There are three types of picture book that include same-sex parents. The first is the strictly educational kind which illustrate all sorts of different family set-ups and exude an air of dull worthiness despite their colourful illustrations. Many of these books are great fun for pre-schoolers, but read-along adults may quickly tire of their lack of plot. One or two stand out – the modern illustrations and rhyming text of All Kinds of Families! and the sheer variety of people in ABC: a Family Alphabet Book mean that they are both something special.
The second includes my favourite book about same-sex parenting. And Tango Makes Three, is only a few years old. It’s part of a generation of picture books (and childrens’ books in general) that embrace this newly acceptable sub-genre. Some earlier books have become queer classics (Heather has Two Mommies, 1990; King and King; Daddy’s Roommate) and some have not (Asha’s Mums, 1990), but all of these books have the same premise these parents are gay (and they are gay, in these books sexuality is binary), and that’s great. They are books about same-sex relationships, presenting them to be inspected and found acceptable. There is nothing wrong with this, of course; like the books of the first category, they fulfil their objective and on the whole they do it well. But this kind of treatment can only go so far to normalise same-sex parenting in the eyes of a child if sexuality is always key to the plot.
The third category is the one I’ve picked from today. These picture books really do normalise same-sex parents by having them in the background, just as much a part of everyday life as the kitchen sink and Marmite. These books are not common, and, in general, they’re not great quality. Most (if not all) of them originate in North America
The Different Dragon; Jennifer Bryan, Danamarie Hosler (illus.)
The Different Dragon is a beautiful book about a bedtime story.
In the story, told by a boy named Noah with a little help from one of his Mums, Noah and his cat Diva take a boat and sail to Dragon Cove where they meet a dragon ‘with fire in his nostrils and a long red tongue’. Hosler’s illustrations show a ferocious looking beast in artwork that fills the page, supplementing and complimenting Bryan’s words and leaving the space for reader’s to wonder what might happen next.
Just as in Angry Arthur or Where the Wild Things Are, The Different Dragon sees its protagonist use his imagination to deal with his emotions and everything gets a bit meta. As architect of his own bedtime story, Noah can take a ferocious dragon with ‘fire in his nostrils and a long red tongue’ and make him sad and therefore vulnerable. Noah makes an outsider of his dragon character before gives him the tools to accept himself:
’I'm a smart boy and I know some things, and I know there’s more than one way to be a dragon.
Noah’s parents, an interracial lesbian couple, are not part of the story that Noah imagines (though their influence is clear). His two mothers, Momma and Go-Ma, are all etre with no raison, with one engaged in storytelling and one in the background their relationship is never mentioned. It is a story that normalises difference in which a character tells a story to normalise difference; in other words, Noah is doing with the dragon what we are doing with Noah. What’s not to love about that?
The Duke Who Outlawed Jelly Beans and other stories; Johnny Valentine, Lynette Schmidt (illus.)
This collection of original fairytales is not without flaws, encompassing one or two elements that are Not Exactly Feminist (but a couple of others that definitely are), and engaging in a bit of cultural whitewashing, but it’s a definite 5/5 for effort.
Aimed at slightly older readers, the book contains large chunks of text opposite full-page illustrations. Traditional fairy stories, myths and legends are aped in both graphic style and literary content – compare Usborne’s Illustrated Stories from the Greek Myths - and feel a little dated (the book was first published in 1991). The first story, The Frog Prince, riffs on the traditional fairytale of the same name. It’s a simple gender swap that includes a slightly…well… rapey request for a kiss from the frog and mars an otherwise Totally Right On collection. The rest of the stories, The Eaglerider (my favourite), Dragon Sense, The Ogre’s Boots and the titular The Duke Who Outlawed Jelly Beans send a strong, simple message of gender equality, anti-authoritarianism, and self-love with both hetero and homo partners fulfilling parental roles.
Lucy Goes to the Country; Joseph Kennedy, John Canemaker (illus.)
Lucy Goes to the Country is a searingly bright picture book documenting the adventures of Lucy the cat on a trip to the countryside with her two ‘Big Guys’. Lucy is boisterous and full of personality, a little cat with a lot of mischief inside her. When Lucy chases Schmoofy, a dog with ‘with bad hair and an attitude to match’, up a tree, she sets in motion a chaotic chain of events that will have littlies giggling.
The relationship between Lucy’s Big Guys is made clear in Canemaker’s illustrations. The couple project a loving co-dependence complete with petty jealousies. That readers are left to infer this from illustration rather than text is about as normalising of same-sex relationships as it is possible to be.
Like The Duke who Outlawed Jelly Beans, this book is not perfect (frankly, within this criterion, pickin’s are slim); there are jokes for the grown ups that some might find distasteful, and the book does nothing to combat some harmful stereotypes (one of the Big Guys looks lustfully, almost predatorially at a uniformed fire fighter), but it does place a gay male couple in the roles of loving caregivers and includes explicit reference to a lesbian parenting team.
Were there as wide a range of picture books with incidental same-sex parents as there is about same-sex parents, I wouldn’t be able to recommend Lucy Goes to the Country. It’s low quality – not exactly heirloom material. But it’s what there is. We should be ashamed of ourselves.
I’m looking for picture books for polyamorous families. Got a recommendation? Let me know!