When Monica and Cheril Bey-Clarke were preparing to be foster parents in New Jersey, they wanted to build a multi-cultural library for their child that reflected a broad spectrum of families, including one that looked like them: two African-American moms. Finding none, they started My Family! in 2010, a publisher of children’s books aimed at gay and lesbian families of all races and religions.
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Their goal: “To promote the normalcy of different families,” says Monica.
The incidence of openly gay and lesbian families has been growing steadily for decades, and a spike will likely develop as more states sign on to marriage equality. But the publishing and media worlds are just starting to catch up. Television shows like “Modern Family,” which features a gay couple raising an adopted daughter, validate the experience of same-sex couples and their children, but there are precious few explicitly Jewish models out there.
MyFamily! has some Jewish representation in their regular fare, such as a holiday coloring book with a Hanukkah scene. But it hadn’t made a point of focusing on the Jewish community until last year.
“We just came to notice that there is a large Jewish LGBT community,” said Monica. “There’s really nothing out there to represent this subset of the community.”
So they commissioned two children’s books to target that niche. Of the many submissions received, the Bey-Clarkes were smitten with “The Wonderful Adventures of Benjamin and Solomon” by Elena Yakubsfeld and “Adopting Ahava” by Jennifer Byrne. Both books were recently released as the newest MyFamily! products.
Yeshiva boys in love
“The Wonderful Adventures of Benjamin and Solomon” follows two yeshiva boys in medieval Europe on an adventure to recover a missing prayer. Yakubsfeld, who was born and raised in Soviet Ukraine to a family with Polish origins, said she knew right away that she wanted to set the book in that era, calling it “a time of great changes, yet of certain freedom.”
The decision to give the two students at the heart of the tale a romantic relationship was a unique one, though Yakubsfeld, who lives in Connecticut with her husband and children, doesn’t call the relationship itself unique.
“Unaccepted, not tolerated – yes, but most definitely not unprecedented,” she said, pointing out that learning can be an intimate and emotional spiritual practice. “Very often it will create that supreme form of bond that we humans call ‘love’.”
The book, targeted to children ages 9-12, takes a mystical turn with a journey through a magical forest and encounters with two lovesick dragons. “In some way, the dragons reflect how baseless and sometimes even absurd our prejudices can be,” said Yakubsfeld. “They are as unlike your average stereotypical dragons as Benjamin and Solomon are unlike a lot of other Jewish protagonists we encounter in literature.”
The Bey-Clarkes were drawn to Yakubsfeld’s historical references and were impressed by how the story taps into historical values to illuminate respect for, and acceptance of, difference today. On top of that, “We learned a bit of Jewish history,” said Cheril.
Adopting an older dog
In “Adopting Ahava,” eight-year old Jonathan, recently adopted by two Jewish moms, is taken to make a furry, four-legged adoption of his own. “I’ve always loved the idea of adoption,” said author Jennifer Byrne of New Jersey, “especially adoption of kids who are maybe a little bit older and therefore not as sought-after as babies.”
That philosophy apparently extends to dogs as well, as Jonathan demonstrates when he ultimately picks a slightly older pooch. “In choosing an older dog instead of a puppy, he was inspired by his moms to see things a little bit differently,” explained Byrne, “and to allow his compassion to extend beyond the more well-trodden paths.”
Broadening compassion beyond strict definitions of what constitutes a family is one of the underlining missions of MyFamily!’s books. But accepting a spectrum of families doesn’t always require a pointed lesson, at least not anymore. Sometimes mere visibility does the trick.
In 1989, the children’s book “Heather Has Two Mommies” by Jewish author Leslea Newman, blazed trails as the first to depict a child brought up by same-sex parents. As the title suggests, the configuration of the family is the focal point of the story. In “Adopting Ahava,” the sexuality of the parents is a small detail, not a big plot point.
“I didn’t want the book to be saying, ‘Look! This boy has two moms, and his family is just like any other family!!’ because I think that should be a given,” said Byrne.
For the publishers, that nonchalance was one of the things that attracted them to the book.
“Maybe in 1989, that point needed to be emphasized in a more direct way,” said Byrne. “But I think in late 2013, that point no longer needs to be driven home. It can just be an organic part of a story about a family. And that’s where I think we are."