We still read a book together every night. My children are ten and eight, and they still climb into my bed (after they’ve independently showered and brushed their teeth and reminded me that they’re growing up way too fast) so I can read them a story. I know that sooner rather than later, they will choose not to climb into bed to listen to me read. I’m sure soon enough, I’ll wonder why I ever resisted reading that extra chapter when they curled up beside me.
But for now, we read.
When my husband first died, I sought out children’s books specifically for grief, anything to give their grief a voice, to show them that our absolutely impossible situation was more normal than it seemed. Because books teach empathy, but also show us that our experience, which at times feels completely singular, is actually universal. Essentially, books help us know that we’re not alone, even when we feel most alone. We’ve read those books more times than I can count, and now, we’re ready to move on to books with stories in which grief is not the central theme.
We read picture books from their younger days and chapter books and Harry Potter-length novels. We read whatever they’re in the mood for that week.
But almost always, the books we read contain a family structure we used to know all too well—the mom, the dad, and the two kids. Which means there’s always a moment we don’t acknowledge—the moment the dad enters the story and electricity snaps through the room and for a heartbeat we all go silent and remember.
We’re well into our third year as a family of three, and so we’re used to that sizzle of heartache; the pain isn’t raw anymore and mostly I’m just thrilled my kids still want to snuggle and read with me. But I can’t help but wish that sometimes that flash of heat simply wasn’t there—that the book we randomly chose from the library happened to be one that reflected a family structure that didn’t look painfully familiar, and painfully out of reach.
I’m sure that I’m not the only mother opening a book and wishing that the story written on the pages didn’t hurt, or wishing that the story looked a little more familiar. It’s 2020 and families are no longer made up of a cisgender mother and a cisgender father raising biological children who are spaced exactly 2.5 years apart behind a white picket fence. (Were they ever?)
Since we’ve read the grief books, and since we’ve read the books that make our experience feel less singular, this time around we don’t want books about grief. We want books about magic and adventure and friendship … and that also happen to feature a family structure that looks more like ours.
When I typed “books for children single mom” into the search field on Google, the first results took me to books in which the focus was single parenthood. The books all seemed relevant and worthwhile, but not what I needed.
As I attempted to guess the right set of search terms to find the books I was looking for—the ones that simply mirror our lives without focusing on why our life looks different—the results became less relevant and the list of books became smaller. When I tried the same search for LGBTQ+ parents, the search wasn’t easier. The problem is maybe my search capabilities, or maybe there’s more work to be done—more books waiting to be written for families with different structures who still want to go on adventures to magical places.
With all that said, here’s my non-exhaustive list of books that feature families with a variety of family structures that might be helpful for single parent families (whether single parent by divorce, death, or choice) and LGBTQ+ families.
Love Is A Family, by Roma Downey, illustrated by Justine Gasquet
A young girl is being raised by a single mother, but when it’s time for Family Fun Night at school, she’s worried they’ll be the strangest family there. When she arrives, she learns that families come in all shapes and sizes.
Mommy, Mama, and Me and Daddy, Papa, and Me, by Leslea Newman, illustrated by Carol Thompson
A toddler goes about their day playing hide-and-seek, taking a bath, and settling in for a nap with the help of one parent or another.
Keesha and Her Two Moms Go Swimming, by Monica Bey-Clarke and Cheril N. Clarke
The story of young Keesha whose moms take her swimming at a pool and she meets a little boy who has no friends and no toys. Keesha remembers the importance of sharing, being nice to others, and getting along despite our differences.
For Younger Readers:
Amber Brown Is Not A Crayon, by Paula Danziger
Amber Brown’s parents are divorced and her dad lives abroad. When her best friend, Justin Daniels, has to move away, things change and the best friends are now fighting. Will they be able to work it out before it’s too late?
Just Under The Clouds, by Melissa Sarno
Cora is a middle schooler, a big sister, and homeless. Her mother is trying to hold the family together after her father’s death, and Cora must look after her sister, Adare. This debut is about a family struggling to find something forever whenever forever seems impossible.
Dear Mr. Henshaw, by Beverly Cleary
Beverly Cleary’s timeless award winning book about a boy, Leigh, who moves to a new town with his mother after his parents’ divorce. Struggling with all the changes thrust upon him, Leigh writes to his favorite author, Mr. Henshaw, who responds, and the two form a friendship that will change Leigh’s life forever.
For Older Readers:
A Dog Called Homeless, by Sarah Lean
Cally Fisher can see her dead mother, but no one believes her, and no one else can see her, except a mysterious dog. Cally needs to convince her family that her mom is still with them, and persuade her dad that the dog belongs with them. A perfect read for fans of Shiloh.
To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, by Jenny Han
A New York Times bestseller that was adapted into a movie, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, is the story of 16-year-old Lara who is being raised by her single father. When the secret letters she’s written to her crushes are mailed, Lara’s life becomes more complicated than she could have imagined.
Lenny’s Book of Everything, by Karen Foxle
A novel about grief, family, and wonder, Lenny’s Book of Everything is the story of Lenny Spink and her little brother, Davey, who suffers from a rare form of gigantism and is taunted by other kids. The two siblings are inseparable, but as Davey’s disease progresses, the siblings’ richly imagined world becomes harder to cling to.
Being Fishkill, by Ruth Lehrer
A story about a girl, Fishkill, who learns to fend for herself after the death of her abusive grandfather and unstable mother. When a new friend invites Fishkill to live with her and her mother, they form a tentative family, which is then threatened by the return of Fishkill’s mother.