The Birds and the Bees 201: New Picture Books for Unconventional Families

In my years as a bookseller, I often sympathized with parents who were struggling to find a book to read to their young children about their origins.

Apr 11, 2013 at 6:00pm | Leave a comment

Ed note: This piece was inspired by this article on the same subject in The Atlantic, which we neglected to link. Our sincere apologies.

I don’t remember asking the “Where do babies come from” question when I was a kid, but it must have been asked at some point, and I’m sure my father gave a pretty standard answer, and one that fit with my family; there was a man and a woman, a sperm and an egg, some stuff happened, and then, boom, there was a baby.

Today, that story is starting to seem painfully out of date: In my years as a bookseller, I often sympathized with parents who were struggling to find a book to read to their young children about their origins. This is a world where donor eggs and sperm, adoption, and lots of other events bring families together, and while there are a gazillion books on what makes a baby (and a family), a lot of them are about a specific narrative.

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"Who helped bring together the sperm and egg that made you?" "Who was happy that it was YOU who grew?"

A new generation of authors is setting out to change that, making it possible to find more stories on the shelf for parents who’ve used gestational surrogates, donor eggs or sperm, or other assistive reproduction techniques, along with adoptive parents who don’t want sappy, outdated stories about adoption. I for one am excited about that, because the increasing recognition that families come in a lot of flavors is translating to a more compassionate, open-minded generation of people.

Picture books are a great introduction to complex subjects, making them less scary and easier to understand while opening up a conversation. For kids in modern families who might not look like their parents or who might notice that their family configurations don’t look like those of their peers, picture books also normalize their lives: their families aren’t so strange after all if people are writing books about them.

More and more we’re moving towards a world where parents are encouraged to be open at an early age about the facts of the ways their families came together, rather than concealing information. It marks a critical change from a former history of hiding things like adoption or donor conception, and many child psychologists seem to think it’s a good idea.

Last year, Cory Silverberg set out to write a very basic book about the mechanics of what makes babies happen; he started a modest Kickstarter campaign for “What Makes A Baby” thinking he might be able to net around $10,000 for a book written by him and illustrated by artist Fiona Smyth. Instead, the book blew through his fundraising goals and was re-released by Seven Stories Press, which also signed Silverberg to a three-book deal.

He showed that there was in fact a market for gender-neutral books that allowed parents and loved ones to fill in the story to suit their own relationship. It talks frankly about anatomy (yes, he says “vagina”!) but doesn’t gender it:

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"This is a sperm." "Not all bodies have sperm in them. Some do, and some do not."

The simple, clear language is intended for early readers, and the scenes in the book depict all kinds of families, but the book ends at the point where the baby is born, with the question “Who was waiting for you to be born?”

It creates the start of a conversation, effectively. 

Other authors are expanding the question beyond that point. “The Very Special Ducklings” delves into egg donation and the gift of eggs from a willing duck who has a few to spare, while “The Baby Kangaroo Treasure Hunt” explores surrogacy and turns it into a treasure hunt that ends with a happy gay family. Other books shy away from the cutesy animal-themed explanations: “Nan’s Donut Dilemma” and “The Pea That Was Me” get a little more real.

Meanwhile, “The Best For You” explores adoption from the perspective of a birth mother talking about why she chose adoption, and books like “Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born,” “The Red Thread,” and “Over the Moon” provide a story from the view of parents and families discussing the integration of an adopted child into their lives.

For the more zoologically-inclined, there’s always “A Mother for Choco,” about a little bird seeking his family. He’s convinced that he needs to look like his relatives so he wanders around asking everyone who looks vaguely like him if they’re his family, until Mrs. Bear takes him in and he learns that families don’t have to look alike, and they can contain a diverse assortment (and arrangement) of members.

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"Who was waiting for you to be born?"

There are still gaps in terms of the types of books available, and that’s something that will only change with time. I’d love to see more books about disabled parenting, for example, as well as books exploring some of the political and social issues with adoption in a way that’s still accessible to kids.

As transracial and transcultural adoptees grow up in a landscape where they are increasingly telling their own stories and challenging adoption narratives, I think we’re going to see more texts from them tackling this very subject.

Books about poly families, parents raising children platonically, coparenting, and other family configurations would also be great to see; because in addition to talking about what makes a baby, we should also be talking about what makes a family.

The explosion of books “for every kind of family and every kind of kid,” as the cover of “What Makes A Baby” puts it, is indicative of a brave new world of parenting, and I’m excited that so many authors (many of them parents themselves) are rising to the occasion. I’m curious to hear from parents about which family origins books are their favorites, and why -- especially for those living in families labeled “unconventional,” have you found books that describe your family situation well?