(Originally published as my Mombian newspaper column. The Jewish holiday of Purim begins this year on the evening of Saturday, February 23.)
It is a truism in the LGBT community to say that we need LGBT-inclusive children’s books so our kids see images of families like theirs. Yet with few exceptions, LGBT-inclusive picture books have largely shown culturally and religiously neutral families. Diversity of color has started to appear, but even those books don’t explore the families’ various cultural and religious traditions. Kids may therefore see some important aspects of their families in these books, but others are left out. Elisabeth Kushner’s The Purim Superhero, the first clearly LGBT-inclusive Jewish children’s book in English, takes a different approach.
The book centers around a family with two dads celebrating the Jewish holiday of Purim, a commemoration of the deliverance of the Jews in the Persian Empire from a plot to destroy them. It grew out of a children’s book-writing contest hosted by Keshet, the national organization that works for the full inclusion of LGBTQ Jews. Kushner won the contest and earned publication by Kar-Ben Publishing, an award-winning publisher of Jewish children’s books. Illustrator Mike Byrne added cheerful images that enhance the tale.
Joni Sussman, the publisher at Kar-Ben who worked with Keshet to bring out the book, said in an e-mail interview that “Kar-Ben had long been interested in publishing a children’s book featuring a same sex Jewish family. . . . With both the Conservative and Reform movements [of Judaism] now recognizing gay marriage and more and more states recognizing gay marriages, we felt the time had certainly come for this story.” The Keshet contest provided them with the opportunity.
Kushner, a lesbian mom herself, was formerly a librarian at a Jewish day school. She explained at the Kar-Ben blog that she had long wanted to write about Purim, a holiday for costume wearing, song, and feasting—the perfect setting for a children’s book. There were few books showing the contemporary celebration of the holiday, in contrast with Hanukkah and Passover.
The Keshet contest gave her the idea of an LGBT angle. Part of the Purim tale involves Queen Esther, the wife of the Persian King Ahasuerus, revealing to her husband that she is a Jew, and convincing him not to heed his evil counselor Haman and kill all the Jews. Kushner said, “Purim is very much about ‘coming out’ as yourself—Esther is a great example of someone who comes out of the closet for a good cause—and I thought that would be a good setting for a book about a kid with gay parents.”
The book is less “about” having gay parents, though, and more about trying to remain true to oneself in the face of expectations and peer pressure. The protagonist, a boy named Nate, wants to dress up as an alien for Purim, but has doubts when he learns all of the other boys at his Hebrew school will be dressing up as superheroes. He asks his dads for advice, and they tell him, “Not all boys have to be the same thing.” Nate’s solution to the problem is original, yet feels like something a real boy would do.
Kushner wisely avoids a heavy-handed analogy about being from a gay family. She includes the one line, “Nate thought about how most kids had a mom and a dad, not a Daddy and an Abba,” but does not dwell on it. The dads use Queen Esther herself, not their own family, to convince Nate that being different is okay—and Nate himself worries more over his different costume choice than his family structure. Readers will likely draw the parallels, but it is to Kushner’s credit that she incorporates many aspects of difference rather than focusing on the gay one.
Although this is her first children’s book, Kushner avoids the new-writer trap of having her characters simply plod through a sequence of actions till the end. She packs a problem, character development, and solution into about 30 kid-friendly pages.
Kushner also avoids trying too hard to prove that gay families are just like any others. She celebrates difference rather than touting sameness—while at the same time, depicting a two-dad family as an accepted part of a deep religious and cultural tradition.
Kar-Ben’s Sussman noted, “We especially liked this particular story because it wasn’t a didactic tale about a family with two dads but rather a really engaging Purim story that happened to take place in a same sex family in a very natural way. We think this story will be read by LGBT and straight families alike.”
That, perhaps, is the best thing about The Purim Superhero. Everyone can benefit from its message. Not only will it delight Jewish gay and lesbian families, but by being more about the Jewish tradition than about being gay, it may also appeal to straight Jewish families. It may even attract some straight, non-Jewish families who like its message that, as Nate’s Abba puts it, “Sometimes showing who you really are makes you stronger, even if you’re different from other people.”
We need more LGBT-inclusive books like this, from many different traditions. They will help us show our children the interwoven aspects of their families and show others that LGBT families are tied to our wider communities and cultures.
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