9 picture books that actually reflect the diversity of family life

Published on: 15 Mawrth 2022 Author: Lucy Reynolds

More than half of children in the UK are brought up outside the nuclear family, so we really do need more picture books to show the lived experience of many. Author Lucy Reynolds celebrates some of the very best...

Illustration by Kate Alizadeh

‘What does “family” mean?' 'What are other people’s families like?' 'What’s going on in my family?' And ‘What is a "normal" family, anyway?!’.

These are questions that myself and illustrator Jenna Herman have often pondered – while growing up, while raising our own children, and while creating our latest book, We Are Family.

More than half of children in the UK are now brought up outside the "nuclear family", which is usually defined as a mother and father who live with their children. So it is delightful to see books such as A Family Is A Family Is A Family (Sara O’Leary), More People To Love Me (Mo O’Hara), and In Every House, On Every Street (Jess Hitchman) embracing family diversity with sensitivity, humour and care.

We also love finding picture books that gesture towards the emotional complexities of life, opening the door for an empathetic exploration of the variety and sometimes uncertainty that family life can hold.

Here are a few favourites to share with your family, whatever that looks like to you:

1. The Ice Bear by Jackie Morris

One of the pleasures of a children’s book is the emotional resonance it creates. Each time we read The Ice Bear, we are newly moved by the delicacy and poise with which Jackie Morris explores profound and sophisticated family themes. Set in the icy tundra, this exquisitely illustrated book tells the story of a child who is lost and then found again, exploring as it does so the fragile interface between natural and human worlds.

Woven through the story are themes of parental longing, adoptive love, separation, loss, sibling connection and the dilemma of choosing between two families.

With subtlety and compassion, Jackie Morris leads her reader to a sense that humility and love hold the power to balance the many different, nuanced needs that beat below the surface of family. 

Read our book review of The Ice Bear

2. The Pirate Mums by Jodie Lancet-Grant

This fantastic book challenges the equation that "conformity equals acceptance", celebrating instead the power of being solidly you. While Billy grapples with his own emotional landscape (shushing his mums, willing them to be "normal" and dreading peer embarrassment), the other children in the book say nothing, neither noticing nor seeming to care about his mums’ "strange" quirks.

Mama and Mummy remain beguilingly good humoured throughout – present, accepting and adult. They give Billy the space he needs to explore his own emotions; they leap into action when danger threatens; and they embrace the fun of life, leading his piratey gang of "scallywags" back to safety with gusto and energy. Buttressed by his mums’ steadfast presence, Billy feels his way towards enlightenment, casting off the burden of self-consciousness to embrace the book’s closing rally: "'Who cares about ordinary?'", thought Billy. 'It’s a pirate’s life for me.'"

3. The Garden of Hope by Isabel Otter and Katie Rewse

This powerful little story creates a space where the complex feelings associated with losing somebody can be gently explored and validated. Maya has lost her mum, and is missing her. We don’t know how or why she has gone, and that is part of the book’s beauty and potential – she is simply absent.

And so we learn, through gesture and allusion, that it is OK to miss somebody, to feel an aching gap, for things to unravel in the wake of loss, for grown-ups to find things difficult too, and for anger and upset to rear up through the emptiness.

However, through the turmoil and change that follow Maya’s mum’s "going", we see hints of colour and joy gradually creeping back, and the warmth of hope beginning to bloom as Maya’s seeds take root. A lovely message of reassurance for any little ones experiencing grief or absenteeism.

4. Luna Loves Library Day by Joseph Coelho, illustrated by Fiona Lumbers

In so tenderly capturing Luna’s library day with Dad, Joseph Coelho bears witness to a little girl navigating parental separation, missing her father and finding closeness to him through the books they choose together.

These books, layered with shared emotional significance, serve as potent transitional objects too – pieces of Dad that Luna carries home, extending the afterglow of their time together and communicating to her deepest senses. They adorn her bedroom like talismans, reminders of his presence – the closeness of his hug – through the absence that will follow.

Fiona Lumbers’ heartrending illustrations capture the emotional weight of the situation below its seeming lightness and make powerfully present the reality of grown-up complexities – Mum and Dad remain textually separate, off page, divided by the glass doors of the library. Yet the day offers Luna precious clues for piecing together her own experiences, through her litany of book titles, and the gesture of explanation couched within the tale of ‘The Troll King and the Mermaid Queen’.

These are the first beginnings of an emotional journey towards understanding, bracketed by a deep affirmation of enduring love.

Read our book review of Luna Loves Library Day

5. The Perfect Shelter by Clare Helen Welsh

Clare Helen Welsh opens this poignant tale with an image of safe shelter – a family together, embracing, perfectly at ease. But she deftly leads her reader into a more complicated emotional landscape as the safety of the known begins to falter, shaken by the storms of fear, questioning and worry as a child’s illness begins to shadow the family.

The book is layered with grown-up voices of reassurance – ‘your sister is just a bit tired’ – but the child’s emotional load is voiced through the raging storm (the river of rain that falls from the sky, the wind crying wildly as the reality of illness dawns).

As "normal" life recedes, absence and worry step in. But through this turmoil, the story weaves a lullaby of comfort, a focus on the present day, "the perfect day", that holds the sisters side-by-side together in the here and now, releasing them from worry and sheltering them from tomorrow’s storm and the uncertainty of what may be to come.

Read our book review of The Perfect Shelter

6. Double Trouble For Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke

Within Atinuke’s warm, playful depiction of Anna Hibiscus’ inter-generational, cross-cultural family, we experience a little girl’s confusion as, overnight, the roles and rituals that have "always" defined her family suddenly shift.

With the arrival of baby twins, family members’ energy and resources are unavoidably diverted from Anna. She feels anger, rejection and injustice as the people who love her suddenly seem universally "too busy’"

But through collective gestures of affection and reassurance, Anna’s security is rebuilt, and we are reminded that "family" is about making space for others and acknowledging each family member’s unique place within the whole.

A perfect book for little ones with a new baby on the way or navigating inter-family frictions.

7. The Invisible String by Patrice Karst

Patrice Karst wrote The Invisible String as a working single mum, looking for a way to comfort her son through the distress of nursery drop-offs. Yet the message of her book extends far beyond the context of its creation, and it has become a key text across a wide range of settings: social care, bereavement support, the prison system, the military, and fostering and adoption services.

We love the book’s simple but powerful message – ‘you are always connected to the ones you love’ – and its image of an invisible string that binds hearts to one another across the miles and through the years, no matter where each may be.

8. The Boy Who Loved Everyone by Jane Porter

This is not a book about families, per se. But it is a beautiful reflection from Jane Porter on how "family" extends beyond our blood relations, and how children have their own powerful agency in building nourishing relationships around themselves.

As little Dimitri navigates a new nursery, he tells children, plants, animals and grown-ups that he loves them. But he is met with rejection – they say nothing, run away, deflect, scold or misreceive him. Deflated and confused, it is not until he returns home that he receives the balm of a familiar response from his mum: ‘And I love you, Dimitri…You’re my best, best boy’. In a moment of comfort and intimacy, we learn that this is Dimitri’s learned language – the language of expressing love – and that it has been confusing for him to feel rejected by those who are unsure of how to respond. But Dimitri’s journey leads him towards the discovery that when we give of ourselves to the world, ‘love spreads out and grows in new places’.

By the close of the book, Dimitri is surrounded by new friends, received and accepted: ‘they made quite a pile’. And this pile, fostered by Dimitri through his own acts of love, and made up of people who receive and nurture him, represents a vital form of family, too.

9. Kind by Alison Green and Axel Scheffler

This incredible book embraces a deep sense of our global interconnectedness. Axel Scheffler and 37 other illustrators have collectively brought Alison Green’s moving words to life. In doing so, they have woven together a book that beautifully embodies its own message. As each page turns, gestures of kindness are introduced – smiling, helping, welcoming families who are different, extending care and openness to others. And as each page turns, we encounter a different illustrator’s style, resonant with the artists’ own unique personality, tastes and experiences (‘we’re all good at different things’), the narrative reminds us.

Like the multiple artists’ diverse styles, woven together by the narrative, we learn that everybody is different, and that in intermingling our stories and opening ourselves empathetically to others we can together create a better world for the vast and varied family that is humankind itself. 

Read our book review of Kind

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