September 01, 2016
(+++) MESSAGE MAKING
Home at Last. By Vera B. Williams. Illustrated by Vera B. Williams and Chris Raschka. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.
There is nothing new about socially conscious books for children, even for very young children. There are books urging environmental responsibility, animal attentiveness, climate-change awareness, assistance to the less fortunate, volunteering, recycling, and much more. However, these books can all too easily become message-heavy and hectoring. Even the marvelous Dr. Seuss thought The Butter Battle Book a bit heavy and The Lorax too overtly preachy – yet his books, with their always fascinating make-believe characters and apparent ease of perfect-rhythm rhymes, go down much more easily than most socially involved books by other authors. Furthermore, social consciousness has in recent years shaded into sociopolitical consciousness, and in an increasingly fractured society, this can produce traps for families that may find themselves confronted by works that demand their children see and experience the world a specific way, in accordance with the views of authors rather than those of parents.
The argument for gay marriage, for example, has been legally settled in the United States, but it remains a third-rail topic for many families – and the argument for the adoption of children by gay couples is equally toxic, if not more so. It does advocates no good and gives them no credit for them to say “it has been decided and this is the way things are and should be,” because that demeans people whose beliefs differ from theirs and whose sincerity in those beliefs deserves equal respect and just as much tolerance. And so a book such as Home at Last, with its wholehearted advocacy of marriage between men and adoption by men of a young boy, exists in a minefield that it never acknowledges and seems to want to pretend does not exist. For Chris Raschka and the late Vera B. Williams, perhaps it does not, but for many other families, it does, and parents of either gender who pick up the book unawares, in a store or library, or whose children encounter it on their own, had best be prepared to explain how the book either conforms to their family’s deeply held beliefs or runs counter to them.
The story is unexceptional except for its gay-marriage setting. A young boy named Lester is adopted by a couple and has to adjust to his new life, which includes new parents, a new home, a big dog named Wincka, and continued fears and worries that prevent him from falling asleep in his own room. Lester wants to sleep in his parents’ bed, as Wincka does, but they believe he needs to be on his own, and it takes a decision by Wincka to join Lester in his bed to cement the relationship among all the characters and make Lester completely comfortable. All this has been the stuff of innumerable picture books over the years, but what is different here is that the members of the couple are Daddy Albert and Daddy Rich, and yes, Williams and Raschka show them sharing a bed as well as doing the other mundane things that couples do in their everyday lives. Williams makes an effort to give the men individualized personalities: Daddy Rich, with his full-face beard, is easygoing and free-spirited, while clean-shaven Daddy Albert is more high-strung and even yells at Lester in a moment of frustration. However, families that are not 100% comfortable with gay marriage and gay adoption of children will find it difficult to look past the setting here to the underlying attempt to make everything in the book look and feel completely normal, as if this is simply the way lots and lots of people live all the time. Of course, it is not at all the way most people or most families live – gays, both male and female, make up a tiny percentage of the United States population. In a federal survey in 2014, 1.8% of men self-identified as gay and 0.4% as bisexual; 1.5% of women self-identified as lesbian and 0.9% as bisexual. And a 2015 Gallup poll found that less than 4% of people self-identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Yet news-media coverage of gays and gay issues is so pervasive that most Americans think gay people make up a far, far larger group than they in fact do; indeed, one-third of those in the Gallup survey believed 25% of Americans to be gay.
The actual percentage is, of course, irrelevant when it comes to matters of equal treatment and civil rights. But it is noteworthy that books such as Home at Last handle gay marriage and gay adoption in a matter-of-fact way that many traditional families will likely find deeply troubling if not out-and-out offensive. That this should not be the case, as advocates for gays argue, is not the issue here. Books such as Home at Last will clearly bring great pleasure to existing gay families, and may be useful as such families develop or confirm their own “normalcy” stories – since what kids see in books can be a powerful indicator of what “normal” means. Yet foundationally, Home at Last is an advocacy book, arguing that a life like that of Daddy Albert and Daddy Rich is just as typical as one involving a male-female marriage, and the adoption and settling-in of Lester occurs here exactly as it would if he were adopted by a man and a woman. There is a certain wish fulfillment to that scenario, made possible by the complete absence of characters other than the two men, the boy and the dog: in a world without the 96% or so of non-homosexual people, this sort of adjustment might go exactly as Williams and Raschka indicate. Not so in the real world – but picture books do not and are not required to portray the world as it really is. Families resembling that of Daddy Albert, Daddy Rich, Lester and Wincka are clearly the audience for this book, which does nothing to reach out to other families and sees no reason, sociopolitical or otherwise, to do so.