The authors of two of the most famous LGBT children's books have two new books out. Neither work has an overt LGBT theme this time, but both center on issues of love and family that should give them wide appeal both within and outside the LGBT community.
Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, authors of And Tango Makes Three, about two male penguins who raise a chick, now bring us Christian the Hugging Lion. The tale, like Tango, is based on a true story. In 1969, John Rendall and Ace Bourke bought Christian as a cub from the exotic pets department of Harrod's department store in London, wishing to rescue him from his cramped cage. He lived with them, played in a local churchyard, and became known for his hugs until he got too big and Ace and John decided he belonged in the wild.
They hired wildlife conservationist George Adamson (of Born Free fame) to repatriate Christian back to Kenya. A year later, they went to visit. Although they had been told that the lion, now wild, would not remember them, he did. A video of their reunion became a minor YouTube sensation in 2008.
Richardson and Parnell are not the first to put pen to paper about Christian and his caretakers, but they are the first to aim at a very young audience. In Christian, Parnell and Richardson show the same flair for simple yet winsome dialog that delighted readers of Tango. Amy June Bates' charming illustrations are the perfect complement.
There is no overt LGBT theme as there was in Tango. LGBT families will immediately realize, however, that the authors left the relationship between the two men rather vague. They are not a couple in real life, and Parnell and Richardson do not imply that they are--but neither do they find it necessary to point out that they are not by labeling them "friends." The book does tell us, however, that after Christian came into their lives, "The three of them had become the most unusual family in all of London."
Parnell and Richardson thus allow children of same-sex parents to see a little of their own reality in the story--two men caring for a cub/child, and comfortable with being "unusual." If a child imagines them a couple, so be it. If not, that is fine, too. That openness and inclusion are not surprising coming from Parnell and Richardson, who are themselves a couple and the parents of a one-year-old.
We need more stories with obvious LGBT families in them, no doubt. I would argue, however, that we also need more stories like Christian: ones that defy categorization and simply celebrate the power of family love.
Aside from the deeper message, however, Christian should gain many fans purely because it is a wonderful story, well told. Animal-loving children and parents with a conservationist bent will find it enchanting.
Just Like Mama, the latest work from Lesléa Newman, author of Heather Has Two Mommies, also falls into the "unspecified" family category. The book is an ode from a little girl to her Mama, celebrating the things Mama does like no one else. Tea parties and hair braiding are among them, but so too are playing ball, burping, and hunting for frogs.
Whether Mama is a single mom, or one half of a couple that includes another mom or a dad remains unclear. As with Christian, that vagueness makes it work for a variety of families (though families with no moms or only male children may find it doesn't resonate).
It is not a narrative tale, but its bouncy rhymes and Julia Gorton's dynamic illustrations should keep readers engaged to the end.