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Ask Family Reading: Non-wicked stepparents

Shannon writes:

There's something that's been bothering me about children's books (and movies) and I was hoping that you would let me know what you know about this. In what children's books are stepparents portrayed in a non-negative way? I feel like I rarely see them depicted, and when they are there, they are depicted negatively. Can you maybe keep your eye out for some good alternatives for me? As a stepmom type person it makes me feel like the deck is kind of stacked against me...

Dear Shannon,

Those Grimm Brothers, Walt Disney, and millennia of misogyny really did a number on stepmoms. But take heart: the Guide/Reviews Database lists 374 entries with the subject Family--Stepfamilies. Granted, some of them fall into the "wicked" category; stay away from #murdertrending by Gretchen McNeil, I'm assuming. However, many recent titles center stepfamilies as families, with no asterisks, hyphens, or poisoned apples. Quotes below are from the Guide/Reviews Database or Horn Book Magazine reviews. 

A perfect place to start is Jeanne Birdsall's Penderwicks series (grades 4–6), about a widowed father and four spirited daughters, whose family, over the course of five books, expands in realistic, heart-tugging, and satisfying ways. Don't miss Jeanne Birdsall's article "How Middle Grade Saved My Life" and Rachael Stein's piece on how the Penderwicks audiobooks helped her young daughter during Stein's divorce. 

The Sea in Winter by Christine Day (grades 4–6), part of the new Heartdrum imprint centering Native #OwnVoices stories, is about a twelve-year-old dancer, Maisie, whose wonderfully supportive family helps her cope with a terrible knee injury: "Maisie's family is Native — her mom is Makah; her father, who has passed away, was Piscataway; her stepfather, Jack, is an enrolled citizen of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe...The story takes place primarily over the course of four days, during which we get to know Maisie's family uncommonly well...secondary characters, too, are nuanced and vividly drawn."

Hilary McKay's The Time of Green Magic (grades 4–6) is a middle-grade fantasy about a magical book, a mysterious house, and stepsiblings getting to know each other: "Throughout this deftly told story, McKay creates a captivating world to fall into, full of honesty and humor. The warm but complicated relationships form a comforting space for readers to explore the power one can find in home, family, and books — especially this one."

In Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and Audrey Vernick's Two Naomis and Naomis Two (grades 4–6) "Two ten-year-olds' worlds collide when (black) Naomi Marie's mom and (white) Naomi Edith's dad fall in love. The situation is uncomfortable at times, but the Naomis handle it with creativity and humor, emerging with a greater sense of each other, their changing family, and themselves. This novel will resonate with young readers who've experienced a change in family dynamics..."

Emma Donoghue (author of Room, shiver) writes lighthearted middle-grade novels about the Lotterys, a "racially diverse blended family" of "four parents and seven children," who have madcap adventures. "As ever, there's an abundance of quirkiness and wordplay, but the warmth, humor, and affection in both text and black-and-white illustrations are undeniable." (grades 4–6)


Horn Book Managing Editor Cindy Ritter (herself a fab "stepmom type person") says: "Stepfamilies come from single parents dating so that could be a good sub-group to recommend that people might not think of right away — the same conflicts often appear in those stories too." Some recent favorites include:

Sweeping Up the Heart by Kevin Henkes (grades 4–6) is about a girl named Amelia whose mother died when she was two. (“Can you be lonely for someone you never knew?”) After encountering a woman who looks like her mom, Amelia begins to imagine the impossible...

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Joy McCullough (grades 4–6) stars odd-couple tweens (one loves science, the other sci-fi) whose parents are dating. After getting lost together during a family hike, they discover how to bring out the best in each other.

For Colombia-based Juana and her trusty pup Lucas, stars of the heavily illustrated Juana and Lucas: Big Problemas by Juana Medina (grades 1–3), "a big change is looming. Her favorite person in the world, Mami, is starting to spend more time with a new 'friend,' Luis."

In Rose Lagercrantz and Eva Eriksson's seventh early chapter book in the My Happy Life series about friends Dani and Ella, All's Happy That Ends Happy (grades 1–3), "Dani travels to Italy for her father's wedding...The plot contains several suspenseful crises and one good surprise..."

Picture books about Malaika, by Nadia L. Hohn, illustrated by Irene Luxbacher (grades PS–3), focus on a mother and daughter of Caribbean descent who move to Canada. They create a blended mixed-race family with Mummy's new husband and his daughter — and, in the upcoming Malaika's Surprise, a baby half-sibling!

Alice Faye Duncan’s picture book Just like a Mama (grades PS–2), illustrated by Charnelle Pinkney Barlow, explores the special bond between a young girl and her “right now” caretaker Mama Rose, who is "just like a mama to me." "An homage to all the African American women who are mothering children not biologically their own."

Of course there's the classic example of Kristy from Ann M. Martin's Baby-Sitters Club — and now the series spin-off Baby-Sitters Little Sister graphic novels, starting with Karen's Witch (grades 1–3): "This first installment...introduces Karen and her large blended family (including stepsister and BSC president Kristy), and Karen's humorously active imagination — she's convinced her neighbor is a witch."

A witch, perhaps; but no wicked magic mirrors in sight. Just a whole host of loving, supportive, entertaining stepfamilies with whom readers can spend some enjoyable time. 

Elissa Gershowitz

Elissa Gershowitz is executive editor of The Horn Book, Inc. She holds an MA from the Center for the Study of Children's Literature at Simmons University and a BA from Oberlin College.

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