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By Dana Rudolph
“Uncle Bobby’s Wedding,” by Massachusetts author and illustrator Sarah Brannen, is more than just a good LGBT-inclusive children’s book. It is a good children’s book. Period.
It tells the sweet story of Chloe, an anthropomorphic young guinea pig who worries that Uncle Bobby won’t keep having fun with her after he marries his boyfriend Jamie. Uncle Bobby explains that their special times together will not end; Chloe will not be losing an uncle, but gaining one. The book ends at the wedding, with Chloe as the enthusiastic flower girl.
Written from Chloe’s perspective, “Uncle Bobby” deftly expresses a young child’s concerns about family relationships and change. It stresses the power of love to encompass both old and new. Brannen’s rich watercolor drawings match the tranquil but sometimes playful tone of the text. One can see why she cites Beatrix Potter as an artistic influence, though Brannen’s characters seem somehow more cheerful.
The book’s great strength is that Jamie’s gender is a non-issue throughout. Unlike many older LGBT-themed children’s books, such as “Heather Has Two Mommies,” it doesn’t focus on a child struggling against negative views of her family. That approach has value for some, but “Uncle Bobby” indicates it is now possible to present a same-sex relationship without the need to defend it or compare it, however favorably, with a heterosexual norm. (Even the excellent “And Tango Makes Three” contrasts the same-sex penguin pair with the usual opposite-sex couples.) This leaves Brannen free to concentrate on her other themes, and opens up the book to a wider audience.
“Uncle Bobby” is the first book Brannen both wrote and illustrated, although she has worked as an illustrator for many years. She did not, however, set out to write a book about a same-sex relationship. In the spring of 2005, she was trying to write a story for her 5-year-old niece, who was fascinated with weddings. Marriage equality had just become law in Massachusetts. “This was in the news a lot, and I kept seeing such joyful couples,” Brannen explains. A young gay couple with whom she was friends would also talk to her about the wedding they dreamed of having. “It hit me one day: I’m going to make it a same-sex wedding. It wrote itself at that point.”
Tim Travaglini, the senior editor at G. P. Putnam’s Sons who first saw her drawings, was impressed. “It’s such a pitch-perfect picture-book story,” he says. “That it treats the uncles getting married as such an incidental facet of the story, I thought was really gutsy – and exactly as it should be. We weren’t looking for an issues book at all; it just was a wonderful little children’s book. The fact that it breaks all these molds was all the more appealing.” Putnam, an imprint of children’s-publishing powerhouse Penguin Young Readers Group, made Brannen an almost-immediate offer.
Why guinea pigs? Brannen wanted a species whose coloring would indicate Bobby and Jamie were both male. Birds, however, “look silly in clothes,” she says. She finally chose guinea pigs, which she had raised as a child.
“They have these fat little bodies like water balloons with little legs. I thought they would look funny and cute walking around on their hind legs.” She departed from nature, though, and arbitrarily colored the females brown and males black and white. “I decided not to make them terribly realistic. I wanted just to create fat little furry people.”
Brannen paid attention to certain details, however, such as making sure the wedding guests included both same- and opposite-sex couples. “I didn’t want to make a big, huge deal out of it,” she says, “but I certainly thought this is part of the little world they live in.”
It’s unfortunate that such a lovely tale of furry animals and childhood will also cause controversy. One need only look at the many attempts to remove “Tango” and other LGBT-inclusive books from schools and libraries to know that “Uncle Bobby” is in for a bumpy ride. Supporters of the book cannot fall back on the explanation that it’s a true tale of real animals, as with “Tango.” The use of the term “marriage,” moreover, could be incendiary – even to those who would concede some limited rights to same-sex couples.
Travaglini says he is ready for a firestorm. “In a very aggressive way, I welcome it. I sympathize with the folks on the front lines fighting that kind of censorship, but I’ll be happy with anything that draws attention to what I feel is a very unique, very special book that really deserves to have the widest possible audience know about it, judge it for themselves, and hopefully fall in love with it the way we have.”
If they do, Brannen already has a sequel in mind. As for “Uncle Bobby’s Wedding,” she says, “I hope young children will pick it up and read it without having any preconception at all about the story, and have it become part of their landscape. I mean, same-sex marriage is legal in Massachusetts, so it’s not that I’m talking about anything weird anymore. I hope it becomes part of their world to them, that it seems normal, because to me, that’s what it is.”
For more about Brannen and “Uncle Bobby’s Wedding,” visit http://www.sarahbrannen.com.