In 2010 I published a middle grade novel called Penny Dreadful. It was a fun book. Some people liked it. It went on to become an EB White Readaloud HONOR book. Huzzah!
But I get a lot of emails about it. Because in the book there is a very minor character, a boy named Twent, who happens to have two mommies.
Last night I received one such email, and because I was having a very hard week, I ignored the email. Typically I respond to these emails. I try to explain. Because maybe (just maybe) the author of the letter is not only writing me a mean letter. MAYBE they are open to a response. I don’t want to miss that chance, if it’s real. But last night I didn’t.
S0 I thought I could respond here, today. ANd then, in the future, when I get these emails, I can direct readers here…
Anastasia writes of Twent (among other things):
“How do you explain that? OUR FAMILY IS VERY AGAINST THAT.”
And I will answer her:
Ahhh, Anastasia, good question! How do I explain it? It’s really very simple.
The world is very full of people. No two people are alike. They live many different kinds of lives. Some of them are nuns. Some of them are corporate lawyers. Some of them are the owners of magical chocolate factories. But we cannot all be nuns, or magical chocolatiers. For this reason, we have many different kinds of books. To reflect the many kinds of lives people live. In some cases, we expect people to SEE THEMSELVES in the pages of books. In other cases, we expect books to expand the way people see the world. Maybe YOU have never met a magical chocolatier, but thanks to Roald Dahl, you can!
When someone writes a book, they cannot ask, “Who will I offend with this particular book?” Because every book will offend someone. A writer can only tell a story, and if they are fortunate enough to find a publisher, hope some people want to read it.
It makes me sad to hear you were offended by my book. I didn’t mean to do that. I wasn’t writing it for YOU. But I’m not sorry for Twent’s moms either. I won’t apologize for them.
I wrote Penny Dreadful to reflect the world I live in. A world populated by many kinds of people, not just nuns and corporate lawyers and magical chocolatiers. My neighborhood has many gay families in it, in addition to people who aren’t white, and Jews like me. There are also some folks who have hearing loss, or are blind. My neighborhood has musicians in it, and artists, and world travelers, and gardeners, and women with very long hair, and people who like to make their own jam. All of these people climbed into my book when I wrote it, because I wanted the book to reflect the world I inhabit.
Honestly the book has received criticism for being “unbelievably diverse.” People find this difficult to accept, especially since the book is set in the south. I would argue that the people who make these complaints are not comparing my book to the actual world of humans, but to the very whitewashed landscape of traditional nuclear families in which most children’s books have been set. I would further argue that the people who argue that THE SOUTH is not diverse in this way should try visiting the actual south. That is just another stereotype.
In any case, this is how I “EXPLAIN” Twent’s two moms. Twent has two moms because many kids I know have two moms. Twent is a minor character, a friend Penny meets along the way. The same way that I, a girl with a mom and a dad, have friends with two moms or two dads. Should I not have written the world I love and inhabit?
I’m guessing what upset you most about the book was that you got no WARNING. There is no backmatter to inform readers that they might encounter diversity in this book. You may feel that your daughter should have had a chance to choose for herself that she was about to encounter a few lines of text in which there were gay people. I don’t know how this would work. Should I have also included a warning label: WARNING: THIS BOOK HAS SOME JEWS IN IT?
Books are the best way I know for kids to encounter the world beyond their own experience. Books build empathy and understanding. They get kids ready for what they’re going to stumble into when they take their first job, or open a copy of the New York Times (yeah, I know that’s unlikely, but I still get the paper myself, so play along).
I don’t expect your kid to turn gay. I don’t actually want your kid to turn gay, or Jewish, or into a magical chocolatier. I’d just like to think that when she encounters magical chocolatiers in books, you won’t scare her away from them. I’d like to think that you, as her mother, will engage with her question. That you’ll explain that you understand her surprise, since she’s never met a chocolatier before. You can explain that YOUR family doesn’t make chocolate, personally. But yes, the world has chocolate in it, made by magical chocolatiers, and isn’t it nice that the world is such an amazing place, full of surprises and mysteries…