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For the International Day of the Family, we invited Sara O'Leary to tell us about her book A Family is a Family is a Family (Groundwood) and why we need books that "make room for all."
In writing A Family is a Family is a Family, I hoped I could create something that would allow for as many children as possible to see themselves on the page. The goal was to create as close to a one-size-fits-all picture book as we could manage. And of course, I realize that such a thing isn’t possible, but I wanted to try and remove a layer of anxiety for kids who might not have found themselves in the pages of books nearly often enough.
I grew up tremendously privileged as a reader because as a blond, blue-eyed, somewhat moon-faced child I saw images of children who looked like me repeated over and over. I wasn’t conscious of this at the time, of course, but I think that sense of being secure in seeing my identity portrayed allowed me the freedom to imagine myself into all sorts of other fictional portrayals—whether that was a badger named Frances or a boy named Max.
What I wanted with A Family is a Family is a Family was to capture the way that children think about themselves and their home lives because the things they think are remarkable (in the sense of being worthy of remark) are not the same things that adults might notice. That for a child having same sex parents may be less worthy of mention than the fact that they really like to sing despite the fact that they are terrible at it.
The narrator of A Family is a Family is a Family is a child in a fostering situation reticent to speak up about what their families is like and who after listening to the other children talk about their varied home lives then gains confidence to the point of being able to relate a positive anecdote to the effect of “Someone asked my foster mother which of her children were real and she replied that she had no imaginary children.”
From A Family is a Family is a Family by Sara O'Leary and Qin Leng
I’m now working on a companion book called A Kid is a Kid is a Kid (again with Qin Leng, lucky me!) In our new book the narrator is a child starting a new school who responds to the playground question: “Are you a boy or a girl?” by saying they can think of better questions to ask. Other children then relate the sort of questions they get asked (where do you come from? what happened to your leg? etc.) and then go on to state the kind of questions they’d really like to be asked (why does your lunch smell so good?).
In both books I am trying to use humour and a child’s perspective to introduce ideas that could be new to some readers and very familiar to others. What I am aiming to do most of all is make room for all.
When A Family is a Family is a Family first came out, I did a reading at a private school in Montreal. Partway through I heard one boy say incredulously, “Wait, you can have two mothers?” To which the boy next to him replied rather wistfully, “I wish I had two mothers!”
I’m glad that this book is out there for someone who wants a book to give a child who lives with a grandparent or whose parents share custody or who thinks that maybe their family is not like everybody else’s. I’m also grateful that it may reach readers who have never given much thought to the need for such a book.
One of my favourite reviews on Goodreads starting out quite negatively by suggesting that there was a sort of checklist for inclusion in the families depicted in the book. But in a satisfying plot twist, this “Goodreader” realized on reflection that they could find parallels for each situation within their own acquaintance. I think that picture books need to be a window into the world we now live in and that all children deserve both to see themselves and to feel themselves seen.
Thank you, Sara! You can learn more about Sara and her books from her website, Twitter, Instagram, and at her children's writing blog 123oleary. Read an interview with her here or here or you can listen to one here.
We invite you to check out our We Love Family Bundle, celebrating families from all over the world and the love that binds us all together. Save 31% on these 3 books! Click HERE.
Sara teaches Creative Writing at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada where she also writes for children’s animation. Her books for children include A Family is a Family is a Family (Groundwood Books), The Boy and the Blue Moon (Henry Holt), This is Sadie (Tundra Books), and Owls are Good at Keeping Secrets (Random House). In addition to picture books she has also written a novel for adults. A list of her books is available at saraoleary.ca.