Book Review: In Our Mothers’ House by Patricia Polacco

inourmothershouseAs the child of a gay parent, I am always excited to discover new children’s books about same-sex families.  Growing up, there was very, very little in the way of literature that reflected my own experiences.  I do remember my mom giving me a collection of short stories written by kids whose parents had “come out” later in life, which is what had happened in my family.  I found these stories incredibly helpful- they made me feel that there were other kids just like me- with families as diverse and different as my own.  But fiction in which positive and authentic gay characters appeared were (and still are) sorely lacking.

While looking through the new arrivals cart this week I was surprised to discover that Patricia Polacco’s latest book is about a lesbian couple raising three children.  I’m usually on the lookout for children’s books about gay issues, so I was happy to see such a well-known author tackle a subject that is so rarely depicted in children’s literature.  

An African-American girl, adopted by the couple as an infant, narrates the tale that spans from the adoption of her two younger siblings (an Asian boy named Will and a Caucasian girl named Millie), through the loud and loving holiday gatherings with her moms (whom she calls Marmee and Meema), through dealing with a homophobic neighbor, and finally to the relationship her own children had with their two grandmas.

The message in the book is clear: a family with two moms can be just as wonderful as a family with a mom and a dad.  On the plus side, Polacco’s characters are cheerful, smiling, silly, and joyful.  The illustrations have a kinetic quality that reminds me of my own large (and loud) Italian family.  Each two-page spread depicts a treasured memory from the narrator’s past: dancing to bebop music with Meema, discovering (and encouraging) little Millie drawing with charcoal on the wall, trick-or-treating in handmade costumes, getting new puppies, building a treehouse.

The downside of all this cheerfulness is that the overall impression is that the author wants desperately to impress upon the reader that this family is terrific and look at all the great stuff they do rather than simply tell a story about people– people who happen to be lesbians (and moms, and nurses, and artists, and neighbors, etc.)  Families are not perfect- whether the grownups raising the children consist of one mom, a mom and a dad, grandparents or two moms.  The reason I still cringe at the theme song to Full House is that the show was so syrupy sweet; the family so impossibly perfect.  It was a fake family- with fake problems and too-easy solutions.  And I just couldn’t relate.  Stick two moms in the mix instead of a widowed dad and his friends, and it would not have made a difference.  I’m not saying that Marmee and Meema are as saccharine as Danny Tanner, but their seeming total lack of any emotions other than absolute joy and benevolent forgiveness leaves them rather two-dimensional.

The Kirkus review pointed to another problematic issue in the book: the single homophobic neighbor that the family encounters.  Mrs.Lockner, a neighborhood mom who favors pink hair bows and polka-dotted peterpan collars, is twice shown scowling at the moms, arms crossed or hiding behind a doorway.  Kirkus hit the nail on the head with their observation that, “The distillation of hate into a single character undermines the reality of systematic oppression faced by same-sex couples.”  While there certainly do exist Mrs. Lockners in the world, there are also people whose predjudices are not so readily and conveniently apparent.  The character of Mrs.Lockner embodies a rote stereotype of the “the homophobe.”  She is easy to dismiss because she is so obviously mean, ignorant, and blatant in her prejudices.  But reallife encounters with homophobia can be more subtle, and more harmful, especially to children.  Many parents may be “out” in their families and local communities, but cannot come out at their jobs for fear of persecution, harassment, or just out of fear of being treated differently.  Children of same-sex parents often not only have to face the in-your-face bigot, but whispers, sidelong glances, rumors, and other kids’ sometimes cruel comments.

That said, I do not want to suggest that every picture book about gay families must encapsulate ALL these tough issues.  No single book, and no single author for that matter, should feel that the responsibility of representing an entire community and history of oppression is on their shoulders.  Despite its problems, In Our Mothers’ House is a welcome addition to the canon of books about same-sex families.  That very fact that Patricia Polacco, such a well-respected and lauded author/illustrator, produced a book about a lesbian couple and their kids is pretty awesome.  Plus, it’s a vast improvement over the well-known but unfortunately dull and didactic Heather Has Two Mommies.

I think what is needed is many more books about gay moms, dads, friends, aunties, etc.  The books children read should serve as both a mirror of their own experiences and a window into new and unfamiliar ones.  We need more representations of same-sex families.  The more children- whether their parents are gay or not- are exposed the the diverse array of people and lifestyles, the more these types of books stop being “gay” books and simply become great stories.

Check out Laura’s thoughts over at Pinot and Prose.

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