New Picture Book by Gay-Inclusive Duo Is a “Beary” Fun Treat

The charming new book, The Very Beary Tooth Fairy, is not obviously gay-inclusive upon first read. But it contains a hidden gay surprise—and both the author, Arthur Levine, and the illustrator, Sarah Brannen, are known in the LGBT community for their gay-inclusive works. This, their first collaboration, is a sweet tale that any family with a young child will likely enjoy.

Levine is probably best known to the world as the U.S. editor of the Harry Potter series. He is a vice-president of Scholastic Inc. and publisher of his own imprint there, Arthur A. Levine Books. The gay dad also wrote Monday is One Day, a gay-inclusive (but not exclusive) poem from a working parent to a child (about which more here).

Brannen has illustrated many works as well as written and illustrated her own picture book, Uncle Bobby’s Wedding, about two anthropomorphic gay guinea pigs and their young niece. In 2009, it had the dubious honor of being on the American Library Association’s (ALA) Top Ten list of Most Frequently Challenged Books. (I did a long piece on its first challenge.) I’ve always liked it because it’s not about the uncles being gay, but rather about a young child’s feelings when she fears her favorite uncle won’t play with her anymore once he gets married. It’s a concern any child might have, regardless of the uncle’s orientation.

In Very Beary, little bear Zach has a loose tooth and a dilemma. He overhears a group of human campers talking about the tooth fairy. His mom has told him humans are “dangerous and unpredictable,” however—which makes him wonder whether the tooth fairy is human, and therefore “dangerous and unpredictable”, too.

When he asks his mom if the Tooth Fairy is bear or human, she replies, “a bear can be anyone, and anyone can be a bear,” a nice message of inclusion and possibility—but that doesn’t fully answer his question.

Levine and Brannen show the gentle interactions between Zach and his mom and between Zach and his friend Harrison the rabbit as they attempt to solve the puzzle. They depict a sometimes tense but ultimately loving relationship between Zach and his sister Leah that drives the conclusion. The story is exciting enough to keep young readers (or listeners) engaged, but soothing enough to make a good bedtime read.

Readers of Uncle Bobby will recognize Brannen’s watercolor style in Very Beary. Her illustrations do more than add pictures to Levine’s words, however. At the end, it is the pictures, not the words, which reveal the secret that adds magic to the tale.

Brannen is also to be commended for not defaulting to “White” in her depiction of the human family at the campsite. The mother and two of the children, including the one with a loose tooth, look Black, or maybe Latino; there are two White children with them who might be friends—or this could be an adoptive, multiracial family.

We never read of or see a father in the book, either for Zach or for the human children. Lesbian-headed families will thus likely find this book easy to incorporate into their bedtime reading.

There is, however, also a gay-dad surprise hidden right on the first page. In the book Zach’s mom is reading to him is a tiny image of two gay dads tucking their son into bed.

I asked Brannen about this, and she explained that she was trying to show why the mom had warned Zach about humans: “I decided that they were reading a sweet picture book about humans, and Zach was relating to them in a warm, affectionate way. It’s a parallel to a child reading about fuzzy bears and the mom warning him that real bears are dangerous.” She thought it would be fun to use a real book. Levine’s Monday Is One Day worked because there was no issue over copyright, and the original visuals (by Julian Hector) were large enough to be clear in Zach’s small copy.
Brannen added, “I chose the page with two dads mostly because it worked visually, although of course I am a fervent supporter of marriage equality.”

It’s great to see two people whose separate books I admire collaborate to create one together. It’s even better to see a book that has nothing to do with LGBT families include one of us in the background. We need to be in the foreground of more books, too, of course—but being in the background implies a certain level of acceptance that is significant as well.

Enjoy The Very Beary Tooth Fairy for its message of family love and the power of believing; its subtle spot of gay inclusion: and its cute and fuzzy bears.

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