This Year, Penguins: Next Year, Guinea Pigs?

For the second year in a row, the children’s book And Tango Makes Three, about two male penguins who care for an egg and raise a chick together, tops the list of the American Library Association’s (ALA) 10 Most Challenged Books.

Personally, I think the guinea pigs will give them a run for their money in 2008 (not that I wish censorship on this or any book). Herewith, my full review of Uncle Bobby’s Wedding, a new LGBT-inclusive children’s book that I’ve mentioned in a few previous posts. I also speak with author Sarah Brannen and her editor, who discuss, among other things, the reaction to the book so far and their feelings about potential censorship.

Fur Better or Worse: Gay Guinea Pigs Wed in New Children’s Book
(Originally published at After Elton, March 25, 2008)

Uncle Bobby's WeddingUncle Bobby’s Wedding, by Massachusetts author and illustrator Sarah Brannen, is more than just a good LGBT-inclusive children’s book; it is a good children’s book, period. Like 2005’s And Tango Makes Three, about two male penguins who hatch an egg together, it is likely to garner critical praise as well as ultra-right censorship.

Uncle Bobby moves us from feathers to fur, however, and tells the sweet story of Chloe, an anthropomorphic young guinea pig who worries that Uncle Bobby won’t keep having fun with her after he marries his boyfriend Jamie. Uncle Bobby explains that their special times together will not end; Chloe will not be losing an uncle, but gaining one. The book ends at the wedding, with Chloe as the enthusiastic flower girl.

Written from Chloe’s perspective, Uncle Bobby deftly expresses a young child’s concerns about family relationships and change. It stresses the power of love to encompass both old and new. Brannen’s rich watercolor drawings match the tranquil but sometimes playful tone of the text. She has filled the guinea pigs’ world full of trees, flowers, lakes, and cozy firesides. One can see why she cites Beatrix Potter as an artistic influence, though Brannen’s characters seem somehow more cheerful.

The book’s great strength is that Jamie’s gender is a non-issue throughout. Unlike many older LGBT-themed children’s books, such as Heather Has Two Mommies, it doesn’t focus on a child struggling against negative views of her family. That approach has value for some, but Uncle Bobby indicates it is now possible to present a same-sex relationship without the need to defend it or compare it, however favorably, with a heterosexual norm. (Even the excellent And Tango Makes Three contrasts the same-sex penguin pair with the usual opposite-sex couples.) This leaves Brannen free to concentrate on her other themes, and opens up the book to a wider audience.

The theme of a niece questioning her gay uncle’s devotion is not a new one, however. Mini Mia and her Darling Uncle, by Pija Lindenbaum (R & S Books), appeared in the U.S. in late 2007 as a translated Swedish import. (Uncle Bobby was already at the publisher.) Like Chloe, four-year-old Mini Mia is jealous of her uncle’s new beau. She acts out in retaliation, pouring sugar on the boyfriend’s shoes and throwing his towel in the pool, but ends up bonding with him over their shared love of soccer. Mini Mia stops short of marriage, though. Mischievous children may find more humor in Mini Mia’s antics than in Chloe’s, but parents may prefer Uncle Bobby for its calm pacing.

Brannen says her mellow tone was deliberate. “I felt that I wanted to handle the story very delicately, because I really wanted this to be as accessible to as many people as possible. I mean, yes, there are two men getting married, but apart from that, I didn’t want to put anything in that might bother someone. I tried to keep it family friendly and reflective of my own life. I didn’t want anything someone could make a nasty joke about.”

The book is far from somber, however; adults and children may both smile when Chloe gets soda up her nose laughing at Jamie’s ballet imitation. Still, there is a serenity about it that makes it a perfect bedtime read.

Uncle Bobby is the first book Brannen both wrote and illustrated, although she has worked as an illustrator for many years. She did not, however, set out to write a book about a same-sex relationship.

In the spring of 2005, she was trying to write a story of her own for her five-year-old niece, who was fascinated with weddings. Marriage equality had just become law in Massachusetts. “This was in the news a lot, and I kept seeing such joyful couples,” Brannen explains. A young gay couple with whom she was friends would also talk to her about the garden wedding they dreamed of having. “It hit me one day: I’m going to make it a same-sex wedding. It wrote itself at that point.”

Why guinea pigs? Brannen wanted a species whose coloring would indicate Bobby and Jamie were both male. Birds, however, “look silly in clothes,” she says. She finally chose guinea pigs, which she had raised as a child. “They have these fat little bodies like water balloons with little legs. I thought they would look funny and cute walking around on their hind legs.”

She departed from nature, though, and arbitrarily colored the females brown and males black and white. “I decided not to make them terribly realistic. I wanted just to create fat little furry people.”

Brannen paid attention to certain details, however, such as making sure the wedding guests included both same- and opposite-sex couples. “I didn’t want to make a big, huge deal out of it,” she says, “but I certainly thought this is part of the little world they live in.”

Tim Travaglini, the senior editor at G. P. Putnam Sons who first saw her drawings, was impressed. “It’s such a pitch-perfect picture-book story,” he says. “That it treats the uncles getting married as such an incidental facet of the story, I thought was really gutsy, and exactly as it should be. We weren’t looking for an issues book at all; it just was a wonderful little children’s book. The fact that it breaks all these molds was all the more appealing.” Putnam, an imprint of children’s-publishing powerhouse Penguin Young Readers Group, made Brannen an almost immediate offer.

The weight of a major publisher is notable. The American Library Association’s new Rainbow List of LGBT-inclusive books for children and young adults includes six picture books for the youngest readers. All but And Tango Makes Three, published by Simon & Schuster, are from small presses.

The six are only a small fraction of the total 45, furthermore, indicating it is still difficult to publish books with LGBT themes for this age range. Nel Ward, chair of the Rainbow List committee, said in a phone interview “I think censorship is a huge issue. And Tango Makes Three was the most censored book in 2006 according to ALA. It’s just been removed from a library in the south, and there seems to be a struggle every time something like this comes out. I think for that reason, mainstream publishers are perhaps more hesitant to publish these books.”

Putnam, however, was willing to take a chance. Travaglini says “The publisher, Nancy Paulson, was immediately for it, very much for the same reasons I was. There’s something gutsy about the whole thing, in its treatment of [same-sex marriage], and that appealed to us. Frankly, nobody balked.”

So far, report Brannen and Travaglini, the public reception has been positive. One need only look at the many attempts to remove Tango and other LGBT-inclusive books from schools and libraries, however, to know that Uncle Bobby is in for a bumpy ride. Supporters of Uncle Bobby cannot fall back on the explanation that it is a true tale of real animals, as with Tango. The use of the term “marriage,” moreover, could be incendiary even to those who would concede some limited rights to same-sex couples.

Travaglini says he is ready for a firestorm. “In a very aggressive way, I welcome it. I sympathize with the folks on the front lines fighting that kind of censorship, but I’ll be happy with anything that draws attention to what I feel is a very unique, very special book, that really deserves to have the widest possible audience know about it, judge it for themselves, and hopefully fall in love with it the way we have.”

If they do, Brannen already has a sequel in mind. “They will adopt a child in the sequel,” she says, “so I will expand the story into a family. I’d love to do even another book after that.”

Whether the sequel ever sees print will depend largely on the success of Uncle Bobby. Putnam is marketing it through the usual publishing trade journals and targeted lists of LGBT media and organizations, but Travaglini says word of mouth is key. “Above and beyond the average book, we feel that folks who have a specific interest in it are going to take the book and run with it, and announce it to their communities and audiences and have more impact that even the average book reviewer who is handling the promotion of books all the time.”

Sequel aside, Brannen has aspirations for Uncle Bobby’s Wedding. “I hope young children will pick it up and read it without having any preconception at all about the story, and have it become part of their landscape. I mean, same-sex marriage is legal in Massachusetts, so it’s not that I’m talking about anything weird anymore. I hope it becomes part of their world to them, that it seems normal, because to me, that’s what it is.”

Visit sarahbrannen.com for more about Brannen and Uncle Bobby’s Wedding.