My daughter Alysa and her other mother snuggled into the recliner, not saying a word. The only sound I could hear was an occasional page turning. I took this as a hopeful sign. And then: nothing. No sounds. No page turning. No bodies moving in the chair. I walked to their chair, wondering what they thought of the book.
Alysa looked up at me and said quietly, “This could be our family.”
We’ve read hundreds of books with Alysa, including a number of picture books with gays or lesbians in them. Yet Alysa has never expressed the words she said after reading In Our Mothers’ House by Patricia Polacco.
Patricia Polacco’s picture book centers on the lives of an American family consisting of two moms and several children, two of whom were born in other countries. The text innocuously walks the reader through this family’s life when the children are young, and throughout the text, the reader comes to know life in this home is pretty much like life in any other American home. The moms share the parenting duties, enjoying life and adulthood. They find ways to simply and peacefully accept neighbors who don’t approve of their lifestyle. Polacco represents this family as one who simply lives and loves being together as a family.
I walked back into the kitchen, considering her powerful words and the accompanying message. I already knew that Alysa was quite aware of the way her life intersects different cultures, but her words helped me understand that she carries emotional awareness of more than I had realized. It struck me that this was the first time she had ever imagined her family on the printed pages of a picture book.
Obvious and Not-So-Obvious Cultures
Alysa participates in several cultures everyday of her life, and in a rapid-fire repeat fashion, she decides each moment which to highlight or shadow. At school, I have seen her include one or the other of her moms (Laurie and I) on assignments, but never the two of us together. The absence of two mothers on her artwork or in her writing has not been lost on her teachers or us. Alysa’s consistent decision to keep our relationship out of her projects started years ago, and now as a sixth-grader, it is just something we expect. She even addressed her letter home from Outdoor School to “Mom.”
Being an Indian is more difficult to hide, and is not something she wants to hide. She has long identified herself as Indian, and she actively speaks of India as her homeland. She continues to interact with her Indian birth culture as a member of an Indian dance group, through a trip to Calcutta, and within our consistent familial focus on her birth culture. Adoption comes up frequently in conversations, and a number of our family friends include children adopted from other countries. Alysa has been fortunate to have classroom teachers who both welcome her Indian birth culture and her family culture. She also has had several gay and lesbian teachers.
Books We Read With Our Learners
As an educator, I have long agreed with the notion that we often don’t know who we affect in our teaching. Alysa’s response to Polacco’s book solidifies my commitment to read books that serve my students from diverse backgrounds, and I must continue to trust that they will speak about them when they are ready, and possibly away from me. It also reminded me that while she loves us both very much, having two mothers causes tension in her life.
In thinking about my work with young learners, I recall my trepidation in using books with gays, lesbians and transgendered characters. I remember steering clear of talking about gays and lesbians in the K-8 classrooms where I taught, even when students initiated the discussion. My own internalized homophobia was as alive as the fear my work colleagues expressed. I know my “lifestyle” makes some community members uncomfortable. When I shop with my family or go out to a restaurant or coffee shop, I still watch for current and past students, careful to not touch my partner in a way that can be viewed as anything more than innocuous. I have no desire to offend anyone, and I know that it is the adults that are more worried than my students. Alysa’s words quietly reminded me of the responsibilities we have to students in families like ours.
I use picture books for a whole lot more than graphophonemic lessons. I use picture books that offer the reader multiple ways of understanding the world around them, through people and the communities we all live in, through surface and deep structures. When I choose books, I carry an agenda of finding books that will help each individual and our community of readers discover and understand the people around us more. I hope they are surprised by what they notice and connect with, and I trust that our repeated readings of the text cause them to have multiple a-ha moments. With an agenda like this, it is obvious that I must choose books carefully. Alysa reminds me of all of the silenced voices in my classrooms. I need to select books with their tensions in mind, even if some texts take us into territories where we are divided in our beliefs.
Gifts from Authors
Patricia Polacco is a remarkable storyteller. This time, she stepped into a new realm: she represented a lifestyle that my daughter had yet to see in all of the books she has read. Here she does it in a way that a thoughtful, invested, experienced reader like Alysa can find truth within the life she lives. Here are some other quality books I have found that present “families like ours” and others in our classrooms that are rarely depicted in children’s literature:
And Tango Makes Three Written by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell and illustrated by Henry Cole.
A fictional tale based on a true experience that occurred in the Central Park Zoo, this book won several awards. It’s about two male penguins who “adopt” a penguin chick (courtesy of a smart-thinking penguin caretaker). The adults nurture the chick and the three form a family. This award-winning book has been at the center of the challenged and banned book debate since it was published.
Daddy’s Wedding Written and illustrated by Michael Willhoite.
This book follows the author/illustrator’s earlier book, Daddy’s Roommate, an effectively written text detailing a father coming out to his son. In this text, main character Nick explores his own issues of having his parent remarry before serving as the best man in his father’s wedding.
Heather Has Two Mommies Written by Leslea Newman and illustrated by Diana Souza.
This landmark text boldly brought a story about lesbian mothers to readers across the United States. The first edition came out in 1990, when few other texts beyond Annie on My Mind were available to young readers (and yes, that is a chapter book). Heather Has Two Mommies walks readers through the daily lives of a two moms and a child.
King and King Written and illustrated by Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland.
In this fun read, the author takes the reader into fairytale land. The queen demands that her son marry, inviting a string of women to venture without meaning into the prince’s life. Then, when the last princess enters with her brother, the prince finds his true love.
Uncle Bobby’s Wedding Written and Illustrated by Sarah S. Brannen.
A gentle, fictional tale of a young guinea pig who is jealous that her uncle is getting married. Beautifully written and inviting, the story takes us into Chloe’s mind as she figures out she will still be an important participant in Uncle Bobby’s life.
10,000 Dresses Written by Marcus Ewert and illustrated Rex Ray.
A boy who knows she is a girl inside struggles with living her dream versus following the continuing limitations of her family. When she wakes from a dream and wants to create 10,000 dresses, her family tells her no. In her search to unearth how to live out her dream, she discovers friendship and possibility. A unique and sweet read, this book both surprised me and warmed my heart.