I love reading The Tiger Who Came to Tea with my daughter. It’s got just the right amount of threat and jeopardy to be exciting but it's not scary, and the simple rhythmic language trips off the tongue. It’s also the perfect length for a tired parent. But I know I’m not alone in adapting the text each time I read it so “Daddy’s beer” becomes “Daddy and Mummy’s beer”, and “Daddy’s dinner” becomes “the dinner”. Judith Kerr wrote this book in 1968 and among other classics of its generation it is a reflection of the time. These books have endured because their deeper themes still resonate. So many of the classic picture books on our shelves portray a very different kind of life to the reality of today, but then they also depict talking teddies, friendly monsters, and ice-cream-eating caterpillars, so we are used to suspending our disbelief.
It's one thing accepting that books written for children almost 50 years ago may be lacking the kind of diversity we are used to seeing in our lives today. But I’ve struggled to find many books at all that reflect my family, or indeed the reality of family in 2022.
'There are lots of passionate people across publishing and bookselling working hard to drive change, and it feels as though there is real momentum at last,' says Joe Marriott, a publisher at Penguin Random House Children’s division. 'There haven’t been enough Black characters front and centre in picture books. In 2021 Puffin published Dapo Adeola’s incredible book Hey You! created with the help of 18 Black illustrators: a celebration of growing up Black for young readers. It’s powerfully moving to see children react to seeing themselves and their families centred when often they’ve been depicted on the side lines, and to see talented Black creators building their picture-book careers.'
My wife and I seek out books that feature black and brown families for my daughter, because when they’re not about talking animals, all the 'classics' are about white children. And I’ve found many brilliant ones. It’s also reassuring that so many of my daughter’s favourite TV shows and her associated heroes are not white (Jo Jo and Gran Gran, Gabby’s Dolls House, Doc McStuffins, to name a few).
But what I’m still struggling to find is books that reflect LGBTQ+ families, or indeed any other kind of family makeup beyond Mum and Dad.
Joe Marriott explains, 'There have long been LGBTQ+ authors and illustrators working in the picture-book world, but that hasn’t necessarily translated into stories that feature LGBTQ+ characters and families. There have certainly been independent publishers and passionate creators making books that have reached readers who sought them out. Widespread visibility has been a real problem.' He mentions books such as Gareth Peter and Garry Parsons’s My Daddies and The Pirate Mums by Jodie Lancet-Grant and Lydia Corry. But these are few and far between. Marriott says, 'Children need to see themselves reflected in the stories they read, but they also need to see and connect with other people’s experiences, to help build empathy. These books are for everyone – and there’s a real appetite from all kinds of families for books that show the world as it really is.'
I grew up under the shadow of Section 28, a policy which made it illegal for schools to 'promote homosexuality'. This meant teachers couldn’t even mention the existence of gay people or LGBTQ+ relationships without risking their careers. Every single book on our syllabus centred around heterosexuality, until we studied Oranges are Not the Only Fruit for A-Level and I realised I was gay (see what promoting that lesbian agenda did!) The law was abolished in 2003, which to some extent accounts for the dire lack of books for children celebrating queer families.
My wife bought one book assuming it would be full of LGBTQ+ families as it was called something like Different Families and promised to show all the diverse kinds of families there are around the world. There weren’t any same sex parents in the entire book. We were outraged. But instead of taking it back to the shop, my wife got a pen and drew longer hair on some of the Dads so when we read it to our daughter she can see her parents among the examples of what makes a family.
We shouldn’t have to be doing this. And it’s why I wrote my own picture book My Magic Family__, which is published by Puffin this month. It’s about a little girl with two mums who shares her family story with her school class and discovers that her friends’ families are different in their own way too. Through fantasy and magic the children describe their home life and thanks to the incredible illustrations in the book by Sharon Davey, we see a little boy raised by his superhero Gran, a warrior princess single Mum, a Merman single Dad, an adopted child with two (wizard) Dads, divorced co-parents who each live in one of a giant’s boots (just go with it) and a pirate step-Mum.
I wanted the story to be playful and full of joy, rather than ‘issues-based’ as some books exploring similar themes can be. And while a child with two Mums is the protagonist, there are so many other kinds of families encountered in the book I really hope it will appeal to everyone.
My book comes out at a particularly politically charged time. When the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law in certain states in the US is prohibiting the discussion of LGBTQ+ families and relationships in schools, it feels more important than ever that My Magic Family is out and proud and being read by as many children as possible. And it’s not just in the US where books and their authors are being censored. Just this year, gay YA author Simon Green was uninvited from a World Book Day talk at a school in Croydon as some of his books featured LGBTQ+ characters. There was a massive backlash and teachers voted to go on strike over the decision, which just goes to show how out of step these archaic ideas about ‘protecting’ kids from the existence of anything other than heterosexuality are with what most educators and parents actually believe.
I really hope My Magic Family starts some important conversations with children and the adults in their lives. After reading the book to my daughter’s nursery class I was expecting some difficult questions, but “Why does that boy live in a giant’s boot?” and then, “I want to live in a shoe!" and then “But shoes are smelly”, was what the conversation descended into. It was hilarious and brilliant that they were more interested in the magic element of the story than they were surprised that someone has two Mums. This they accept and understand with the wisdom of little lives untainted by politics.
My Magic Family by Lotte Jeffs, illustrated by Sharon Davey is out now