(I originally wrote this for my Mombian newspaper column. I’ve written longer reviews of most, but not all, of the books I mention in this piece—but here they are in one handy summary post.)
The year 2012 saw several notable books about LGBT parents and our children, including one for the often-ignored middle-grade readers, a young adult novel about two African American teens with a transgender dad, two memoirs (one by a gay dad, and another by the son of lesbian moms), and a fascinating history of LGBT family rights. They make better gifts than yet another “I Love My Mommies” t-shirt.
Jennifer Gennari’s debut novel My Mixed-Up Berry Blue Summer, one of few LGBT-inclusive books for the nine- to twelve-year-old age group, is about coming-of-age, coming out about one’s family, and baking pies. The protagonist, 12-year-old June Farrell, lives on the shores of Lake Champlain in Vermont with her mother and her mother’s soon-to-be fiancée, Eva. It is the summer of 2000, just after Vermont has approved civil unions for same-sex couples. June must deal not only with the skepticism and resentment any child with a new stepparent might have, but also with her local community’s not-always-positive response to the civil union law and the lesbian family in their midst.
I was initially skeptical about such a political theme, since many issue-driven books for children have been clunky and pedantic. Gennari avoids preachiness, however, by making civil unions only one of the many issues that June must grapple with during her summer (a pie-baking contest among them), and by showing the diversity of opinions on the matter within the community, within families, and even within individuals.
Despite the potentially heavy subject matter, she maintains a light, but never flippant, tone. Her heroine is thoughtful but not moody; spirited but not pollyannaish. Gennari fills the book with observant details of lakeside life, noting, for example, that blueberries are “foggy blue” but turn shiny when touched.
By setting the novel in 2000, not during more recent marriage equality debates, she also gives readers something that few other fiction writers have—a sense of the history of LGBT families.
Young adult novel Happy Families, by Tanita Davis, also deserves recognition for filling a gap where few books exist—in this case, because the book is from the perspective of children who father comes out as transgender. Not only that, but the family is African American, also a rarity in LGBT young adult books.
Davis won a prestigious Coretta Scott King Honor in 2010 for her earlier book Mare’s War. We thus expect to be in good hands, and we are. The story is told in alternating chapters from the perspectives of teen twins Ysabel and Justin, who remember how things were “before,” when their parents were together, and “after,” when they live apart and their father has come out. Davis does not hesitate to show how the twins struggle with this—Ysabel by throwing herself into her jewelry making, Justin by abandoning his college plans, and both by avoiding their friends. But after being forced to spend spring break with their father, when they go to family therapy and take a rafting trip with other transgender parents and their children, they begin to accept the changes in their family.
Davis, like Gennari, avoids preaching. She conveys information about transgender people, but in ways that feel right for the characters. It is their emotions, rather than the facts, that drive the story.
Dan Bucatinsky’s Does This Baby Make Me Look Straight?: Confessions of a Gay Dad is a hysterical romp through his children’s first few years, covering topics such as children’s bodily functions, keeping romance alive, competition between partners and other parents, and embarrassing travel incidents, as he seeks to make sense of parenthood and the personal transformations that come with it.
Among the amusing anecdotes, however, are also poignant observations about parenthood, gender, and human connection, making the book wise as well as witty.
Zach Wahls, author of the memoir My Two Moms: Lessons of Love, Strength, and What Makes a Family, likely needs no introduction. The former University of Iowa student burst into national fame in 2011 when his speech before the state House Judiciary Committee hearing on marriage equality went viral on YouTube. In the speech, he famously said that his mothers’ sexual orientation has had no effect on the content of his character.
In his book, the civil rights activist, speaker, and entrepreneur has expounded on how his mothers have influenced his character in other ways. He weaves stories of his childhood and family together with reasoned arguments in favor of lesbian and gay equality. It is a memoir with a healthy dose of social justice—or an argument for social justice backed by deep personal experience.
With its unthreatening, personable tone, and an underpinning of the best kind of persuasive rhetoric, it is the perfect book to act as a bridge between LGBT families and those who aren’t so sure about us. Both can learn much from it.
Rutgers University law professor Carlos Ball’s The Right to Be Parents: LGBT Families and the Transformation of Parenthood traces the 40 year history of the fight for LGBT parents to be openly LGBT and parents. Ball, a gay dad himself, explores the court cases that have led to the increased recognition and protection of LGBT-headed families. He focuses on the personal stories behind the lawsuits as much as on the legal arguments, though, creating a compelling work that will be of broad interest to more than just lawyers.
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