Some of my gay friends complain that there aren’t enough children’s books for the children of gay parents. Since I have written a few stories and books for children, these friends often tell me I should be the one to write these books. But it’s really not that easy. Unless you’re writing something like Heather Has Two Mommies, a heavy-handed issue book, it’s hard to just throw in some gay people without looking like you have a political agenda. Like if I wrote a story about a little boy and a little girl who were best friends who later fell in love as teenagers and eventually got married. Now there’s a story. But a little boy and another little boy who were best friends and eventually got married? Now you’re an emissary of the LBGTQ.
Don’t get me wrong. Heather has two Mommies has its place, and it was an amazing book for the time, but I don’t think anyone was arguing that the book is an exciting contribution to children’s literature, even if you did get breast-clutching illustrations like this:
I’m glad the book hit the press when it did, and all the controversy really put gay parents on the map, which was fabulous. But if you were looking for an exciting or exquisitely rendered piece of literature, you didn’t tuck in with Heather has Two Mommies. Winnie the Pooh, maybe. Goodnight Moon. Nobody is making a stuffed animal out of Mommy Jane (although I think that would be very interesting and I would definitely buy one).
The only way to write a good story is to write good characters. You can’t just inject gay parents into a story and expect it to go anywhere, especially if you’re writing a story for children. A child reader is not going to care (at least I highly doubt that s/he would care) if Harold drew a sketch of his two daddies with his purple crayon. Kids just want to know how Harold gets himself out of a tangle. They want Max away from the land of the Wild Things, and that little bird needs to find his mother. Not two of them. Just one.
Most great books for children have forward-moving plots. Fast ones, too, usually. The stories are funny or amusing or fascinating or adventurous. If you want to read a riveting story about a kid that has two moms, what you really ought to be reading is a gripping tale of a kid who can fly or surf on a whale or protect the universe or battle monsters but also just happens to have two moms. Maybe they could just be in the background using power tools, or wearing gender-neutral clothing.
Gay parents are more visible these days. Children need to see a reflection of their family structures, but not necessarily in a let’s-address-the-issue-of-the-gay kind of way. Forgive me if you are one of two fathers living in a republican ghetto. If this is your situation, trust me, It Gets Better.
Your kid wants good stories. You want your kid to read good stories with main characters that have same-sex parents, but there’s a paucity.
So what do you do if you want a good story that has same sex parents in it, but you don’t want something saccharine with morals and issues and agendas and manifestos?
I tell you what. I perform this handy editing trick while reading to my child. It’s poetic license, I realize, but honestly it’s quite useful.
Here’s what you do: in any picture book where a child has a mother and a father, just change the father into the other mother. Voila!
Trust me, this totally works. Daddy just becomes Butch Mommy. For example, in our house, I am called Mama. My spouse, who is taller, thinner, and let’s just face it — wears a lot of gender-neutral clothing — is called Mommy. Whenever I read our five-year-old a story I just call the father figure Mommy. Bingo!
Now, this works beautifully where the stories are underdressed animals, but it can get tricky when the characters are human beings. In the beginning I tried to select picture books where the depictions of men weren’t too obvious:
Eventually I got bolder, and he still didn’t notice:
When I shared my own private brand of censorship with a gay dad friend of mine, though, he wasn’t convinced. “That’s good for two moms,” he said. “But try it with the dads. It’s impossible.”
At some point my son got tired of me being the one who chose story books with neutral-looking men in them. He started demanding that I read the books he wanted. I panicked a little and tried to fight the inevitable, but at some point I just resorted to calling all the fathers in every story Mommy, even the ones with mustaches. Amazingly, he never asked any questions, which worried me at first until I realized that if I forget my tweezers on a camping trip I start to look like Fu Man Chu.
And all the rest of it — ties, slacks, wing-tips — there’s not a thing these guys wear that my son hasn’t seen on some woman in Northampton. Or Provincetown:
In fact, the only time he ever corrected me by insisting the other parent was a Daddy was when I read him a story that someone else had read to him without employing my little editing trick. So the jig was up there.
We don’t spend a lot of time in our family talking about being gay parents. Most kids with gay parents are too busy arguing with their siblings about who took what toy when and why can’t I have a third cupcake. Not that we don’t talk about it. For the most part, it’s sort of a non-issue. I’ll give you an example.
Ray will be entering kindergarten in the fall, and we decided to take him out of private school and to put him in the local public one, which has far fewer gay parents than the private (this is not why we are taking him out.)
“Ray,” I said, while we were driving home from the pool. “I just want to give you a heads-up about kindergarten. There probably won’t be any kids in your class who have two moms. Are you okay with that? Do you want to talk about this?”
“I’m okay with that,” he said. He was looking out the window at a point along the road where, a week earlier, we had spotted a huge snake.
“I just want to tell you,” I said casually, switching on my left-turn signal, “it’s possible that since it’s a new school and nobody knows you, kids will ask you why you have two moms. They might even say it’s weird.”
“It is kind of weird,” Ray answered, cheerfully.
“Right,” I said. There was a long silence, and then he said something that was so mature, so grown-up and perspicacious and adorable and endearing, my eyes welled up with tears and I almost drove into a wood chipper on the side of the road.
“They might say it’s weird,” he said. “But I would say, ‘You should just come to my house. Then you can meet my mama and my mommy. Then they would say, “It’s not so weird.'”
Eventually my son will learn to read, and perhaps when he’s a teenager he will need to enter into psychoanalysis because so many hallmarks of children’s literature were altered to suit a political bias, but by then I am counting on him to be old enough to understand that I was aiming for the greater good.
And I’ll have gotten through the formative years with him thinking there are a lot more interesting and exciting characters that had two mommies. Or two Daddies. Even if they happened to be raccoons or mice.
Our son knows that he has two mothers and that in real life most people do not have two mothers. He’s actually probably a little confused that there are so many of them in the literature, now that I think about it. But at this point in his life to make a bigger deal of it, to suggest that gays are some kind of subgroup, would confuse him. We were listening to Free to Be You and Me in the car the other day, and he asked me why William’s father was so angry that William wanted a doll. He had no idea that a boy wanting a doll could be a problem for anyone.
Which is why I have never read him Heather has Two Mommies.