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Family Is What You Have

Last year, on a twenty-seater plane coming home from a speaking engagement, it became apparent that I was the only person on board not related to everyone else in the passenger section. My closest fellow passenger sat across the aisle singing a song about the purple dinosaur. She smiled at me—my cue to dig a picture book out of my carry-on bag, bypassing breath mints and old boarding passes.

I asked her how old she was before I handed her the book. Her brother popped up from the seat in front of me and said, “Five.” I gave her one of my picture books to read, then the brother looked at me—he’d informed me that he was seven and read very well—so I handed him a book, too.

I dragged out the rest of my books to keep the children stocked until the flight was over. Then a wonderful thing happened. The two kids started passing the books to their cousins up front and to their parents in the back. Soon children were sitting on laps and being read stories. The picture stays with me; children being read to above the clouds with family.

In recent years the “family” has been talked about, dissected, redefined. The well-meaning and not-so-well-meaning have even gone so far as to wield picket signs over the heads of those whose definition of family did not meld with their own. The self-righteous began to wave the family-values flags and to chastise any and all who didn’t fit their definition of what a family is.

My first books were being published when the initial “family” rallying cry went up. Being a bit slow on the uptake, I didn’t get it. Family was what you had, whether it be fatherless, motherless, etc. I hadn’t purposely written my books with a family theme. It was a natural progression of writing what I knew; loving relatives, warm memories of grandparents.

Like most writers of fiction, I’ve been asked if the characters in my books are actual family members and if the events have truly happened. I answer, “No,” and smile, for though I’m extremely close to my family, the thought of putting them in books has never crossed my mind. They are family, you see.

They inspire. They disagree. They love. They even behave badly at times, and though you’ll never find an actual family member portrayed in one of my stories, their essence drives the characters and are forever an inspiration, which is what I believe it’s all about. In an era of teenage pregnancy, divorce, blended families, and a bit too much television baby-sitting, all eyes have turned to the “family.” It seems everyone is longing for the way it used to be. Mom, Dad, kids and a passle of relatives who hug the kids and give an overall warm fuzzy feeling of home. Isn’t this wonderful?

Yes; it most certainly is.

Isn’t this the way it should be for everyone?

Yes; but it never was always that way for everyone.

Everyone wants family stories to read to their children. And aren’t we lucky that there are so many different kinds of families in books so that the children in these families know that there is a place for them: blended families, racially mixed families, families with gay parents, adopted children, single-parent families, and of course the nuclear family.

Though not everyone wants to acknowledge the varied family lifestyles of some, I say celebrate. Celebrate the differences and make children aware of families not like their own. What better way to do this but to read to them?

We’ll read our children fairy tales and animal stories and discuss the moral plays going on in them. Why not search for reading material for a child about a type of family he or she has never met? They will sooner or later. Understanding and tolerance of others’ lifestyles is the first step toward a loving and empathetic adult who’ll understand that family are the people who surround and love you no matter who they—or you—are.

But—going back to my flight and the delightful family who made my year. As we were landing and all the books were passed to me, the adults were smiling thanks for the easy entertainment when one little boy leaned his head out into the aisle, waved at me, and said, “You need to put more aliens and animals in your books.”

Well, there’s room for that, too.

From the March/April 1997 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

About Angela Johnson

Angela Johnson is the author of such picture books as "Tell Me a Story, Mama" and "When I Am Old with You" and of the novels "Toning the Sweep" and "Humming Whispers."

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