A friend recently asked me how she should go about writing a children’s book that represents her family’s life. I admit that on any given day, I might find this question aggravating. While some of the people who solicit writing advice are indeed writers, many of the people interested in writing books for kids are not. And sometimes that matters to me and sometimes it doesn’t. On this day, it didn’t aggravate me one bit–it got me thinking.
The person who asked me this particular question on this particular day is not a writer. She is a mother and a teacher and a lesbian, and she and her partner have several children together along with a golden retriever. This part is not that interesting to me—they are a regular family, dodging a lot of shoes and toys on their way to do a lot of homework. And they are schlepping kids, one parent throwing car keys across the kitchen at the other in haste when she realizes she is late for the next activity, or has forgotten about it entirely. And there are dishes in the sink and kids in need of dinner and mothers in need of some wine and a deep breath.
So to me, their household looks a whole lot like my household. But to my children, it does not. My children, who have two grandfathers the very same way Heather Has Two Mommies, had a harder time processing this family picture than their own, extended family picture. “How are two women married?” my son asked. I honestly couldn’t believe my ears given that he has never asked this about my father, not once. “The same way Papa is married to a man, (well not yet, but when they do it will be fierce)” I say. My daughter, always involved with herself first and foremost responded, “They are not married. I would know, I would have been in the pictures!” She’s not wrong about that.
Forget that my own upbringing was fraught with all kinds of fallout from this very information. Forget that when I was the age my children are now I did not yet know any of this was coming or that it was even possible. Forget that over the years I have watched as Will and Grace and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and loads of activists and other brave souls (some of them even politicians!) somehow helped pushed through an agenda that makes my family’s story (which I have tried endlessly to novelize) read like historical fiction—a very special episode of Little House on the Prairie. (Trust me, I have to re-write it again. It’s just not that shocking anymore. I’m thinking of maybe throwing in a vampire or a Kardashian.)
But forget all that. This is now. This is a time when my friend’s family ought be represented well, and not by a didactic book explaining how all those children found their way into one mother or the other’s uterus and how they now ended up wrestling each other and the dog on the living room floor of their colonial-style house. The story has to be about their lives as they are and not so much how they got here. This is what I told my friend. Write it! Write a whole series about a family like yours, but don’t make a point of writing the what and the how and the why. Just write a story that hangs on your life like a shirt—so, your children have two (wonderful) mothers and a biological father and they have cousins, too, and friends with whom they swing on monkey bars and build forts—just like other children’s book characters.
And this isn’t to say that there shouldn’t or won’t always be stories of how and what and why—the stories that explain what it feels like to be something else, to be the other thing. I need for those stories to exist and lots of them as much as anyone else. And I want them to be told over and over so that all kinds of kids and teenagers and adults, frankly, can find themselves inside of someone else’s story when they really need to. But that is not what this friend was asking me. She wasn’t asking me how to tell her story. She was asking me how to do her family experience justice.
And I say If there’s always room for novels or chapter books or picture books with vibrant and interesting characters who have a little something going on or a little something to say, then she ought to find a way to build that kind of story around her kind of family. Maybe it’s time for a book about kids who get into all kinds of trouble in their daily lives, or who travel to magical places via unicorn, or who have a secret spy lair in the attic, but when they get home at the end of the day, having been sent to the principal’s office, or to another planet and back, back from where the wild things were, it is their mothers–two of them–who wash up their faces, feed them a snack, tuck them in, and make them feel safe. But the mothers aren’t the story, the story is the story.
Is that interesting enough? She asked me. I don’t know what to say. Maybe it is maybe it isn’t. Like any other book it will have to be a combination of things—well written and compelling, it will have to resonate and connect and have a good marketing strategy to boot. Maybe she’ll write it and no one will buy it, or maybe she’ll sell the manuscript and she’ll get lukewarm reviews and it will end up on a remainders table somewhere on the Lower East Side. This could happen to her the same way it could happen to me or anyone. That’s the point, I realize.
I look at my friends—two women, partners in everything they do, working hard and raising children in a small town filled mostly with people who are rooting for them and likely with some who are not.
“Even if it isn’t,” I say, “at least we will have gotten somewhere.”
Until such a series exists, we have these! (Please share your faves in comments!)
Mini Mia and Her Darling Uncle by Pija Lindenbaum (translated by Elisabeth Kallick Dyssegaard)
And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson
Uncle Bobby’s Wedding by Sarah S. Brannen
Jack And Jim by Kitty Crowther
Heather Has Two Mommies, by Leslea Newman
Papa, Daddy, and Me by Leslea Newman
In Our Mothers’ House by Patricia Polacco
A Tale of Two Daddies by Vanita Oelschlager
A Tale of Two Mommies by Vanita Oelschlager