Emma Shevah: Why I write about non-traditional families

Published on: 04 April 2018 Author: Emma Shevah

Children's author Emma Shevah grew up in a single-parent, mixed ethnicity family in the 70s, and still remembers the stigma this caused her. The books she writes now are a response to that time – and a way to recognise and celebrate all the different families out there. 

One of the reasons I write about families is because of my interesting experiences with my own. Another is that times have changed, and families – along with our understanding of what that word means – have, too. And this is a subject worth exploring.

My biological father died when I was young, and when I was nine, my mother and stepfather’s marriage ended, making ours the only divorced family in a Roman Catholic primary school run by nuns. The disgrace of divorce ran deep in 1977, even in culturally tolerant, open-minded South London. My family now consisted of my mother, my sister and me, and that meant raised eyebrows. I remember the shame of being different, not only because I was half Thai but because I didn’t have a father at home like everyone else.

Average and usual

When I was ten, my teacher said in class that a normal family had a mother, a father and two children. I went home upset and the next day my mother, who hates confrontation, marched into my school. 

‘I consider my family to be very normal,’ she told my teacher, indignantly. 

‘I meant an ordinary family,’ the teacher replied. 

‘We are a very ordinary family.’

‘I mean, average… you know… usual.’ 

‘I think you’ll find that we are "average" and we are "usual",’ my mother fumed. ‘You should be very careful about the language you use to describe what a family is, because I may be divorced but we are normal and usual and ordinary, and we are still a family.’

'Families are complex'

I admire my mother for stepping out of her comfort zone to stand up for her family unit, but it’s hard to believe the thoughtless language we used to use when talking about families.

The term "broken home", for example, was normal vernacular back then: I could write reams on the effect that terminology like that can have on a child’s psychological development.

Instead, I wrote Dream on, Amber, because I wanted child readers to know that a family is still a family if one of the parents is no longer around. I wrote Dara Palmer’s Major Drama to show that blood isn’t the only way in which a family is constructed. And I wrote What Lexie Did, to show that emotions are complex, so relationships are complex, and families are complex.

Grief and anger can tear families apart, often irrevocably. My mother’s Irish family argued constantly when we were young, so I’m aware that the word "family" can suggest conflict, not just harmony. Lexie tells a lie she hopes will stop her family members arguing but instead, they stop speaking completely, and Lexie is separated from her cousin, whom she loves more than anything. Months go by, and life will stay like that forever if Lexie doesn’t do something about it. 

Let's see diverse families in books

Fortunately, our understanding of what constitutes a family has changed radically since I was a child, and families of all forms now co-exist in modern Britain. We don’t see all of them reflected in children’s books – not yet – but like my mother, I feel impelled to assert that a family unit isn’t defined by a traditional template or a parental headcount.

Seeing diverse families represented in children’s books is crucial: it builds self-confidence in children whose families are shaped differently, and empathy and compassion in those reading about the experiences of others. As family structures expand, evolve and reshape, our vocabulary and understanding of what constitutes a "normal", "ordinary", "average" and "usual" family should, too.

And children’s books play a key role in spreading that important message.

What Lexie Did by Emma Shevah is out now in paperback (£6.99, Chicken House)

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