The Children's Book Garden

Reading and weeding through the best and worst of children's literature

Heather Has Two Commies – I mean, Mommies August 3, 2011

(Dumb title, sure, but one of them does have a No Nukes t-shirt.)

First of all, I just have to give mad props to author Leslea Newman for two things:

1) Writing this book in the first place – it took a lot of courage

2) Amending the book for a later addition that still gets the message across but removes the age-inappropriate specifics of artificial insemination and pregnancy that I think must have helped make the book as controversial as it became on first publishing.

I personally like that Heather Has Two Mommies features not just Heather and her moms but a range of family structures.

I do wish there were more books that featured gay parents. Tthe main fault of this book in my view is not that it talks about two moms, or even the old addition with the very explicit details of human reproduction, but that it has a mission. Not a point of view, a theme, but a mission. It knows it’s the only book about two moms, and it was written to Be That Book.

It tries to do everything in just one book – represent women in unconventional work roles, show happy kids with gay parents, present an inclusive range of family types that borders on the super-cheesy… Thus it tends to read like a lesson in being liberal more than a real story.

 

The Issue with Issue Books

Most books written “about” a kid’s issue – starting preschool, bullying, saying goodbye, using manners, getting a new sibling, divorce – tend to read like this – as thinly veiled instructional manuals that only pose as a story. Generated from the desire to teach a fact as opposed to a desire to express a truth, these books strain to achieve beauty, rhythm, humor, genuine emotion.

There’s something manipulative about this kind of story that I just plain don’t like. I don’t like it when a children’s book – or video, for that matter – tries to make hard things in life fun or easy with entertaining ploys to distract or trick the kid into brushing her teeth or going potty.

Yes, books teach us; most of what I know about the world came from novels (sometimes accurate, sometimes not). But don’t use a lame storyline, a bright shiny object, to attract attention and slip the medicine in while they’re not looking. For one thing, it doesn’t work. For another thing, it’s boring and it sucks to read.

Books That Teach That Work

On the other hand, books that are upfront about their educational intentions work. (Go figure.)

The series by Joy Wilt that includes You’re All Right explicitly set out to clue kids into their bodies, emotions – what it means to be a person, have accidents, make mistakes, and my kids love them. They’re long, but the comic-like artwork is fun, simple, and the concepts are clear, and good conversation-starters.

Most straightforward science books we have, too, tend to be involving.

Conclusion: Either write fiction or nonfiction – don’t write nonfiction and dress it up like fiction. It’s condescending. And kids can sniff that out, even when it’s coming from a book.

 

The Problem with the Penguin Book November 3, 2009

s-GAY-PENGUIN-BOOK-large… is not, as many have complained, that it makes homosexual dads raising a child seem normal – rather, the book’s framework of normal has the opposite effect.

I had heard about this book because a friend of a friend is doing a research project on it – I’d been complaining about the dearth of children’s books featuring diverse family structures – and so this sounded ideal – a true story of two penguin dads? How could it get any better?

I should say that my interest in books with diversity is not because I have some liberal agenda, but because I want the landscape of literary imagination to be varied, wide, and realistic. I want my children to be exposed to single moms, grandparents raising kids, biracial families, mult-religious families, poor families, rich families – because that’s real life; because it’s part of my story; because I don’t want just one story to dominate their view of what is okay and possible. I want them to experience a range of patterns and ideas for living, so that they have the resources for freely choosing what will work best for their lives.

Instead, most books for preschoolers feature the nuclear dream team of a mom, a dad, a kid, with a pet and a car and maybe a black neighbor.

So, back to the gay penguin book. My girlfriend bought it for my daughter’s fourth birthday, but after a quick perusal, she took it back.

She summarized the beginning as framing heterosexuality as the norm – ‘at some point, boy penguins start to notice girls. And the girl penguins start to notice the boys. But one penguin…’

No, no, no! This sets it up as if the gay penguin is a freak. K said it – “like Happy Feet only instead of dancing the penguin is gay.”(Someone is sure to joke about those things not being very different. )

If a book or a movie is trying to present diversity as a norm, setting up a background of usual behavior from which one person sticks out is not going to do the job. Showing a range of choices, behaviors, identities, all plausible and acceptable – that would work.

Heather Has Two Mommies, cliche though it may be, does in fact do this when all the kids in Heather’s playgroup draw pictures of their families – and they are all different. I actually liked this book. I came away feeling like it was about the variety of families that exist, not so much just about Heather’s. Still, it does read like a lesson more than an engaging story – I don’t want to read books about diversity. I just want diversity to exist in the stories.

For instance, in the Ella the Elephant series, Ella lives with her mother, just the two of them. In the first book, they are new in town – her mother owns/operates a bakery. There’s no explanation of where they came from, or why there is no father or other family – it’s not the subject of the book. But it’s there, in the background, – a working single mother – and their two-person family is stable, calm, and strong.

My girlfriend pointed out that what disappointed her most about Tango is that it misses such a huge opportunity to take some cute animals and tell a story about love in its many forms that kids would truly enjoy.

What disappoints me is that the book apparently has received a great deal of positive kudos from the gay community, when as far as I’m concerned, it starts off by accepting some clearly heterosexist / biased views of human sexuality. There are enough gay people in the world – not to mention people who are transgender – that it’s not factual to set up the norms as being heterosexual attraction. So, I’m disappointed in this penguin book. It’s a “true story” that ducks being completely true.  And don’t we have enough of that in the world, and in our stories, already?