Jane Severance’s When Megan Went Away (1979)

 

Written by Jane Severance and illustrated by Tea Schook, When Megan Went Away (1979), is the first book about lesbian moms published in the US. It was published by Lollipop Power, Inc., a small feminist press deeply invested in producing children’s picture books that challenged gender stereotypes as well as the absence of lesbian and gay representation in children’s culture.

When Megan Went Away is about the break-up of a lesbian couple raising a child together in the late-1970s. The story explores the immediate aftermath of the break-up from the point of view of the child, Shannon, they had been raising together.

Shannon experiences a sense of loss when Megan leaves. She walks through her home taking note of all the things that went away when Megan left: a loom, a rocking chair, a plaid jacket, a little box of tools. The weight of Megan’s absence is measured by conjuring the lost objects that she took with her when she left. Shannon’s home is altered by the absence.

Shannon wants to talk to her mother about her feelings, but her mother is emotionally unavailable while processing her own pain. Roles are temporarily reversed as Shannon attempts to take on caregiver responsibilities by making tuna fish sandwiches for dinner. When her mother refuses to eat, Shannon’s feelings of guilt and sadness transform into anger. She screams and knocks over her milk, finally getting her mother’s attention. The two curl up together comforting each other.

This book, like Jane Severance’s 1983 publication, Lots of Mommies, also published by Lollipop Power, Inc., is an important part of LGBTQ children’s picture book history as well as LGBTQ history more generally. It is a snapshot of imperfect parenting at a historical juncture when lesbian couples were provided no institutional support, and at which point Megan would have had no legal rights to the child she helped raise. Perhaps that’s why Megan’s absence is felt with such finality.

Even more, Shannon’s character subtly shatters stereotypes. Her appearance is gender neutral and her bedroom is scattered with blocks, stuffed mice, and trucks. The book provides a record of raising kids beyond the gender binary and outside of the heteronormative family unit.

Although the illustrations are poor and, at times, the story gets heavy with unnecessary details, Severance’s work is an important part of a cultural archive that seems to have been relegated to the realm of ephemera because of its unpalatable message of imperfect queer love and imperfect queer mothering as well as its poor production quality. But, if you can get your hands on this diamond in the rough you will surely cherish it.

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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