Jesse Unaapik Mike and Kerry McCluskey’s Families

Families (2017), co-written by Jesse Unaapik Mike and Kerry McCluskey and illustrated by Lenny Lishchenko, introduces young readers to family diversity through the lives of students at a school in Iqaluit, the capitol city of Nunavut, a Canadian territory, which is majority Inuit. The lesson that all families are different is deftly introduced as the protagonist, a child named Talittuq, moves through his first day of year two at school.

The story opens with Talittuq and his anaana (Inuktitut for mother) sitting companionably at their kitchen table eating breakfast. Talittuq asks his anaana why his dad does not live with them. She matter-of-factly responds that his father lives in Mittimatalik and they live in Iqaluit.

On the next two-page spread mother and son are depicted in a close-up image, face-to-face, eyes closed, mother’s hair flowing around the boy. The warm colors and large image stretched over the page offers a sense of intimacy and comfort. Talittuq’s mother assures him that all families are different and reminds him that although their family consists of only two members it is full of love and happiness.

The next page depicts several children, including Talittuq, riding bicycles to school. Although Talittuq is pedaling away from home, his family remains on his mind. The text reads: “Talittuq had asked his anaana this question lots and lots of times before, but he still didn’t understand why his family was different from his cousin’s family. He didn’t want to be different.” Talittuq’s cousin’s family consists of a mother, father, and siblings, which is the dominant ideal of what a family should look like, even if it doesn’t reflect most families.

Although the story focuses on multiple family forms, Talittuq’s growing independence is also explored, which creates depth and allows the authors to develop Talittuq’s character nicely. For instance, this is the first year “his anaana had agreed to let him ride his bike to school all by himself.”

Once he arrives at school Talittuq begins to play on the monkey bars. While swinging wildly he startles his much younger friend, Qaukkai, who begins to cry.

A concerned Talittuq finds his young friend’s anaana and mom to help comfort the child. Interestingly, although Talittuq reflects on not wanting his family to be “different,” he does not seem to apply the same judgment to his friend’s lesbian family, a family that gets more “different” when, on the next page, Talittuq discovers that the third woman Qaukkai’s mothers were speaking with was Qaukkai’s puukuluk (Inuktitut for birth mother).

Qaukkai is quickly comforted, and the bell soon rings, sending all children to the door where they line up to enter their classes.

Today will be Talittuq’s first day in his new class. His new teacher introduces himself and explains that he recently moved to Iqaluit with his husband and son. His teacher’s homosexuality is effortlessly introduced with little comment, other than a side note that the teacher and his family are “awesome skateboarders.”

One student the reader is briefly introduced to is raised by parents who share custody and another by her grandmother.

The text ends like it begins, Talittuq has returned home for lunch where his anaana waits for him. Anaana and son sit at the kitchen table as Talittuq absorbs the lesson his anaana offered that morning: “every family is different.”

This beautifully accessible and inclusive text offers the critical message that there is no “normal” family to be different from, firmly suggesting that families take care of each other and provide loving environments. I appreciate that the text so cleverly captures the self-consciousness of children, their hyper-awareness of what makes them “different,” even as the protagonist is oblivious to the differences around him. Even more, although an important lesson is taught, Families teaches without being didactic.

Families certainly deserves a place on LGBTQ* children’s literature lists as it portrays so many family forms as kind and loving. Even more, it emphasizes a strong sense of community, which is not the case in, for instance, white US-based LGBTQ* children’s literature, which tends to represent the family unit as autonomous from community.

A wonderful text to read with children in schools, library story times, or at home. Families is beautifully inclusive and encourages dialogue with children about doubts they might have about their own family or questions they might have about other families. It also encourages young readers to consider what is important about a family. A beautiful book and welcome addition to my bookshelf.

*Inhabit Media provided me with a review copy of this text.

This review is part of my “Snapshots of LGBTQ Kid Lit” project. I’m working on a book, The New Queer Children’s Literature: Exploring the Principles and Politics of LGBTQ* Children’s Picture Books, which is under contract with the University Press of Mississippi. Part of my research is identifying and interpreting English-language children’s picture books with LGBTQ* content published in the US and Canada between 1979 and 2019. Follow my blog to follow my journey!

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