There’s a new children’s book out featuring a same-sex couple getting married: Eric Ross’ My Uncle’s Wedding. ”Wait a minute,” some of you may say. “Wasn’t that book published a while back?” No, but a similar one about a same-sex couple getting married, Sarah Brannen’s Uncle Bobby’s Wedding, came out from Penguin Books in 2008. Therein lies the problem.
Both books feature a young child who learns that an uncle is getting married to his boyfriend. Both show the child helping the adults prepare for the weddings. Both of the weddings are held outside, with the child as part of the ceremony.
Ross told me in an e-mail that while he knew of Uncle Bobby’s Wedding, he has not read it himself. He also told me he was inspired by planning for his own wedding. I have no reason to doubt him, and I do not think there is deliberate plagiarism going on here. There are differences between the books, too: Uncle Bobby’s Wedding features anthropomorphic guinea pigs, with a young niece as the protagonist, whereas My Uncle’s Wedding shows cartoon humans, with a young nephew telling the tale.
At the same time, I find it incredibly disappointing that someone writing an LGBT-inclusive children’s book did not bother to study existing books in this genre, especially when they are relatively few in number. While new LGBT-inclusive children’s books are always a thing to celebrate, wouldn’t the LGBT community have been better served by a book that looks at a different aspect of our lives, or approaches it in a significantly different way?
My Uncle’s Wedding is definitely cute, with humorous moments of wedding planning and illustrations that are a step up from most self-published books about LGBT families. (Trust me. I’ve seen a lot of them.) In my mind, however, Uncle Bobby’s Wedding is the more captivating tale, primarily because it manages to portray character development in a way that is missing from My Uncle’s Wedding. Some may scoff at the idea of showing character development in picture-book length—but to my mind, that is what separates truly good children’s books from the rest.
In Uncle Bobby’s Wedding, young Chloe also asks about why her uncle is getting married, and is told, like Andy, “When grown-up people love each other that much, they want to be married.” Chloe does not simply accept this, however. She worries that her special Uncle Bobby will no longer have time for her once he is married. Bobby explains that this will not be the case. He and his fiancé Jamie then spend the day with Chloe, all having fun together. We see Chloe gradually realizing that two uncles are indeed better than one, and she eventually helps out with the wedding preparations. Her initial concern, and how it is mitigated, create the suspense and drive of the story, and make Uncle Bobby’s Wedding a better read for children who may indeed wonder how a relative’s marriage will change family relationships.
Near the beginning of My Uncle’s Wedding, Andy, too, asks “What does ‘getting married’ mean?” Like Chloe, he is told it is something two people do when they “really love each other, and decide they want to spend the rest of their lives together.” Andy does not respond one way or another to this, however, but instead jumps right to the idea that there will be a party involved. He then narrates the various activities related to planning the wedding—choosing food, flowers, cake, and suit—and the various activities at the wedding itself—including being a ringbearer, opening presents, and dancing. At the end, he says he is glad his uncle got married because he really loves his spouse, and because he (Andy) now has two uncles. Andy’s happiness over his uncle’s marriage was never in question, however, making the narrative arc rather flat, despite the humor throughout.
Don’t just take my word for it. I asked my seven-year-old son, who had read Uncle Bobby’s Wedding, to read My Uncle’s Wedding and tell me what he thought. I shared none of my own opinions beforehand, but suspected he might like the latter better, if only because it had a boy protagonist. On the contrary: he said he liked Uncle Bobby’s Wedding better because it was “more interesting.” He explained that in My Uncle’s Wedding, “The boy was just okay with the wedding. There was no problem or anything.” I asked if there was a problem for the niece in Uncle Bobby’s Wedding. Even though he hasn’t read the book in over a year, he remembered that she was worried her uncle wouldn’t play with her anymore. He added, “Books should have a problem they have to solve.” (I’m hanging up my hat. I’ll let him do the book reviews here from now on.)
If Ross was committed to doing a “child at uncle’s wedding” book, even after knowing of Uncle Bobby’s Wedding, he could have at least added some dramatic tension. Maybe the ring got lost and the nephew saved the day. Maybe he overcame stage fright to make a toast. Maybe he struggled to find the perfect gift. There are a myriad of possibilities that would have made the story more interesting and would have better distinguished it from Brannen’s book.
I should also mention that even Uncle Bobby was not the first picture book to look at the relationship between a child and a gay uncle. Mini Mia and her Darling Uncle, by Pija Lindenbaum, which appeared in the U.S. in late 2007 as a translated Swedish import, is also about a girl questioning her gay uncle’s devotion to her. (Uncle Bobby was already at the publisher then, so the similarity is coincidental.) 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 discussing marriage, though.
All of the books are to be commended for their unquestioning acceptance of same-sex relationships. There is no angst from anyone over the fact that the couples are gay—and this shows progress from the earlier generation of LGBT children’s books that often focused on a child struggling against negative views of her or his family. Such books have their place—but increasingly, so do those that show LGBT people and same-sex couples as a fact of everyday life.
It is always good to see more LGBT-inclusive children’s literature, and I commend Ross for his contribution. If I am critical of My Uncle’s Wedding, therefore, it is not because it is not a good book. It’s really not bad. It could have been better, however, by taking a different approach to the subject or by tackling a subject not already covered so recently. Particularly in such a small niche, variety is key—and necessary, if we are a community committed to diversity. My Uncle’s Wedding, as adorable and funny as it might be, doesn’t really open our horizons in that regard.
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