Before Heather there was Emily, and instead of two mommies she had Lots of Mommies. Published by Lollipop Power, Inc. in 1983, Lots of Mommies is boldly written by Jane Severance, author of When Megan Went Away (1979). Severance’s work is a critical part of LGBTQ history that provides a look into lesbian family formations decades before Modern Family delivered sanitized images of same-sex parents to a mainstream audience.
Severance’s story unfolds with the help of Jan Jones’s, occasionally awkward, but overall quite functional, illustrations. The story is about a little girl raised by several women in the late-1970s/early-1980s. Severance creates a robust cast of lesbian characters who provide the protagonist, Emily, with a happy, albeit unconventional, home.
The text is illustrated in forest green line drawings against a beige background. It opens with a melodramatic image of Emily sitting up in bed, eyes wide, mouth agape, providing an overall sense of horror that the text mitigates: “Emily knew it was a special day the minute she woke up, though at first she couldn’t remember why. What was it?” It’s a relief to learn Emily is safe – just a tad forgetful.
Emily sees her new school clothes hanging and quickly recalls that it’s the first day of school. As she dresses, Emily hears sounds of breakfast being made and Severance writes: “Breakfast was always a nice time at Emily’s house. It was the one time during the day when everyone was together.”
A two-page spread portrays not one, not two, not three, but four women starting their day in a large cozy kitchen. Emily is depicted running down the stairs, pig tails trailing behind. The women in the picture are introduced to the reader: Annie Jo has short straight hair and glasses, Shadowoman wears a fringed skirt and has long flowing hair, Vikki has short tight curls, and Emily’s mother, Jill, has long black hair neatly parted in the middle. She is most similar in appearance to Emily, who has Asian features.
We learn that all the women have special relationships with Emily. Annie Jo, a carpenter, likes to cook with Emily. Vicki, a school bus driver, takes Emily to the library every Monday. Shadowoman is a healer, her and Emily sew clothes together and work in their garden. Emily’s mother Jill is a student who enjoys doing everything with Emily.
It is Annie Jo and Shadowoman who walk Emily to school the first day. When they leave Emily is nervous and quickly finds her teacher who is standing with a bunch of children her age. The children are talking about members of their families and when it is Emily’s turn she tells the students that she has “lots of mommies.” They laugh at her and call her a liar. Emily looks to the teacher for assistance, but she has gone to help comfort another child. Emily walks away forlorn, as the bullying children point and laugh at her.
Emily wanders onto a jungle gym where she imagines she is driving a bus in the snow and begins to veer left and right soon slipping off the jungle gym.
Everyone comes running over and the adults try to track down her mother, but everyone identifies a different woman as her mother. A bus driver, Rita, who knows Vicki, sets out to get her. Another woman knows Annie Jo and contacts her. Emily’s neighbor heads out to get Shadowoman. Meanwhile, Ms. Day, Emily’s teacher, is sure the girl’s mother is inside the school.
All the women appear at once and rush to Emily’s side in a frenzy of mother-love warmly depicted by Jan Jones. The children realize Emily was telling the truth about having lots of mommies, one little girl, upon seeing Annie Jo’s toolbelt, even wistfully exclaims that she wishes she could build things. The women soon go to work leaving a confident Emily behind to start her first day of school.
I love Jane Severance’s picture books and think her work deserves far more recognition. They are both of their time and ahead of their time. Not only are these texts vital artifacts of queer literary history, they offer stories currently missing from LGBTQ children’s literature! When same-sex couples are depicted as parents in children’s literature they are usually shown in what queer theorists refer to as homonormative family units. In other words, adults are comfortably middle-class, often white, cisgender, and in monogamous relationships. Even more, the families are shown as relentlessly happy and issue free. Lots of Mommies offers a queer model of family based on communal living and loving. It’s refreshing in its radical vision of family life, shattering of gender stereotypes, and racial inclusivity. Severance’s When Megan Went Away is just as rave worthy and will likely make its way to a #TBT review soon!
Jane Severance lives in Nampa, Idaho. She is currently seeking representation for her middle grade novel, The Other Long Winter. It features two lesbian grandmothers. Because some things never change. Contact her at email@example.com
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!