I have more than 1,000 books in my classroom library, cobbled together from garage sales, used bookstores, and the collections of former students who have outgrown their picture books. As a social justice educator, I try to fill my primary classroom library with books that feature characters from a variety of cultures, traditions, classes, and backgrounds. And yet, despite my efforts, I’m dismayed by how many of the thoughtful, well-written books in my collection feature the nuclear family unit, be it human or animal. Even my favorite authors default to the nuke.
Kevin Henkes is a perennial favorite in primary classrooms across the country. The mice that populate his books cope with universal struggles of young children—separation anxiety, teasing, loneliness, empathy. Unfortunately, Henkes’ books present something else as universal as well: a doting mother and father plus a sibling or two waiting at home to soothe and support the struggler.
Trudy Ludwig has written an excellent collection of books, including Trouble Talk and Sorry!, that dig into the power dynamics among children and offer strategies on how a child can transition from being a target to a self-advocate—with a little help from Mom, Dad, and brother in a tidy, suburban home. The message of empowerment is a noble and essential one, which is why I read these books to my class every year. But another message is being conveyed as well when these books are read back to back: two-parent heterosexual families are the norm.
When a book does acknowledge the existence of other family structures, the difference is often the focus of the story—how Addison has two fancy houses instead of one in Tamara Schmitz’s Standing on My Own Two Feet: A Child’s Affirmation of Love in the Midst of Divorce. If you want to read a story featuring children in foster care, you’ll have to look long and hard for anything other than guides for making the transition in or out of care. It takes a lot of work to find books that include same-gender parents, step-parents, foster or adoptive children, or other nontraditional families as background in an adventure tale, a friendship parable, or a holiday romp; nontraditional families are either the topic of the story or, more likely, not included at all.
When two-parent, heterosexual families are presented as the norm in story after story, year in and year out, an insidious message is conveyed: Families that don’t conform to this structure are not normal. And, of course, the message is reinforced in the majority of movies and television shows geared toward children. Shame, secrecy, and evasion can result from this incessant messaging.