In my family there are two moms and five kids. I’ve yet to find a children’s book that depicts a cast of characters that looks anything like our particular multiracial, foster-adoptive family constellation, and I know there are lots of artistic, social, political, and market-driven reasons for this; for one thing, such a book would risk getting so bogged down in introducing everyone that it would be hard to come around to a story.
I used to worry about this. When my oldest child (a biracial, biological son) was also my only child, I scoured libraries, bookstores, and booklists to try to make sure that his books would not only be windows into others’ experiences but mirrors of his own. Fat chance of finding such a mirror that went beyond a reflection of surface appearance and into a fully realized story. In the end, despite my best efforts to find books to celebrate his nontraditional familial reality, Rory didn’t much care that Heather had two mommies or that black is brown is tan; he was far more interested in The Adventures of Captain Underpants and Sylvester and his magic pebble, thank you very much, and I couldn’t really blame him.
I began to think that much of my fretting over building a multicultural, LGBT-inclusive children’s book collection was the product of visiting adult preoccupations on my child. I had the good intentions of wanting to provide a literary world that reflected the life experiences that we shared as a multiracial, two-mom family. But I realized that this was the world I’d built as an adult. My son was included in that world, but he also had a world of his own devising: informed by me and by his other mom, of course, but more and more uniquely his as he grew up and made his own friends, followed his own passions, tastes, and interests, and formulated his own visions for the world.
Of course, following such a line of thinking is itself an argument for the creation of books that tell stories from different vantage points. A child, raised by straight parents, who will grow up to be gay would be well served by children’s books that depict families with two mommies or two daddies, right? After all, my son’s world, occupied as it was by the stuff of preschool, was also one in which he imagined the adult he would become. Once, while reading Homemade Love by bell hooks and Shane W. Evans, Rory said something to me along the lines of, “I like reading this book about a family with all brown people because maybe someday I will grow up and have a family like that, too.” Eureka! I exhaled alongside overburdened Heather and her mommies and the black and brown and tan family and realized that Rory had a point. Reading children’s books isn’t all about looking at the here-and-now; it’s also about thinking about up-ahead-and-later.
But there are limits to this vision of aspirational children’s literature, based on a child’s perceptions of adult life. One day Rory announced that he was going to marry his friends Andy, Tim, and Rose. Never once did it cross my mind that I was raising a future bisexual polygamist. What I understood from this declaration was that four-year-old Rory really liked his friends Andy, Tim, and Rose. A preschooler doesn’t really get what marriage is, because it’s an adult institution. That’s why when King & King came out (as it were), I felt that this was a book aimed more at well-intentioned, anti-homophobic adults than at children.
Nevertheless, I think there is space for children’s books that address what it is to grow up and what it is to be an adult, books that move beyond glorifying and romanticizing childhood with a nostalgic tone that smacks of a tragic loss of innocence; after all, one of the main tasks of childhood is to leave it. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that I believe the children are our future. It’s more complicated than that: I believe the children are their future, and yes, I guess I believe the children are our future, too. But I am leery of songs, children’s books, and platitudes that focus only on this last belief. It’s all just a little too “and a little child shall lead them” for me. I don’t much like burdening children, real or imaginary, with the expectation that through their perceived innocence and charming naiveté they will save the world as they inherit it. This is different from acknowledging, celebrating, and supporting the fact in literature and in life that growing up is not a tragedy but a birthright.
And, just as importantly, I believe the children are our present, too, and their present. And that’s why I am still on the lookout for books that depict different kinds of families and different kinds of being in the world. Even if it’s a stretch to imagine that my particular family (Puerto-Rican-Caucasian-Jamaican-African-American-biracial-two-moms-with-five-kids-foster-adoptive-with-some-bio-ties) will ever see itself in print, I like to think that if there’s room for Heather and her mommies, there’s room for more of their friends, too.
From the May/June 2008 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.