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  • "We are not the Cleavers":Images of Nontraditional Families in Children's Literature*
  • Suzanne Bunkers (bio)

I grew up in what many would call a traditional family; that is, one composed of two married, heterosexual parents and biological children.1 My moally all the housework and cared for the five children in our three-bedroom rambler, while my father worked as a rural mail carrier. In our town of 400 in rural Ios nonexistent, single parenthood occurred only through the death of one's spouse, "illegitimacy" was extremely shameful, and adoption took place as a last resort for those married couples whom God had not blessed with "natural" children.

Today I live in a nontraditional family. I am the single parent of a six-year-old daughter, Rachel. Along with our three cats, we live in an older two-story house in a working-class neighborhood of Mankato, a town of about 45,000 in south-central Minnesota. Rachel's father and I never married; her primary home is with me, and she spends occasional weekends with her father in a nearby town.

Like many of you, I grew up steeped in the adventures of Dick, Jane, Sally, Mother, Father, Spot, Puff, and Tim. Typical stories in readers like Helen Robinson et al.'s Fun Wherever We Are (1962), had titles like "Come and Ride," "Look in Here," "Will Spot Run Away?", and "Do Something Funny."2 As a child, I quickly learned that a proper family had two married, heterosexual parents with clearly defined gender roles; children of both sexes; clean and docile pets; and money enough for a house in the suburbs, a late-model automobile, and family vacations. It never occurred to me to question this model until much later, when I discovered that not every family had two parents, that not all parents were heterosexual and/or married, that not all families were biologically constituted, and that not all children and pets were polite and obedient.

This discovery led to my search for children's books that depicted the [End Page 115] wide variety of families that I knew existed.3 I will note at the outset that I have not undertaken a scientific search. Rather, I have sampled the children's books available in my community and university libraries as well as those carried by local and regional bookstores. In addition, I have sampled the children's books in our family library, with an awareness that those books reflect an interest in many kinds of family structures. My hypothesis is that images of nontraditional families in children's books have increased greatly in recent years, mirroring the greater visibility of nontraditional families in our culture, and that this development is a healthy one.

Based on my analysis of approximately one hundred children's books, what observations can I make about images of nontraditional families in popular literature for children?4 First and most importantly, the families depicted in these books are decidedly not like that of June and Ward Cleaver. Many are single-parent families; some are stepfamilies; others are extended families including several generations; some are adoptive and foster families. Some recent stories portray a grandparent, aunt, or uncle who has sole responsibility for his or her grandchild, niece, or nephew. Children's books are beginning to acknowledge the fact that not all families are constituted heterosexually; lesbian and gay families figure in several of the books I've sampled. More books are being written about families in which physical, mental, and emotional challenges play a central role. Unemployment, poverty, sexual abuse, and the deaths of family members are all subjects dealt with in children's books published during the past ten to twenty years. In some families, individuals of all ages live together, unrelated biologically or adoptively. In other cases, older persons lovingly care for children who visit rather than live with them.

In contemporary children's books, parent figures are not always protective; children are not always nice; life is not always easy; difficulties are not always overcome. In short, children's books are breaking silences about subjects that were rarely, if ever, explored in depth in the popular literature of earlier...


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