(Incidental) Same-sex relationships in picture books


8403878432_b265495a8e_oIf you want a picture book that represents your queer family, you’ve got three options.  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 (2005), is only a decade 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 [1987]; King and King [2000]; Daddy’s Roommate [1990]) 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, though they’re getting more so, and it’s difficult to find truly excellent ones. These are my picks of the best.

The Different Dragon; Jennifer Bryan, Danamarie Hosler (illus.)

1285141The 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”, he says, “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?

Hello, Sailor; Andre Sollie, Ingrid Godon (illus.)

Hello-Sailor-004Matt is a lighthouse keeper. He spends his days watching the sea, waiting for his friend Sailor to return home so they can go sail the seven seas together. Matt is sad, and his friends are worried. What if Sailor never returns?

But one night, on Matt’s birthday, Sailor does return, and he and Matt sail off on the adventure they’ve been waiting for. Some reviewers have criticised the book, not becuase of its queer content but because Matt apparently ‘dumps’ his friends when Sailor returns. I cannot agree with this reading. Matt’s friends know he is waiting for Sailor to return, and they know that he is gong to leave when he does.

Despite the knowing  wink of it’s title Hello, Sailor is not explicit in the relationship between Matt and Sailor. They could be best friends, brothers or  lovers and it’s up to the reader to project onto the pair the relationship that most suits them.  The serene illustrations and sparse text come together to make a heartwarming but bittersweet story of friendship and love which transcends gender.

The Duke Who Outlawed Jelly Beans and other stories; Johnny Valentine,  Lynette Schmidt (illus.)

61CUFHdBw0L._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_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 strong 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.




Image 1: “Canada Water Children’s Librabry” by Barney Moss. Shared under CC BY  4.0 via flickr.

Image 2: “The Different Dragon cover art” by Danamarie Hosler. Shared under fair use via Two Lives Publishing

Image 3: “The Duke Who Outlawed Jelly Beans Cover art” by . Shared under fair use via Alyson 

Image 4: “Hello Sailor cover art” by Ingrid Godon. Shared under fair use via Macmillan

Parts of this post first appeared on TresauryIslands

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Libby Baxter-Williams

Libby is a 30-something Londoner, who spends more time reading picture books than is seemly. She became a bi activist entirely by accident, but now she can't imagine living any other way. In the event of an emergency, she'll have a large gin and tonic, thanks.

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