What Makes a Family?
Book reviewed: One Family – George Shannon and Blanca Gómez, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2015
In One Family, George Shannon and Blanca Gómez together answer the question of how to depict a twenty-first century family in a natural and inclusive way. The success of their book lies in its complete accessibility to children, with both words and pictures constructing a world where members of families and the objects they encounter “match.” You can count them, and count on them, to be there, in predictable settings. In the past, the families shown here might have been on the margins, but now they are part of children’s daily world. The author and illustrator accomplish this normalized view of diversity in a completely unobtrusive way by creating people who are both archetypal and real at the same time.
The book is structured around family members, at first single and then in groups of up to ten. There are parents, siblings, grandparents, and pets in indoor and outdoor settings. Shannon’s text acknowledges the way children notice their environment, beginning with the words “One is one/One lamp. One clock. One book to share,” describing a grandmotherly figure sitting in a living room, reading. She has lovely grey curls, oversized in relation to the rest of her. Maybe this is the first quality that a child might identify with his or her grandmother.
An old-fashioned clock with a swinging pendulum is on one side of the text, and a floor lamp with a scalloped shade and small pull-chain stands on the facing page. An embroidery sampler reading “Home Sweet Home” and a basket of knitting yarn are expected images, but the room also includes three minimalist prints hanging on the wall and a small, stylized plant, which might be real or artificial. Grey hair, book, analog clock, modern art: they are all grandma.
Subsequent pictures show multiracial and multigenerational groups engaged in everyday activities. Gómez’s children and adults have brown, peach, and pale skin, and yellow, red, and black hair. One family out for a walk passes a store labeled “Goldilocks Toys” which has three bears in a house in the display window, as well as an abacus. The three bears parallel the three-person family, but there is also a bowl of three pears in the window of a building. Shannon’s words patiently count with the reader, “One is three./One house of bears. One bowl of pears./One family.” The first two lines are in black font and the last in red, as if to highlight the central focus of the book, people.
Shannon and Gómez’s families are not only nuclear and are certainly not isolated. In one picture, we see nine people happily interacting on a bench overlooking the sea. They range in age from infant to older adult and they face one another in small units of conversation. They may be looking out at the boats, water, and lighthouse, but their principal activity is communication. Similarly, an urban street shows families of different races and genders, including same-sex parents, walking, waving, and sharing. The grandmother from the first pages emerges from her house, book in hand, to be presented with a cake by a family of color. There is no need for a direct message about unity and difference, although there is a little girl with a globe waving from a window.
The counting element of the book is a subtle value-added. At the end, two pages collect and number the different items viewed in the book, from crayons to keys, to a stack of books and a basket of puppies. Shannon’s website informs us that his father was a math teacher, that he has worked as a school librarian, and that he is inspired, among other ways, by trying to understand “Things that still confuse me.”
This is my second blog entry about Blanca Gómez, whose inventive figures of people based on simple shapes and carefully chosen details encourage recognition by both children and adult readers. One Family is for everybody.