Alphabet Book Tries, But Doesn’t Quite Succeed, at Queer Inclusivity

Alphabet Book Tries, But Doesn't Quite Succeed, at Queer Inclusivity
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The promotional blurb for a new board book says that it “celebrates families in every single shape and size, no matter what they look like or whom they include!” Unfortunately, a few definitions will likely be showstoppers for many queer families, and many will not find themselves included, despite the promotional text.

An ABC of Families

I had hoped that An ABC of Families, by Abbey Williams and illustrated by Paulina Morgan (Frances Lincoln/Quarto), would be as good as the publisher’s 2019 title by Chana Ginelle Ewing, An ABC of Equality, an LGBTQ-inclusive alphabet book with simple explanations of various concepts related to social justice. Unfortunately, the new book falls rather short. I’ve offered some suggestions for changes below, since I want to show that a more fully inclusive approach is possible—but I welcome other people’s ideas, too, as there may be angles I’m not considering, either.

Let’s start with the letters D and M, for “Dad” and “Mom.” Each page tells us that some families have one dad/mom, some have two; others have stepdads/moms, and some have none. It’s great that they mention two-mom and two-dad families. Same-sex parents and single parents, not different-sex parents, are even shown in the images for these letters. Same-sex couples, male and female, are also shown under W for “Wedding.” So far so good.

And yet: The book also defines “Dads” as “the male parent” and “Moms” as “the female parent,” before telling us how each is there to support their children.  In an age of lesbian dads, gay dads who say “Just call me Mom,” transgender parents who may (or may not) stick with their original parental titles after transitioning, and various other permutations of parental titles and gender, tying a parental title to gender feels less than inclusive. I probably would have simply left out “the male [female] parent” on each page and perhaps said something like “Call them mom, mama, mother [“dad, papa, father”] or anything else, they love and support you….”

The definition of “Co-parenting” may not work for many queer families, either. It says: “Two people who live apart but parent their child together…. This might happen after parents decide to separate.” That’s one definition—but there are also families where, say, a two-mom couple and a child’s biological father (or the father and the father’s partner/spouse) are all parenting together. That’s three or four people, not two, who may or may not live together. Better might have been: “When adults who are not in a relationship with each other are parenting their child together.”

The page for “Pregnancy” tells us, “Some babies come from a mom and a dad. Sometimes a special helper called a surrogate grows the baby for the parents. Other babies are made with help from a doctor…. There are many ways to make a baby, but they all include pregnancy.” We see both a mom-dad and a two-mom couple in the image here, the former standing next to a pregnant woman who is presumably their surrogate. The page never tells us exactly what pregnancy is, however, or what the relevance of coming from a mom and a dad is. (Not to mention that some babies may come from two dads or two moms, without necessarily needing a doctor or surrogate, if one of them is transgender.) Perhaps better would have been simply: “All babies grow inside someone’s tummy. Sometimes this is their parent, sometimes it is a birth parent who gives them to other parents to adopt and raise, and sometimes it is a special helper called a surrogate.”

“Quadruplets” tells us that sometimes siblings “all grow inside their mom’s tummy together.” More inclusive of surrogates and pregnant transgender parents would have been “all grow inside a tummy together.”

“Siblings” is defined as “brothers and sisters.” We’re told, “You may have the same parents as your siblings, or they may be stepsiblings.” That’s not wrong, but to be more inclusive of nonbinary siblings, however, I might have combined those sentences and said that siblings are “brothers, sisters, or other people who share the same parents or stepparents.” We don’t need to leave out the terms “brothers” and “sisters,” since those are valid terms for some siblings—we just need to make room for others.

A few other definitions, while not specific to LGBTQ identities, also fall short. The definition of “Adoption” says, “When children are born to parents who aren’t able to care for them, they are given to adoptive parents.” The passive “they are given” takes away all agency from the adoptive parent and makes it sound like they never have any choice in the matter. While that is unfortunately sometimes true (and has often been tied to systemic racism and classism), many birth parents also spend much time thinking about whether to place their child with other parents, and when they do, it is a conscious act. “They may choose to give them to adoptive parents” feels better to me.

“Nuclear family” is defined as “Two parents and their children.” This may fit the technical definition of the term, but one has to wonder, when the American Psychological Association tells us “single parent families have become even more common than the so-called ‘nuclear family’ consisting of a mother, father and children” why nuclear families get a letter to themselves but single-parent families (though mentioned in passing on other pages) don’t. I might have used this letter instead for “Nonbinary parent,” in order to offset the binary nature of including only “Dad” and “Mom.”

I’m also not fond of the “Blended Family” image, which shows a white-skinned dad, brown-skinned mom, and two white- and two brown-skinned children. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with being an interracial family. I just worry that some children could mistakenly think that “blendedmeans “interracial,” even though the text tries to explain that a blended family is “when two parents make a new family with their children.” I would have made the members of this family be of similar skin tones, in order to avoid that possible misconception, and made one on another page an interracial family instead (though there are happily already many other interracial families in the book). Perhaps I’m just sensitive on this point because at least one other picture book, Kathryn Cole’s My Family, Your Family, also shows an interracial family for “Blended Family” (though in Cole’s case, there is no text definition whatsoever, making confusion even more likely). When multiple recent books depict blended families as being interracial, the chance that children will misunderstand the meaning of the term goes up further. (Again, though: I’m all for showing interracial families in other places, just not where children could learn erroneous terms to refer to them.)

Finally, the definition of “Lineage” is just wrong. It’s not “the different places your family comes from.” It’s the line of descent from an ancestor. (Or, in kid-friendly terms, maybe, “The connections linking you to your parent(s) and their parent(s), and all your other relatives, all the way back in time.”) The book is confusing “lineage” and “heritage.” (The latter term isn’t in the book.)

An ABC of Families tries to be inclusive of a wide variety of families, and it’s commendable that they include same-sex families in not just one, but several places. There are also lovely thoughts under entries for “Joy,” “Traditions,” “Unconditional Love,” and other sentiments. It just comes up short as a book for the full spectrum of LGBTQ families.

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