A Family is Not DNA

Love, Penelope – Joanne Rocklin and Lucy Knisley, Amulet Books, 2018


Exploring one’s heritage has become something of a national pastime, simplified by the intriguing and expensive project of ordering DNA results from companies that promise to fill in the blanks about anyone’s hereditary background.  In Love, Penelope, Joanne Rocklin offers a much more nuanced and sensitive view of what constitutes family lineage through the moving and funny story of Penelope Bach, a ten-year-old girl in Oakland, California, struggling with the challenges of a school project. Asked by her teacher to research her family history, Penelope learns a great deal about her biological mom, Becky, and her mom’s domestic partner, Sammy, a woman who is as caring and strong a parent as Penelope’s original mother. Even more importantly, she learns lessons about honesty, commitment to family, and negotiating the hazards of friendship.

There are many qualities to love about this novel.  It is convincing.  Nobody is perfect.  Parents make mistakes.  Close friendships have painful moments.  Penelope is optimistic, but also introspective.  Since her deceased father was an orphan, she has no information about his family, and her knowledge of her mother’s family also turns out to be incomplete. However, she is extremely close to her adoptive mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. Through them, she feels deeply connected to Sammy’s Ohlone Indian heritage. Is she lying to her teacher, Mr. Chen, as she plans to present the results of her in-depth research about the family ties which are not biological, but emotional ones?

 Love, Penelope is ambitious, as Rocklin expertly integrates several other threads into her narrative.  There is Penelope’s obsession with her favorite basketball team, the Golden State Warriors. There is her growing awareness of racism, and her strong conviction in marriage equality, which she hopes will become a reality for the wonderful parents currently joined in a “marriage of the heart.” Then there is the new baby which her family is expecting; throughout the book, Penelope addresses him/her as “You” in a series of journal entries.


Lucy Knisley’s black and white drawings of this growing but still unknown being support the text, as do her sketches of other elements of the story, from Mr. Chen’s funny ties, to a ham bouncing like a basketball, to the Penelope’s image of herself as a spider, spinning a web of lies.  The book’s backmatter includes detailed lists of resources about Native American history, same-sex parenting, and, of course, basketball.

In writing this book, Rocklin was not dissuaded by suggestions that authors should choose only subjects that literally align with their own identities. Penelope and her family are complex human beings facing challenges and finding their own strengths.  Her story is a story for all of us.

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