We are family! (part one)
There can be no greater love than the love of a family.
But what is “family”?
I recently had a discussion with a group of students and we talked about this question, There were a wide variety of responses.
“The people I live with.” “My mom and brother.” “My parents, my two sisters and me”. “My dad and grandma.” “My mom and dad...but I haven’t seen him in a really long time.” “My mom, my stepdad, my brother and sister and my stepbrothers and stepsister...oh and my dog!” “People who love you. They might not be your “real” family, but it’s like they are...we call my mom’s best friend “Aunt”.
We had looked at a couple books: Families, Families, Families! by Suzanne Lang and The Family Book by Todd Parr (both were featured in my last blog post: Carefully Taught).
During the discussion, there were some thoughts that seemed to be repeated by many students. Things like: “My mom’s family and my dad’s family.” or “My mom’s house and my dad’s house.” or “When I’m at this house...or that house.” There was acknowledgment amongst classmates who could sympathize with the struggle of understanding and navigating two separate families. It is for this reason that our libraries (school and classroom) must be stocked with books that mirror these family structures. Students must be able to look into books and see that their family situation is represented, acknowledged, and validated.
Two years ago, a beautiful book was published. Weekends with Max and His Dad (Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2016), by Linda Urban, gently and compassionately shared the struggle of third grader Max and the redesigning of his definition of “family”. Linda, graciously, agreed to answer a few questions about her book.
KS: What was your inspiration for writing Weekends with Max and His Dad?
LU: There were two. First was my own family. My husband has a demanding job and in his rare free time he loves to do street photography. One of those rare days came when my son was about 6 and I was on book tour. My son was on a spy kick at the time and so my husband convinced him that the two of them were going to go on a spy mission. My husband put my son in a fedora and tie, made him some fake press credentials, and the two of them went to Burlington's Church Street, where my son could trail suspects and my husband could take photos of him doing so. It was a great day for them and I have had my son's "press pass" hanging in my writing space ever since.
Second, I volunteered in my son's class for a few years and saw how many kids were living with parents who were divorced or separated. Most of those kids were doing well overall, but there was often an adjustment period that manifested in things like homework being left at "the wrong house" or kids having to remind their teachers that they needed two pieces of special paper so they could make two invitations to the class talent show. It was the dailiness of these small adjustments that I wanted to write about. And while I had seen that addressed in picture books and in middle grade, I hadn't yet seen it done for the young middle grade/chapter book level, which is what my son and his friends were reading at the time.
KS: In the book, Max struggles to redefine “family”. What message did you hope to send to kids who, like Max, are dealing with changing family structures?
LU: Mostly, I wanted kids to know that while some things change -- like where you live or what your schedule is or who picks you up from which activity -- other things don't. Love persists. Care persists.
I also wanted to make sure that I showed a kid whose life was being changed by this new family structure, but he was still a kid with all the regular kid concerns. His new situation is a part of who he is, but it isn't all he is.
KS: You have a new book coming out in April called Roadtrip with Max and his Mom. Can you tell us a little about that story and how Max is learning to deal with his new definition of “family”?
LU: Sure! As the title suggests, this book is focused on Max's relationship with his mom as they go on their first ever road trip, just the two of them. Prepping for the trip exposes some of the changes in their daily lives -- like how going away for a weekend with Mom might feel like choosing to be with her instead of Dad, or how few photos there are of Max and Mom together now that she is the only parent behind the camera, or what it might mean if a Mom who used to share your last name doesn't anymore. Of course, none of these issues is the main focus of the book, they are the questions and concerns that come up while Max and Mom are doing other things -- which is how it is in real life, too.
Weekends with Max and his Dad and Road Trip with Max and his Mom are both beautiful “mirror” books for children who are struggling with having to adjust to sharing time between Mom and Dad. Gentle, sensitive and fun, these books validate the difficulties many children encounter as they learn to maneuver through the “new normal” of their family structures.
We are family! Our families may all look different, but that is perfectly fine!
(This post is the first of a multi-post series focusing on helping kids find “their family” in the books they are reading!)
Kurt Stroh is a K-4 teacher-librarian from Grand Rapids, MI. He is passionate about making sure that all children have access to books, have freedom to choose from those books, and have the ability to see themselves (and learn to understand others) in those books. He blogs at strohreads.blogspot.com. You can follow him on Twitter: @strohreads.