LGBT-Inclusive Kids’ Music Hits a High Note

dottie_seashell(Originally published with slight variation as my Mombian newspaper column.)

Nothing warms a gay or lesbian parent’s heart like seeing representations of our families in children’s media. Two new kids’ CD’s set those representations to music.

The first, The Super Secret Seashell Cave, is an audio-only album by the team that produced Dottie’s Magic Pockets, the first live-action DVD for kids with lesbian and gay parents and their friends. (See my review of the DVD here.) Seashell brings back the fun-loving cast of the DVD, including lesbian-mom Dottie and her puppet friends, to take children on a musical adventure in search of the eponymous cave. Along the way, they meet new friends, including a squeaky squirrel, a beetle with two moms, and a monkey adopted by a baboon.

Creator and writer Tammy Stoner developed the storyline from a tale she made up for her own six-year-old son. There is little specifically “about” lesbian or gay families in it, although there are clear gay and lesbian characters. In this way, however, the album avoids the pedantry of Suzi Nash’s Rainbow Sprinkles, an earlier (2005) CD for kids with lesbian and gay parents, which includes lines like, “It doesn’t matter that my moms are gay/’Cause they’re the best in town.’” Rather than feeling like a “special” album for kids of gay and lesbian parents that still sets them apart, Seashell feels like what the whole next generation of children’s music should sound like—inclusive, fun, and revealing of the society around us.

Actor Jen Plante, who plays Dottie, explains, “We’re really just trying to reflect the world that exists for kids right now. There are kids from different families who play together and go to school together. It’s simple. It’s not this big heavy-handed message.”

Stoner adds that while they have screened the DVD to great response at LGBT film festivals and on two R Family cruises, many screenings have also been hosted by “traditional” families. She says lesbian- and gay-inclusive children’s media is just as needed, if not more so, by those families, “not for seeing their own images, but for explaining to their kids about the parents in their children’s classes, and about their other family members.” She also notes she is trying to reach out to the adoption community, both gay and straight, who likewise need more images to reflect their lives.

Outreach and wide distribution is more possible with a CD than a DVD, she asserts. Indeed, the CD builds upon the standout feature of the DVD, composer Allyson Newman’s music. With its catchy beats, clever lyrics, and light educational elements (e.g., counting by fives), it holds its own against any of the mass-marketed children’s music around.

The one song that touches most overtly on family structure, “Who’s In Your Family?” speaks of many types of families: gay, straight, single-parented, and more. If it feels a little anthemic, it is kept from cloying by silly lines like, “Who’s in your family? One dad or three aunts/ Who’s in your family? A rooster who wears pants.” One need only imagine a group of LGBT families and friends singing the song together on an R Family cruise or other LGBT gathering to realize that anthems, after all, are written for a reason.

The other new album, singer-songwriter Susan Howard’s Warm Sun, has a very different tone. It is a collection of disparate songs by a single artist, not a musical story with an ensemble cast. Songs like “Big Girl Bed” skew it towards a slightly younger audience than that of Seashell.

Howard, a lesbian mom who was taught guitar by Dan Zanes (before he began his own epic career in children’s music), has created songs about everyday life that range from soothing to rockin’. Three of the album’s twelve songs are explicitly about gay or lesbian families: “Hanging with My Moms,” “Daddy, Papa, and Me,” and “I’m Adopting a Brother,” which features a two-dad family. (Single-parent families may feel a bit left out, though.) As with Stoner and Plante, Howard says she wanted to go light on the messaging, and instead focus on “cool songs that were upbeat and fun for kids to jump around to.”

In that, she has succeeded. Her bouncy approach in the song about adoption is a particularly refreshing change from the sappiness often associated with media about the topic. The almost-punk “Pretzel Eater” is perfect for young rockers. (“I’m Invincible,” however, while an inspiring song about self-confidence, also contains the line, “I’m invincible . . . Even strangers want to be near me,” which seems ill-advised.)

The press release for Warm Sun calls it “the first children’s CD for gay families.” That’s simply not true, though, given Nash’s 2005 album. (See above.) Both Warm Sun and Seashell represent a step forward in gay- and lesbian-inclusive kids’ media, however, by focusing on the fun that could happen in any family (some of whom have lesbian and gay members), rather than on “lessons” which often seemed designed to counter negatives that some children may not even have run into yet.

I should note, too, that even if they don’t bill themselves as “for LGBT families,” there are children’s musicians such as the duo Erin Lee Kelly and Marci Applebaum, who have long made a point of being gender-vague when they sing about parents in order to appeal to a wide range of children (and who do a monthly guest post here at Mombian). The pair even gained a repeat spot on the R Family cruises on the strength of their “Fine By Me,” about accepting different types of families.

The Dottie franchise, however, building on its existing fan base, could very well become the first gay and lesbian-inclusive children’s media phenomenon. “It’s been this whole second life,” says Plante about playing Dottie. “I’m on Facebook [as Dottie], I’m e-mailing kids all over the world. It’s been crazy. We have this little teeny-tiny DVD and I’m getting notes from people all the time. I feel very lucky to be a part of it.”

We’re lucky to have Dottie.

Purchase The Super Secret Seashell Cave from dottiesmagicpockets.com and Warm Sun from thenextfamily.com.