I’m defining “issue books” as those in which the existence of same-sex parents (or couples) is the, or a, focus of the story in one way or another. These span from the earlier Asha’s MumsKing and King, and In Our Mothers’ House to the recent re-release of Heather Has Two MommiesStella Brings the Family and Santa’s Husbandamong others. In each of these important stories, the characters must face the challenges of living in a heteronormative community, sometimes including overt and explicit discrimination.

And Tango Makes Three also lands here because the two daddy penguins’ difference from every other parenting couple at the zoo is the foundation of the storyline.

(Books about divorce, donor conception, adoption and other family-related issues that can involve same-sex-parented, as well as other, families are outside the scope of this post.)

Hybrid Issue/Everyday Books

I break these hybrid books into two groups.

the purim superheroFirst, there are two wonderful stories published by Kar-Ben in which the primary storylines are unrelated to family type. For example, in The Purim Superhero, Nate’s primary problem is whether to be the alien he wants to be, or the superheroes his friends are being, for the Jewish holiday, Purim. It’s refreshing to see a kids’ book on a universally relatable topic in which the main character happens to have two dads. The Flower Girl Wore Celery, also published by Kar-Ben, has a storyline unrelated to family type as well.

These books are also issue books in the sense that in each, there is a brief explicit discussion of how this family type is “different.”

hugsofthreeThere is a second bucket of books that could fall either into this section or as the first wave of everyday books described below. These are concept books featuring same-sex-parented families. Significant board books like Mommy, Mama and Me, Daddy, Papa and MeHugs of Three: My Mommies and Me, and Hugs of Three: My Daddies and Me show same-sex-parented families having the same sort of family fun that other families have. (Two Dads, A Tale of Two Mommies and A Tale of Two Daddies are similar but for their opening lines that frame the same-sex parents as different from the norm.)

There are also books featuring other concepts—like numbers in 123 A Family Counting Book and letters in ABC A Family Alphabet Bookwithin a community of same-sex-parented families. (While these books are positive in many ways, the illustration of a child “playing Indian” in ABC A Family Alphabet Book is problematic. We must all, myself very much included, grow in awareness to avoid lifting up one aspect of identity while sacrificing another, even if unintentionally.)

While these concept books are arguably issue books to the extent their primary focus is to depict same-sex-parented families, importantly, they depict our families having joyful, heart-warming, everyday family experiences similar to those many other children and families enjoy.

Everyday Books

As described above, there is a significant unmet market demand for these books that warrants our attention and resources.

babysfirstwordsThanks to visionary authors, illustrators and publishers, a few of these everyday board books exist: Uh Oh!, Baby’s First Words/Mis Primeras Palabras (depicting a mixed-race family), and Tinyville Town: I’m a LIBRARIAN.

Everyday picture books are significantly harder to find.

I know of only two existing and two in the pipeline from major American publishers. There is the remarkable and early 2008 Uncle Bobby’s Wedding. harrietgetscarriedawayThen there is the 2017 The Adventures of Honey & Leon about two dogs who follow their two New York City dads on a vacation to the south of France. In 2018, we also look forward to the release of Harriet Gets Carried Away (featuring a mixed-race family) and The True Adventures of Esther the Wonder Pig. All four depict same-sex-male-led families.

I know of none existing, or expected, from major American publishers depicting a child with two moms.

Heroic grassroots publishing efforts have generated most of the everyday content. Here are some examples that can be tracked down if you know to ask for it:

moondragonAs I name these titles, I’m both filled with hope because they exist—thereby affirming, to our little ones, that we exist, but also sadness—at all the book-lovers who crave this colorful, joyful content and aren’t yet receiving it.

We return to the central question: What would it take for a child to be able to find these, and more, books on the shelves of every supportive home, classroom, library, bookstore and other community hub in America?

It takes each of us being counted, and ensuring our supportive networks are counted too. There are enough of us to constitute a powerful market demand, if we are each counted.

So please join us today:

1) By taking less than 30 seconds to sign up to be counted in our efforts to organize our collective market demands for these books.

2) By bringing the above books into your homes, libraries, bookstores and classrooms. Most book stewards want these books but don’t yet know about them. Give them this blog post and list.

3) By liking, sharing and retweeting this post to invite all you know to join our collective efforts.

Please follow me on facebook and twitter, and please email me at alli.harper13@gmail.com with your thoughts.

Thank you to Allie Jane Bruce, Bank Street College Children’s Librarian, Dr. Rachel Skrac Lo, Villanova University professor, and M is for Movement editors and children’s authors, Alison Goldberg and Innosanto Nagara, for their contributions to my thinking for this piece.

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