This column was published in the Raleigh News and Observer, April 25, 2015
When Leslea Newman’s “Heather Has Two Mommies” (Candlewick, ages 4-7) was published 25 years ago, it was the first book I saw with same-sex parents, and that pleased me. New illustrations by Laura Cornell give it a more playful appearance, but the text is still heavy-handed.
This is typical of the evolution of many issue-driven children’s books. The first ones are didactic, but gradually titles improve in scope and tone. Take Miriam Schiffer’s new book, “Stella Brings the Family” (Chronicle, ages 4-7), for example. In Newman’s book, a teacher tells Heather that “the most important thing about a family is that all the people in it love one another.” Schiffer lets readers infer this truth by experiencing it through Stella’s perspective.
Stella’s teacher announces a Mother’s Day celebration, and this sends Stella into a tailspin because she will “be the only one without a mother.” Her young friends are compassionate and curious. When Leon asks who packs her lunch, Stella replies that Daddy knows perfectly what she needs. And when she’s questioned about who reads her bedtime stories, she replies that both Papa and Daddy fill that role.
Her classmates’ questions are as irrelevant to Stella as the gender of her parents. She’s just worried that she has no “special guest.” A classmate suggests she invite both her fathers and the slew of relatives who offer kisses when she’s hurt. Stella’s parents agree, and she works harder than any other student on her many invitations. All turns out well, and Stella knows just whom to invite for the Father’s Day celebration. The book offers no opinion, implicit or direct, on her two fathers and stays firmly in Stella’s literal view of the situation.
Several other new books have light-hearted approaches. Karen Beaumont’s Wild About Us! (Houghton Mifflin, ages 3-5) is the rollicking, rhyming first person narrative of a wart hog who may have tusks and warts, but says, in “my own special way I’m as cute as can be.” His zoo friends feel the same. Crocodile’s proud of his toothy grin, Rhino feels fine in her wrinkly skin and a host of Janet Stevenson’s whimsically illustrated zoo animals have similar self-satisfied outlooks.
Also rhyming and upbeat is Helen Ward’s “Spots in a Box” (Templar, Candlewick, ages 3-5). The guinea fowl lacks the spots his friends have, so he sends for some. But they arrive too large, too “sneezy” and small, then “no spots at all” (the illustration shows him sporting holes). Finally, spots arrive that “put a smile on his beak” and by book’s end he wears enviably sparkly dots.
In Michelle Knudsen’s “Marilyn’s Monster” (Candlewick, ages 5-8), the heroine whispers “into the scary dark.” She doesn’t fear monsters, but wants one. Monsters are “the latest thing” and you have to wait for your monster to find you. The whimsical illustrations and text make monsters desirable, not frightening.