What is the purpose of your average everyday board book? It’s not really a crazy question. In the history of printed literature, board books are relative newcomers. I mean, books for babies and toddlers? A radical notion! Yet parents who start reading to their kids early find that their children are better readers later on down the road. As a result, sometimes board books are simplified adaptations of already existing picture books, and sometimes they are written with the intention of beginning and ending their lives as board books (though if you’re Sandra Boynton, sometimes you’ll see the rare board book to picture book crossover). Topics cover everything from animal sounds to colors, peek-a-boo, letters, numbers, and families. Always with the families. Small children like to see children like themselves in books just as parents like to see their family situations reflected in the literature their kids read. The problem is that there really isn’t a lot to pick and choose from if you’re a modern gay or lesbian couple. On the picture book side of things you can sometimes find a sweet story in the midst of all the pabulum (Mini Mia and her Darling Uncle perhaps), but it’s relatively rare. And on the board book side of things? Essentially you can either find translated/bilingual editions of Moreno Velo and Termenón Delgado’s charming Manu series, but that’s almost entirely it. Now Tricycle Press is taking a chance and producing some quality baby board book fare for the busy single sex family. What is the purpose of your average everyday board book? To teach children about the world, of course. Credit to author Leslea Newman and illustrator Carol Thompson for producing not one but two titles (Mommy, Mama, and Me and Daddy, Papa, and Me) for new families.
In Mommy, Mama, and Me a small child (Boy? Girl? Unclear) discusses the activities that make up a day with Mommy and Mama. Gentle rhymes describe everything from “Mommy lets me help her cook” to “Mama helps me read a book.” No matter what this family does, however, they do it together until at the end of the day, “Now I’m tucked in nice and tight. Mommy and Mama kiss me goodnight.” Similarly the book Daddy, Papa, and Me covers similar ground. Only in that book a slightly older toddler runs, plays, and eventually tuckers out an exhausted Daddy and Papa. Accompanied by bright and lively illustrations, these board books are keepers from page one onward. The art itself is a mixture of mixed media and what looks to be watercolors.
There was a time (and I like to think that it’s past) when if an author or illustrator chose to write a story with a family in it that wasn’t white, people would start tsking and murmuring under their breath that no white family would ever consider purchasing books about anything but similarly white families. The fact that black, Asian, Hispanic, and other ethnic groups readily purchased stories about all kinds of families that weren’t their own race never really seemed to change their minds on the matter. As a children’s librarian I do occasionally have to deal with parents who look at the books I recommend to them and then say, “Do you have anything less . . . urban?” *sigh* Still, it’s less common than it used to be. Now in the case of these two books, I can almost anticipate people readying their arguments that no straight family would ever buy board books about gay folks. And again, the fact that gay families have little choice BUT to buy stories about straight family units doesn’t seem to make much of a difference. To my mind, I don’t think you’re giving people enough credit. Are there people out there who will exhibit shock and horror at these loving little portraits and forbid them from their homes? Undoubtedly. Such are the times in which we live. But by the same token, I have faith that there are lots of forward thinking, intelligent people out there who recognize that if you want to build tolerance in your youngster, why not start sooner rather than later? Why not indeed.
I think one of the things I like the most about this book is the fact that like that delightful And Tango Makes Three, the whole point of the book isn’t wrapped up in the fact that these families have homosexual parents. I’ve been waiting for good books where the parents just happen to be gay to come out, and so far I’ve been routinely disappointed. In the case of these Newman/Thompson titles, what you’re dealing with here is just your standard I-love-my-mommies / I-love-my-daddies fare. No different really from a million other board books out there today. And yes, the point behind writing the books may have been to write something for those same families, but its themes are universal; Toddlers and parents loving one another. And I think we’ve plenty of room on our bookstore and library shelves for that.
In terms of the art, I’ve seen Carol Thompson’s illustrations for books like Frieda Wishinsky’s Oonga Boonga and Toby Forward’s What Did You Do Today? before. In this book she has managed to walk that fine line between being realistic and being stereotypical. She could have flamboyanted up the gay dads and butched to the nines the moms if she wanted to. So her job here was to create believable families that didn’t reek of faux values. So, for example, while you won’t see the dads sporting out-of-date moustaches and earrings, at the same time these don’t look like two businessmen who happen to be living in the same space. Similarly, Mommy and Mama make up a believable lesbian couple that doesn’t resemble television’s vision of what lesbians look like (long-haired models, etc.).
Yup. Pretty nice from top to toe. I urge you, however, to consider these books as more than just merely token lit. Sure, I’d love to see publishers taking a chance and creating more books of this type out there, but the stories really stand on their own merits and deserve to be considered as just great little board books in and of themselves. Cute and touching by turns, it’s the lucky baby that gets to have these read to them. No matter what your family looks like, if you have an anklebiter on your hands, these are fine literature for tiny tots. More than just the sum of their parts.
On shelves now.
Copies: Final editions sent by publisher.
Other Blog Reviews:
- I’m Here. I’m Queer. What the Hell Do I Read? (also here)
- The Second Mommy
- The Crimson Review of Children’s & YA Literature (also here)
- Kids Lit
- We are all meant to shine as children do (and here)
- Takoma Park Neighborhood Library
Other Online Reviews:
- Leslea Newman is interviewed at examiner.com
- Does the name “Leslea Newman” strike you as somehow familiar? Well, guess what? You’re looking at the original author of Heather Has Two Mommies. Yup. This article says more.