Beyond the Nuclear Family

Several new books are trying to help children growing up in less traditional families make sense of their world.

About three years ago, when Alma, the oldest daughter of Naama and Michal Assayagh Ram, was in second grade, a classmate asked her: "What, your mother is a lesbian?" When Alma repeated this at home, one of her mothers, Michal, volunteered to come to the school and talk to the children. But rather than explain their specific situation, she chose to read the children "Kol Echad Vehamishpaha Shelo" (Everyone and His Family ), written by Yael Mishali with Yehuda Atlas (Korim Publishing House ). The book, published in 2002, was then perhaps the only book in Hebrew about unconventional families. It is a light book, written in rhymes, that takes a humorous approach to discussing children who live in very different kinds of family situations, among them a daughter of divorced parents, the son of a single mother, a girl who has two mothers, and the daughter of a Russian father and Ethiopian mother.

Several years later, a reflection of the changing times, bookshelves are overflowing with guides for families and children, even books of rhymes for toddlers, intended to convey to them their family story, whether it concern a specific variation of the alternative family or the unique way they came into the world.

One recently published book, "Otzar Katan" (Little Treasure ) by Anat Georgi (Mil publishing house ), attempts to transform medical procedures that take place before delivery of the coveted infant into a poetic search for personal identity.

Unlike "Everyone and His Family," and other books of the genre, "Little Treasure" is written from the perspective of the mother, not the child. It tells the story of Yael, a woman searching for the treasure she dreamt about long ago, described in the book as "the little treasure that will fill my heart with love." In her quest, she wanders to different stations hoping to realize her dream. Ultimately, she realizes that what she wants is a child. And, indeed, "Yael looked at her little treasure and felt her heart filling with love. . . " Georgi's book is among the first in Hebrew to tell the story of a child who comes into the world through insemination from a sperm bank.

A rainbow of explanations

Other recently published books have addressed a subject that is not new at all: adoption. Comparing the number of books available today on this and other less traditional family situations, it is clear that huge strides have been made. Today, readers can choose from books like Ilana Luft's "Mi Efroah Shel Ima" (Who is Mommy's Chick ) (Hakibbutz Hameuchad-Poalim Publishing Group ) and "Mishpahot, Mishpahot, Million Le-fahot" (Families, Families, At Least a Million ) by Limor Talmor (Rimonim Publishing ). Smadar Shir's "Mishpahot Hakeshet" (Families of the Rainbow ), which targets elementary schoolchildren, tells stories of different kinds of families.

Although they vary in quality and style, these books are proof of a need in the market. Parents experience considerable confusion when confronted by children who want to understand the unusual story of their lives, as do teachers dealing for the first time with the phenomenon of alternative families. The more common these alternative families become, the more important it is to explain the phenomenon and tell these unusual stories.

"These parents deliberate many issues regarding their family lifestyle even before the birth of offspring," says Prof. Rachel Levy-Shiff, of Bar-Ilan University's psychology department. "They must choose a way to bring children into the world, they must decide what they will be called - Mom and Mommy? - and what and when to explain to the kids. In conventional families, there are existing models, but single moms are less familiar with these models. And there aren't any when it comes to straight mothers in joint parenting arrangements with homosexual couples. When there are grandparents all over the place and complicated relationships, it's hard to know how to act."

Understanding gender, sexual orientation and family unit, she says, evolves gradually among young children. "They slowly begin to understand what a family is, grandpa and grandma, what a blood relationship is and so on," says Levy-Shiff. She cites the case of a 2-and-a-half-year-old girl in an unconventional family, who expressed the desire to grow up in a family of flowers, with a father flower, mother flower and child flower. In other words, she understood the difference and wanted to have a simpler family.

Give stories like this one, Levy-Shiff says, "these books are likely to be a very important tool that provide words and concepts to the parents. They help them talk to the children and also help the children understand the situation. These books also alleviate confusion and dilemmas in kindergartens and schools."

Still, she notes, these explanations also have to be adapted to the cognitive and emotional skills of the children, and in some circumstances, it is best to refrain from information overload.

A witch or a fairy

Michal Assayagh Ram, an editor and translator, and Naama Assayagh Ram, head of the bibliotherapy program at Beit Berl College, will not read every book to their daughters. They choose carefully, and they also have different approaches when it comes to selecting the books. While Michal, as a rule, likes these sort of books, Naama is more critical, referring to them as "enlisted literature." Around two weeks ago, at the Rainbow Families Foundation Conference on lesbian, homosexual, transgender and bisexual families, the two delivered a lecture on "Parenting and the Bookshelf."

"I prefer to read to the kids books that don't say 'this is what you should do' but that look at the other, those who are different and their surroundings from a different perspective," says Naama. "When the child reads books like these that have room for thought, and the illustrations and the text are airy, he'll know how to connect to it without us having to explain."

One such example is "Bentsi the Colorful" by David McKay. Bentsi is a colorful elephant in a herd of gray elephants. But Bentsi decides that he doesn't like being different and paints himself gray, even though no one made fun of him the way he was. When he shows up as a gray elephant, the other elephants say to him, "This is your best joke." Then it rains, and he reverts to his original colors.

When you compare Bentsi to another book on the same subject, "The Elephant Who Wanted to Be the Best" by Paul Kor, published in the 1980s, it becomes clear to what extent times have changed. In Kor's book, an elephant that did not want to be gray finds a way to be colorful. Birds paint him, and when he approaches the elephants, they do not recognize him and laugh at him. Eventually, he learns that it is best to be like everyone else.

"The difference between Bentsi and the 'Elephant Who Wanted to Be the Best' is the hero and the environment," explains Naama. "In both cases, the hero undergoes a process. In Kor's book, his surroundings tell him, 'you've gone crazy.' In the second book, they celebrate Bentsi's being different and enable it."

This suggests, she says, that "the times have changed and the messages have changed. And we are a society that is much more enabling. It is not a vulgar thing to be different. It's not that I think that we've become a liberal society. But there is a desire to allow for difference."

She refers to another book published three years ago, "Hamakhshefia Emilia" by Ofra Hoffenberg (Hakibbutz Hameuchad ). Emilia is a witch-fairy, both a witch and a fairy. She has wings and a broom, and she does not want to decide what she is. She goes to a school for witches where the principal looks at her and says "You don't seem suitable! You have wings.' She gives her a test, in which Emilia ruins a bicycle, but then, by accident, she does a good deed, straightening up the room of another boy. Because of this, she is expelled. Then she goes to the school for fairies. Everything is repeated, in reverse, and then she decides to open a school where witches can also do good deeds and fairies can also do pranks. "The text of 'Makhshefiya' basically says that the fact that I am different, is wonderful, because I am diverse," says Naama. "It doesn't mean that I have to toe the line according to something predetermined. And the moment I do something different, I provide an opening for others to express themselves."

This is also the message, she says, of "The Cow that Laid an Egg," by Andy Cutbill with illustrations by Russell Ayto, and translated by Shoham Smith and Amnon Katz (Kinneret ). "A good book is one that talks to the child about the fact that they are different," says Naama. "A book that says that it's really fine to be you and also fine to question. And it's also OK to make something new. Still, there's not an extremely rebellious message here. As long as you act within the confines of morality and reason, that's great. This is a message children can understand. My daughters react to this kind of text. More didactic texts tire them out."

But perhaps these books are altogether unnecessary. Because how can they really help children whose identity crises will stay with them for years to come?

Levy-Shiff agrees. Let's not delude ourselves, she says, into thinking that the books are a magical solution. Naama believes the children do not need to have all the information: "I'm not sure that children must have all the details in order to feel they are protected. If you break things down and feed the child with texts that are too detailed . . . we sometimes limit his world. Perhaps at a later stage, it's good to go back and discover the classics, the educational books about orphans such as Paulina and David Copperfield, who overcame difficulties and built themselves up on their own and emerged from their complex stories."