Queer Elders and Grandparents Star in New Picture Books

Queer Elders and Grandparents Star in New Picture Books
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There have been very few picture books featuring queer elders and grandparents, but several new ones are adding to the list!

Roger and Matthew

Roger and Matthew, by Canadian singer/songwriter Michel Theriault (Fitzhenry & Whiteside), is a poetic, gentle story about the lives of a retired, White, two-man couple. “Everyone in the village knows them. They are part of the neighborhood,” we read. They have known each other since elementary school and “don’t need words to understand each other.” They live in a home with sunlight, flowers, and “sleepy cats.”

They are “two kind gentlemen,” but “because they were different people were often mean to them and sometimes hurt them”—nevertheless, “they weathered these storms with pride and courage.” Now, they are happy and their home is full of love. They are kind, we read again, and the book concludes, “Roger and Matthew are in love.” The story was originally a song called “Roger et Mathieu,” from Thériault’s album Drôle d’oiseau. It then became a picture book in French, Ils sont…, which was translated by Pamela Doll to create this version.

Although bias against the couple is mentioned, the focus is on the happiness they found together and on their quiet strength. Magali Ben’s limited-palette watercolor illustrations are simply gorgeous, perfectly capturing the quiet tone of the words and the everyday details of the couple’s life together. This is a beautiful story with a vision of growing old as a same-sex couple that we rarely see. There’s no indication of the men ever raising children, but nevertheless, children with same-sex grandparents as well as queer children wondering what their future might look like may particularly appreciate it. Having said that, this tender story should be enjoyed by all.

Katy Has Two Grampas

Katy Has Two Grampas, by Julie Schanke Lyford and Robert A. Schanke, with illustrations by Mariia Luzina (Wise Ink), takes its title fairly obviously from Lesléa Newman’s classic Heather Has Two Mommies, but is based on an incident that happened to Lyford’s own daughter (and Schanke’s granddaugher) Katy. Katy, a White first-grader who has a lisp, is often misunderstood by her classmates and teacher, but is excited about inviting her grampas to school on Grandparents’ Day. When Katy draws a picture and tells her teacher that it is of her grampa and grampa, however, her teacher tries to convince her that she meant to say “grandpa and grandMA.” Katy becomes upset and decides she doesn’t want them to come to class with her after all, since she doesn’t want to introduce them in front of the class and be misunderstood. Her big sister explains to the teacher that their grampas are “married to EACH OTHER,” and the teacher apologizes and says that both men are welcome.

On the day of the event, Katy summons her courage and announces, “These are my grampas and know what? They’re married … TO EACH OTHER.” At the end, her grampas praise her and say they’ll take her out for ice cream. The narrative could use a little tightening—it feels a little wordy for a book with a first-grade protagonist—but this is an earnest and heartfelt story that many should like for its depiction of a two-grandfather couple.

Like so many other picture books with same-sex relatives, though, it emphasizes a child getting upset when someone misunderstands about her family (in this case compounded by the teacher’s assumption that Katy’s lisp is the problem), even if the situation later resolves happily. For children who really encounter such questioning of their family structures, such books can offer comfort—but when so many picture books with queer characters have similar storylines, one may long for more stories in which the characters’ queerness is only incidental and doesn’t have to be explained. Nevertheless, it’s great to see one more story among the very few with queer grandparents.

On the promotional site for Katy Has Two Grampas, in fact, the authors say it is “The first children’s book featuring married gay grampas.” It is not, however, the first children’s book to feature a two-grandfather couple. Heather Smith’s A Plan for Pops (Orca, 2019) includes two grandfathers who are obviously a couple, settled into a routine indicative of a long relationship—and the publisher’s website clearly tags the book as having LGBTQ content. True, A Plan for Pops never uses the term “married” to refer to the men—but to see their relationship as anything less than a marriage seems disingenuous. (My full review here.) Additionally, David Hyde Costello’s Little Pig Saves the Ship (Charlesbridge, 2017), also includes a two-grandfather couple; their coupledom is less obvious here (so count it or not as you wish), but Costello confirmed it in a 2017 radio interview. There is power in words, though, and some readers may prefer the explicit ALL CAPS reference in Katy that the grandfathers are married to each other; those looking for a story in which the same-sex relationship doesn’t lead to a misunderstanding may favor the other titles. (Or try them all and see which resonate with you.)

Grandad's Camper

Grandad’s Camper, by Harry Woodgate, an upcoming book from the partnership between GLAAD and Little Bee Books, also depicts a two-grandfather couple. (It comes out April 6 but is available for preorder). Every summer, a child (with brown skin and dark brown hair) goes to stay with her grandad (who is White) by the sea. Her favorite activity is hearing his stories of the “tall and handsome” Gramps (who has brown skin and black hair) and how they explored the world in their camper. Woodgate’s lush illustrations take us with them through cities and jungles, and show us the loving, fun relationship between the two men and between the girl and Grandad.

The child observes that she can see “how much he loved Gramps.” She asks why Grandad doesn’t go anywhere now, and he replies, “Since Gramps died, I just don’t feel like it.” The girl then convinces him to fix up the camper with her. Grandad suggests they pack some snacks and go camp on the beach, just like he and Gramps used to. And so they do.

I like this sweet story a lot. I do wonder, however, about the entire scope of their family. The girl visits Grandad during the summer, so she presumably lives with her parent or parents the rest of the year. We can assume that one of those parents is the child of Grandad and Gramps. We hear and see nothing about those parents in the story, however. Did Gramps die before Grandad even became a father? If so, it feels a little odd (though not completely out of the question) that the girl would call him Gramps, since her parent on that side of the family would probably not even have called him father. If Gramps and Grandad became parents together, however, and Gramps died after their child(ren) grew up, one might assume they’d have used the camper to take trips with their child(ren). In that case, one might think there would have been at least one mention or image of that in the story. Maybe Gramps died after their child(ren) came into the family but before they were old enough to go traveling with them? Did that mean Grandad raised his child(ren) as a single dad during a time when such things were even less common than they are now? If so, all credit to him for that. In a book of this length, I know one can’t go into too many background details, but I would have loved to see just a hint of the family thread—the “love through the generations” touted on the back cover.

Perhaps I’m wanting too much here. Readers may prefer filling in the gaps of the story with their own imaginations. (Clearly, it sparked mine.) Regardless, this is a lovely story about the relationship between a girl and her grandfather and how people in a family continue to have an impact even after they are gone. Gramps is shown on many pages together with Grandad; this isn’t a case of making their relationship invisible (though there’s a different sort of impact in seeing a child interacting with both grandparents in a same-sex couple, as in some of the stories mentioned above). A rainbow flag waving from the camper (on the cover and one interior page), and a pink triangle on Grandad’s shirt in images from his younger days mark this as a queer-inclusive book without making it “about” being queer, which is terrific.

There are only a few other books I know of that include queer grandparents: George Parker’s Bell’s Knock Knock Birthday (Flamingo Rampant, 2017), in which a child welcomes their nonbinary “Grandmani” to a party, and j wallace skelton’s The Last Place You Look (Flamingo Rampant, 2017), set at a Passover seder hosted by a two-bubbie (grandmother) couple. Clearly the queer grandfathers have a slight numerical edge overall; let’s hope we soon see some more about queer grandmothers and nonbinary grandparents, too. Very often, as Grandad’s Camper makes clear, elders and grandparents are the storytellers of the family (or of the community). Surely there are even more stories they could be telling us.

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