Rainbow families. Same-sex parents. ‘Non-traditional’ family structures. Or maybe just ‘my mums’ or ‘my dads’.
Whatever you call them, there are plenty of children for whom this is their everyday.
Seeing yourself in books matters. All writers love to hear someone’s reading their work, and finding something important in it – so messages like this one really make me sit up and smile.
It makes me proud to be making a difference. After all, if I ever start a family, it will be one that looks like this.
But it also makes me frustrated. These books do exist; I’ve written a fair few myself. But I also understand why it’s so difficult to find books that represent ‘rainbow families’.
For starters, children’s books are shamefully under-reviewed. Unless you follow a specialist blogger or a bookseller that focuses on inclusion, you might never find what’s out there.
But also: we don’t tell people.
In my new book, Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It, Max meets Tal and his adoptive parents Michael and Bill. They’re the family that tells him there’s a dragon up the mountain, guarding a legendary treasure. They’re the men who become temporary dads to Max while the real one is missing.
In a story that asks big questions about what it means to be a boy, to be a man, they’re fundamental.
They’re not on the blurb. But they’re hugely important to me, and could be to a lot of readers, too. Families need to see themselves. Teachers need to support them in being seen. Books are an ideal way to do it – but only if you know about the stories that can help.
In the meantime, here’s a top ten for you. You’ll find links at the end for more great places to find these and more brilliant inclusive books, too.
Spacegirl Pukes, Katy Watson, illustrated by Vanda Carter
This classic from 2005 deserves to be better known for its cheering incidental inclusion in a joyously offbeat story. Bright illustrations tell the tale of Spacegirl, her two astronaut mums, and lots of puking! If that puts you off, try it on some kids.
The Family Book, written and illustrated by Todd Parr
This non-fiction book is often recommended for families when adopting, although the messages are universally important. Each page introduces a new way that families can be different – families with two mums or dads, families who all look the same and families who all look different, families who are messy or who look like their pets. Like all Parr’s work, it’s a simple, colourful, unpreachy way to engage little ones with the varied ways to be a family.
The Great Big Book of Families, Mary Hoffman, illustrated by Ros Asquith
A primary school library essential. The broad approach to inclusion of ‘different’ families means this book avoids the trap of singular representation; after all, plenty of same-sex parents are also disabled, or BAME, or part of a blended family, or all of these. Asquith’s illustrations are, as always, very funny.
Donovan’s Big Day, Lesléa Newman, Illustrated by Mike Dutton
Newman’s Heather Has Two Mommies got a lot of people’s knickers in a twist in the 80s, and doubtless they wouldn’t like this either. This touching story of a little boy fervently noting all the things he must to do to get his job of ringbearer right will resonate with any child given an important role – but of course the fact that it’s his two mums getting married gives this extra power.
Middle Grade (8+)
The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher, Dana Alison Levy
This gem of a series gives boys and their feelings the kind of respect, space and gentle reassurance that’s maddeningly rare for this age group – bundled up in a funny, pacy read. In this first book, the four Fletcher boys are each facing a struggle: sporty Sam goes hunting for a different kind of competition, Eli has chosen to start at a new school for brainy kids, cool Jax struggles with a grumpy neighbour, and no one believes in six-year-old Frog’s new best friend. With warm encouragement from Papa and Dad, they muddle through, learning things don’t always work out the way you planned – and that’s ok.
The Secrets of Sam and Sam, Susie Day
Putting my own books on my own rec list? Heck yeah!
After four outings as the sidekick family next door in the Pea’s Book series, the Paget-Skidelskys finally get the limelight. When his fear of heights makes thoughtful, arty Sam quake at the prospect of the school residential trip, he and his twin sister Sammie hatch a cunning plan: hide him in the attic for a week. But being a secret isn’t easy – especially when he’s getting a bird’s-eye view of a crime unfolding in the house over the road. Meanwhile confident loudmouth Sammie has woes of her own, and Mum Gen and Mum K have a secret too.
The Popularity Papers, Amy Ignatow
These are the letters, notes and cunning plans of Lydia Goldblatt and Julie Graham-Chang, tween best friends on a mission to infiltrate the popular clique. Inevitably their friendship strains under the pressure. This US series is light and funny, although some readers may struggle to decode the handwriting (the pages really do look like they’ve been written and illustrated by real kids). Julie’s likeable parents, Daddy and Papa Dad, feel genuine in their personality contrasts, and their shared anxious desire to protect their little girl.
From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun, Jacqueline Woodson
This slim, lyrical book is a rarity: one that tackles a main character’s homophobia head on. While most fictional same-sex parents are presented as an established family, 14-year-old Melanin Sun never imagines his single mum EC will suddenly fall in love with a woman – let alone a white one. As a quietly-spoken kid who loves amphibians and collects stamps, Melanin already worries about his masculinity; a gay mum sounds like social death, though it’s the loss of their close bond he fears most. His fears are inflected by race and community, and though there aren’t any pat answers offered, Woodson finds hope. Content note: this book uses the words faggot, faggy and dyke repeatedly, though they are later countered and challenged.
The Moonlight Dreamers, Siobhan Curham
For Amber, having two dads means bullying and claims that they’ve ‘made her a lesbian’ – not mention a completely non-functioning relationship with one of her parents. She finds hope and escape by creating the ‘Moonlight Dreamers’. Inspired by Oscar Wilde, this sisterhood brings Amber and her friends Rose, Sky and Maali together to throw off the limitations society places on young women, to embrace their own differences and support one another. Dead Poets Society meets Rookie.
The Upside of Unrequited, Becky Albertalli
Simon Versus The Homo Sapiens Agenda (aka Love Simon) reminded us all that LGBTQ YA can be fun and light and packed with romcom tropes, and this keeps the upbeat up. Molly is used to pointless crushes – she’s a fat girl, that’s how it works, right? – but when her twin Cassie falls for hard for Mina, she brings along cute boy Will and he’s the perfect first bf. So why is she thinking about Reid, her nerdy co-worker? The adopted twins’ mums get engaged during the story, too.
Full Disclosure, Camryn Garrett
Sit up and take notice: this whipsmart YA debut hits UK shelves in October 2019 and should be a smash hit. Simone thinks a lot about sex – because she’s a questioning teenage girl with sexy needs and feelings, and because being HIV positive means it’s even more of a big deal. She’s got good reason to keep it secret from her (well-drawn and queer) friends, but someone knows – and when she starts dating cute/sexy Miles while directing the school production of Rent, letters start arriving that threaten everything. Simone’s two dads always have her back, though their own complex relationship with HIV/AIDS and sexuality as older gay men (one black, one Latinx) is given time and space.
Not all of these books are published by UK publishers, and you may not find them readily in libraries or mainstream bookshops.
For access to a huge range of inclusive books, Letterbox Library are an absolute must. Although they are best known as an educational supplier – with great book packs like the ‘No Outsiders‘ collection, featuring lesson plans from Andrew Moffat – you can order from them just like any other bookshop. You’ll find titles here you won’t find elsewhere, all brilliantly curated and reviewed first to ensure quality representation.
London’s Gay’s the Word is the UK’s only LGBTQ+ bookshop. It has a great children’s section, and fantastically knowledgeable booksellers.
I’m here. I’m queer. What the hell do I read? reviews a wide range of LGBTQ+ books for children and young adults, though it exclusively covers US titles.
Know of a great rec list, Twitter or book that should be better known? Let me know in the comments.
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