We asked Thalia Kehoe Rowden to put together a list of picture books showing a range of family set-ups, from one-parent families to families with two dads; anything but ‘Mum, Dad and the kids’. Here are some great suggestions to reflect the reality of family life for many thousands of Kiwi kids today.
Even in 2017, it is surprisingly difficult to find books that show children a family like theirs, if their household is anything other than Mum, Dad and the kids.
For a start, a huge number of children’s books are about animals. Another chunk banishes all adults so the kid characters can have unencumbered adventures.
Once you’ve found a selection of books that show human families in action, you will find it pretty tough to locate books featuring single-parent or blended families, same-sex parents, whānau living, or grandparents raising grandchildren.
Here’s a round-up of books that go beyond the nuclear family set-up, focussing on stories that are ‘about’ something else, with the family structure in the background, and majoring on recent picture books from Aotearoa New Zealand.
Authors and publishers, take note: I had to go beyond our shores to find a single book featuring same-sex parents or step-siblings.
As well as these titles, single parents will find a fair few other books where only one parent appears in the story. Likewise grandparents who are raising grandchildren will see their households reflected in some grandparent books that weren’t necessarily intended to depict that kind of family – ambiguity can be your friend.
We’d love to hear your favourites, and any we’ve missed!
Each of these books celebrates parents of all sizes and shades, but there are only dads in one and only mums in the other, so single-parent families should find plenty of scenarios to relate to. They’re both packed with friendly illustrations and visual jokes, and well worth a look.
‘Children of the Pacific‘ series by Jill McGregor (Puriri Paddocks)
Jill McGregor is a Kiwi producing vibrant photographic non-fiction books about everyday life in different parts of the Pacific. Many of the children in her books live with more than just their parents, including these three:
(Grandparents raising grandchildren; parents overseas)
When Seimelia’s parents are away studying in Fiji, she lives with her grandparents back in Tuvalu.
It’s peanut season in Tonga. Sikei and ‘Oiapa work on their uncle’s peanut farm, growing the best peanuts in the country.
‘My name is Kelea. I live in Tonga in the village of Lapah on the island of Tongatapu. My grandparents, aunties and uncles and cousins live here too, so I always have someone to play with.’
In this book Kelea explains all the kinds of clothes people wear for different situations in Tonga.
The Christmas Caravan by Jennifer Beck and illustrated by Robyn Belton (Scholastic)
Simon and his mum live in a caravan, just the two of them. When they hear there’s a council Christmas competition for decorating houses, they get to work. They forage and recycle waste from around the caravan park, making both their caravan and the park more beautiful.
But what if the council refuses to consider their entry?
Donovan’s Big Day by Lesléa Newman and illustrated by Mike Dutton (Tricycle Books)
Donovan has a big day ahead of him! He wakes up in his grandparents’ house, gets dressed into fancy clothes, and heads off to church, where he has an important job to do. What’s this all about?
Adults will guess before the kids, but it’s not until the very end that we see he’s part of the bridal party, celebrating his two moms getting married.
Felicia’s Favorite Story by Lesléa Newman and illustrated by Adriana Romo (Two Lives)
(Two mums; adoption)
Felicia’s favorite bedtime story is how her two mothers flew in an aeroplane from the United States to Guatemala to bring her into their family.
Another classic from the author of Heather Has Two Mummies.
Grandfather and I and Grandmother and I by Helen E. Buckley and illustrated by Jan Ormerod (HarperCollins)
In both of these charming American books (first published in 1959 and 1961 respectively), we see a family with three generations living together, where the grandparents have unique roles in the children’s lives.
Grandfather won’t hurry you when you go on a nature walk, you can just take your time. Grandmother will let you cuddle on her lap for any reason at all, and for as long as you like.
The House that Grew by Jean Strathdee, illustrated by Jessica Wallace (OUP)
(Parent and step-parent)
Rachel, her mum Sally, and Sally’s partner Nick move from a communal house in the city to build their own tiny house in the country. This is an older book, full of friendly hippies, but it feels like it could have been written today.
Their one-room house has all they need in summer, but in winter they find they need more space or they get grumpy with each other. Together, they design and build a playhouse for Rachel, made with native timber, and topped with an orange finial. The celebration song they write is included, with the sheet music, on the last page.
Joone by Emily Kate Moon (Dial)
(Grandparents raising grandchildren)
What a sweet and quirky book! Joone lives with her retired scientist Grandpa, and her turtle, Dr Chin, in a yurt.
‘My name is Joone. Some people spell it with a U. I spell it with a smiley face.’
A Lion in the Meadow by Margaret Mahy and illustrated by Jenny Williams (Orion)
A little boy tells his mother about the lion he has found in the meadow next door. She responds with her own made-up story of a dragon in a match-box, and goes on peeling the potatoes. But what if our made-up stories are true?
Margaret Mahy has several other books featuring only one parent in the story, such as:
Boom, Baby, Boom Boom!
Down the Back of the Chair
The Man whose Mother was a Pirate
A Summery Saturday Morning
Matariki by Melanie Drewery and illustrated by Bruce Potter (Penguin)
Uncle Joe is getting the bonfire ready, Auntie Pania has the groceries, and Mum says the kids need to go to bed early tonight because there’s going to be a special surprise in the morning.
Nanny comes to stay the night, too, and the whole family gets up before dawn to welcome the Matariki stars, and the New Year.
Māui – Sun Catcher by Tim Tipene and illustrated by Zak Waipara (Oratia)
A 2017 Storylines Notable book, this is a fun, clever and multi-layered retelling of how Māui and his brothers slowed down the sun.
The young men live in the city with their mother, and there’s never enough time in the day to get everything done. Time to put on a superhero costume and catch that sun!This is another book that has the text in both English and te reo Māori on the same page. It’s a vibrant, super-cool story that belongs in every home.
Monday is One Day by Arthur A. Levine and illustrated by Julian Hector (Scholastic)
(Lots of kinds of families)
A comforting book about parents going away for work and coming back at the end of the week, Monday is One Day depicts several different kinds of families doing their farewells, count-downs and reunions.
More People to Love Me by Mo O’Hara and illustrated by Ada Grey (Macmillan)
(Parent and step-parent; blended family; step-grandparents)
Who needs a family tree when you can have a family forest?
This little girl has a huge family, with step-parents, grandparents and heaps of siblings, and that’s just the way she likes it. The lovely illustrations include the artwork of the little girl as she makes her enormous family tree.
My Dads by Kelly Bennett and illustrated by Paul Meisel (Walker)
(Two dads; parent and step-parent)
This is a book that is explicitly about introducing a family with two dads, but it’s still done in a matter-of-fact and fun way, with a light touch. We gather from the family photos at the beginning that this is also a blended family, but the rest of the story is just depictions of everyday stuff they do together, and the ways the little girl’s dads are similar and different.
One Family by George Shannon and illustrated by Blanca Gomez (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
(Lots of kinds of families)
A fun, energetic counting book, where each number leads to a different kind of family.
Poppet Gets Two Big Brothers by Paullina Simons (HarperCollins)
Poppet is a doted-upon only child who one day has to get her head around suddenly having two big brothers. It’s a bit disconcerting at first, but they end up having a lot of fun together. I’m not absolutely sure this is the intention, but the book works well as a story of having new children arrive in a family through adoption or fostering.
Rasmas by Elizabeth Pulford and illustrated by Jenny Cooper (Scholastic)
(Multi-generational household; parent and step-parent)
This 2017 Storylines Notable Book tells the story of Danny the boy and Rasmas the goat, both of whom have lost their mothers.
At the beginning of the book, Danny and his dad are living with his grandma on her farm. She matches the two motherless boys up and Rasmas and Danny have all sorts of adventures together. When Dad meets and marries Rona, they move first to the city, while Dad goes away to work, then to their own farm, reunited with Dad and with Rasmas. Rona is a wholly positive figure in Danny’s life, in this sweet and sad story of new beginnings.
Razia’s Ray of Hope: One Girl’s Dream of an Education by Elizabeth Suneby and illustrated by Suana Verelst (Wayland Books)
Razia lives in Afghanistan, with her parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins, who are all involved in a family meeting to decide whether she should be allowed to go to school.
This is the true story of how girls’ education activist and pioneer Razia Jan finally began schooling during the Taliban regime.
Real Sisters Pretend by Megan Dowd Lambert (Tillbury House)
(Adoption; two mums)
As they play princesses, Mia and Taya tell their adoption stories, and work through what it means to be ‘real’ sisters, even if they don’t look alike.
Their two mothers are in the background of the book.
The Singing Dolphin/Te Aihe i Waiata by Mere Whaanga (Scholastic)
(Grandparents raising grandchildren)
In this special book, shortlisted for the 2017 Children’s Book Awards, Mere Whaanga has created a bilingual, beautifully illustrated story of an ancient family, and a boy who became a dolphin. Grandmother is raising three grandsons: Tahi and Rua who are experts in working the land and the sea, and little Potiki the dreamer and singer, who is too little to join in. The story unfolds in both languages on each page, and there’s a glossary at the back, so even people with limited te reo can learn a bit as they go.
Splash, Anna Hibiscus! by Atinuke and illustrated by Lauren Tobia (Walker)
Every Anna Hibiscus book (there are eight short chapter books and three picture books so far) includes a recitation of the many, many people she lives with, from her grandparents, parents, aunties and uncles, to her twin brothers Double and Trouble, and her many cousins, both big and small.
Anna lives in an unnamed African city based on Lagos, Nigeria, with her huge, happy family.
This household set-up is the background to her explorations of the world and sometimes also the foreground. In the first chapter book, for instance, Anna Hibiscus’ Canadian mother struggles with wanting her own space, but also relying on the mutual help and teamwork that goes along with this family style.
We Are Family by Patricia Hegarty and illustrated by Ryan Wheatcroft (Caterpillar Books)
(Lots of kinds of families)
While the text of this book celebrates all sorts of ordinary things that families get up to, the illustrations show all sorts of different family groupings doing them. There’s also a good range of people shown, in terms of ethnicity and physical ability.
It’s a big, colourful book with plenty to talk about on each page.
Thalia Kehoe Rowden
Thalia Kehoe Rowden is a former co-editor of The Sapling, and a Wellington writer and human rights worker. She is passing on a family inheritance of book dependency to her two small children, and is delighted to be part of The Sapling, as it gives her even more excuses to read excellent children's books. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and at her parenting, spirituality and social justice website, Sacraparental.