Two women are raising a child together. The child's class at school is doing a unit on families, so the mothers of this child gather a few of their favourite picture books that feature same-sex parents, and they go in to talk to the teacher. They tell her that since the class is learning about families, these books might be of interest as a way of representing family types other than the traditional one-mum-and-one-dad set-up. The teacher nods and thanks them.
When the child comes home later that day, the books are in her backpack. "Did your teacher read these books to the class?" the mothers wonder. "What did people think?"
The child says no, they didn't read the books.
When the mothers talk to the teacher again, they find out that she doesn't think it is appropriate or relevant to the class to look at these books. After all, as far as she knows, all the other kids have one mother and one father.
Meanwhile, a different lesbian couple in the same city is also raising children. But they don't own any books at all that depict same-sex parents. When questioned about this, one of the mothers shrugs and says, "Because my kids can see their lesbian mothers at home. They don't need to read about it, too."
And as a final story, once while I am giving a lecture about LGBTQ literature for children, someone in the audience tells me with some astonishment that he had no idea that there were books like this. He seems thrilled when I recommend a few texts that he might enjoy reading with his kids. Previously, they'd only read books with heterosexual pairings.
All of these anecdotes reveal something about families with two (or more) parents of the same sex. Sometimes queer parents aren't aware that they can buy or borrow books that depict families like theirs. Sometimes they are aware of it, but don't see the need. And sometimes they are aware of it and own some of these books but still have to face prejudice from others. Or even from the books themselves.
None of these situations is ideal, obviously.
Children who have queer parents but who don't see families like theirs represented in literature (or in movies or on TV) might start to get an erroneous impression about the way the world works. They might begin to think that their family is unique, and therefore strange and unacceptable. They might feel alone. They might think that they and their parents are abnormal or disgusting. They might wonder why they had to grow up in such a weird family. They might worry about what having two mothers or two fathers means for them and their future.
These potential problems are compounded by the fact that some of the two-mum or two-dad books that do exist are rife with stereotypes, so a child might get incorrect messages about queerness. For example, a rather high percentage of queer picture books tends to show these parents only in butch-femme pairings, as though there are no other types of gay or lesbian relationships. Often, the pictures will show one mum with short hair, trousers, and a flat chest, and the other mum in a dress, with a curvy figure and long hair. The text might describe one dad as teaching the kids how to cook and do art, while the other dad fixes things around the house and washes the car. Encouraging young readers to think that queer pairings come with one butch and one femme in turn strengthens the incorrect assumption that all couples - regardless of sexuality - include one "male" and one "female".
Meanwhile, the stories are often what I term "confirmation of normality" tales. They emphasise over and over that really, no, truly, same-sex parents are just as good, just as loving, just as kind, just as normal as heterosexual parents. The children in these books fret about having gay parents or they are bullied in school or made fun of by friends or neighbours, and finally they are told that everything is okay with their families after all. Perhaps this sounds sweet, but actually I think it raises more questions than it answers. Why not just show same-sex parents and their kids getting on with their lives? They know they're a queer family, and they don't have any issues with it. So why should the texts keep banging on about how they really, really, honestly, definitely are normal?
While there are some good LGBTQ books for queer parents and their kids, there aren't enough. So consider this a call to action. Pick up your pens (or turn on your computers) and write some great books that aren't stereotyped and that are about something more than the parents being LGBTQ. There's a lot more out there than just butch and femme.
Note: If you want to try your hand at writing LGBTQ children's lit, come along to a workshop at the wonderful Gay's the Word bookstore in London on 26 January at 12.30 pm. For more info, visit the Facebook page here