The day we adopted our daughter was a beautiful Spring day and it was magical.
We had only matched with the birth parent one week before. Our hearts were completely ready to become a family of three.
Logistically though, we had nothing. Our house had a room that was to become the nursery and that was all. We learned real quick that a baby doesn’t need a lot of material things.
Luckily, our friends showered us with parent and baby ‘must-haves’ during the months to come. Among these many thoughtful presents were my favorite gifts: books! I was so excited to get her library started.
Some of my favorite books included representations of our family. Since we didn’t know any other gay dads in our city, we thought it was important to show our daughter that we weren’t the only two-dad family out there. These stories helped.
Books like And Tango Makes Three and A Tale of Two Dads became instant favorites.
Even at two years old, her eyes lit up when she saw families like hers. And, as many other gay dads, I basically bought all the children’s books with gay parents in them.
At about four years old, she lost interest in these books. A few new titles had shown up on my Amazon feed, and I immediately ordered them. But she wasn’t as excited about them anymore. She didn’t ask to read them a second time.
What was going on?
An evolution of interests
I paid closer attention to what books grabbed her interest, and quickly realized what was happening. She already understood that there were all kinds of families.
She was cool with her two dads, knew she was adopted, and that she came from her birth mom’s tummy. So really, these books weren’t telling her anything new.
My daughter didn’t want to read about families. She wasn’t interested in hearing another story about how the lives of two grown men became so much better when they became dads. No, she was much more interested in stories about awesome girls – like herself!
Of course, that made total sense. And so, books about the adventures of little girls became popular story-time repeats.
But there was one problem.
As soon as her interested shifted to reading these exciting stories about everyday life, most families started looking the same. Anytime parents came up, they were either a mom and a dad, or just a mom (sometimes just one dad). Neither represented our daughter’s home.
I started looking for books about everyday topics that included LGBTI families, with little luck.
Most children’s books that include LGBTI characters specifically deal with an LGBTI topic. Our local library carries great books about children who are figuring out their sexual orientation, gender, or social norms around gender. They have cute books about children attending same-sex weddings.
But even the super helpful librarian couldn’t find picture books that included a gay character who didn’t ‘struggle’ around some sort of LGBTI issue.
‘You should write one!’ one librarian told me. My friends encouraged me too.
As a child therapist, I was making up fun stories everyday already. Could writing an actual book be that simple?
The birth of What Does a Princess Really Look Like?
Then, one night, my daughter asked me to draw something for her.
‘What do you want me to draw?’ I asked. She was going through a princess phase (at least I hoped it was a phase), so I wasn’t surprised with her request, ‘A princess!’
I was narrating as I drew, and something made me very uncomfortable. ‘She has beautiful hair, she has a pretty dress, she has a sparkly crown…’
I stopped myself.
‘Let me do this again,’ I asked.
This time I approached the activity differently. I told her how wearing a crown meant that someone was responsible for big decisions. Strong arms showed that the princess worked hard. Strong legs stayed busy as she traveled the world.
And that was how the idea for my book What Does a Princess Really Look Like? was born.
In the book, the main character, a quirky five-year-old girl, creates her own princess. In this process, her own view of princesses evolves.
She ends up making a mistake, and realizing that her princess is not perfect. Her dads then help her realize that it’s her imperfection — her quirks — that make her unique.
LGBTI families deal with the same issues
A friend introduced me to an indie publisher. They liked the book because of how it addressed LGBTI diversity in a natural way.
‘It’s the Modern Family of children’s books,’ they told me. And they too were surprised about the absence of gay parents in children’s books.
One reason why books are so amazing is that they expose us to characters we may never meet in real life. We get a glimpse into other people’s world, and we get to share their perspective.
I hope that the mere inclusion of gay people in kids’ literature won’t be a big deal anymore in the future.
Wouldn’t every parent want their child to relate to all kinds of kids and experiences? Families don’t need to be part of the LGBTI community to read stories with LGBTI characters.
Children love stories that they can relate to, regardless of the character’s family structure.
Children’s stories that show our families dealing with the same situations as any other family, teach children about what we have in common. I strongly feel that there is space on book shelves for stories that promote unity and equality.
I hope to see more of books that feature our families in the coming years. Hopefully, what makes What Does a Princess Really Look Like? groundbreaking right now, won’t be as uncommon much longer.
Mark Loewen is a psychotherapist, parent coach, and dad. Originally from Paraguay, he now lives in Richmond, VA with his husband and their daughter. Mark is the author of the children’s book What Does a Princess Really Look Like? Visit his website for more information.