Family relationships are a topic covered by fiction writers on a regular basis. While a novel may not be directly about a family relationship, relationships are usually involved. Whether the family is perfect, or perfectly dysfunctional, families are often made up of a variety of individuals. This is not always the case with children’s literature, as the majority of children's books feature an idealized family. As the times change, children's literature must change to represent the growing number of alternative families.
Throughout my childhood, an emphasis was placed on reading. My Mom would read to me every night, and we visited the library frequently. As a young child, my favorite series of books was The Berenstain Bears. The Berenstain Bear family was composed of Mama Bear, Papa Bear, Brother Bear, and Sister Bear just like mine. I identified with these books because my family was made up of the same members and because I had similar experiences. Just like the bears, I visited the doctor, had bad dreams, experienced jitters before the first day of school, and experienced many holidays. I was lucky enough to have the characters in these books to relate to, but what about the children being raised by Grandma bear? Or the children who have two Mama Bears, or just one Step-Dad Bear? Fortunately, a movement is taking place to include alternative families in children’s literature. This allows children to see their own family reflected in the stories they read, assuring them that they, too, are normal.
In the exhibition catalog for the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and the Eric Carle Museum of Picture book art, Lolly Robinson has an essay titled Over Rainbows and Down Rabbit Holes. In this essay the Harvard graduate professor states, “Any child who finds the healthy escapism of books – one that enlarges the mind rather than narrows it – has gained a lifelong ally. Every human spends a portion of his life searching for solace: a kindred spirit, a non-judgmental friend, a sympathetic mirror showing dreams and possibilities. At birth, our parents fill this need. Next, a favorite stuffed animal may take on the same burden, or a pet. How wonderful for a child to discover a similar respite in books that do not preach obvious lessons but instead hold up a mirror revealing something we suspected, but had not yet articulated. At their best, children’s books shed light on our inner selves and the world around us, leading us down rabbit holes and over rainbows.”
This quote perfectly describes the important role books can play in the lives of children. Books should act as an escape for children. They should be places where children learn, and find adventure within the safety of the pages. Through reading literature about alternative families, children can learn about, and accept, different types of families. In addition, these books act as an affirmation for children who haven’t grown up in a traditional household, allowing them to see their own lives reflected in literature. This ensures children that their family, or circumstances, may not be as different as they seem.
The movement to include alternative families in children’s literature is growing. Recently, the NAEYC (National Association for Education of Young Children) published an annotated bibliography containing many books which feature alternative families (book list). A Day with Dad, for example, is a story in which a boy has divorced parents living in different cities, but he gets to see his Dad on the weekend. And Tango Makes Three, is the story of two male penguins that fall in love and raise their baby, Tango, together. Every Year on Your Birthday, is the story of an adopted child and The Family Book, features many different types of families including step-families and single parent families. These books allow children in alternative families to see themselves in the literature they read.
Including alternative families in children's literature is an important step in the right direction. Including these families gives the children with one Grandma Bear or two Papa Bears something to relate to, and see themselves in. Literature should be something in which children find comfort, and in including alternative families many more children are able to find safety within the pages of a good book.
Author: Kaitlyn Wildey