7 present-day books about step-parents that ditch the stereotypes
Published on: 17 August 2021 Author: Tom Vaughan
Author Tom Vaughan gives us a list of the very best children’s books that contain blended families, in all their complexity – without a wicked stepmother or evil curse in sight.
Tom Vaughan, author of Bin Boy, illustrated by Emma McCann
Step-parents and stepsisters have traditionally received a bad rap in literature – from Cinderella right the way back to Medea in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In fact, the Brothers Grimm’s retelling of The White Bride and the Black One ends with the wicked stepmother getting a punishment so horrific you’ll wonder why anyone ever read it to their kids.
When I was writing my book Bin Boy, I wanted to acknowledge that “evil step-parent” trope but also have some laughs with it and subvert it. The story is about a boy, Billy, coming to terms with his new stepfather – who also happens to be a secret supervillain – and learning to accept that he isn’t the worst person in the world (even if, technically, he is the worst person in the world).
The world has moved on from antiquated views of blended families, and my own step-parents are certainly a large part of my life. All the same, children’s books about blended families are surprisingly thin on the ground. But dig a little deeper, and there are some great ones out there.
Below are a pick of my favourites.
1. Timmy Failure: The Cat Stole My Pants by Stephen Pastis
Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made - the first book in the Timmy Failure series
Stephen Pastis’ Timmy Failure books make me laugh like no others, but it is the story just below the surface – of Timmy’s single mum slowly finding happiness and remarrying while dealing with her comically deluded wannabe-detective son – that makes up their emotional heart. When he meets his dad for the first time in book 6, it’s such a sad, funny, perfect little moment.
2. Vi Spy by Maz Evans
As well as a cracking, gadget-filled spy romp, the gravitational pull of Maz Evans’ Vi Spy is the on-off divorce between lead character Vi’s super-spy mum and supervillain dad. Her mum’s new boyfriend, George Sprout, and his son might not be her first idea of what family looks like, but it becomes a heart-warming story of acceptance.
3. Joe All Alone by Joanna Nadin
A poignant, heartfelt and life-affirming story of a boy, Joe, left all alone in his flat while his mum and her boyfriend Dean go off on holiday to Spain. Even though his mum's new boyfriend isn't ideal, Joe's story is a nuanced one that chronicles the make-up of one modern family. Through the seesawing emotions of a week on his own, what shines through is Joe’s incredible resilience, despite the complexities of his family life.
4. The List of Things That Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead
Illustration from the book cover of The List of Things That Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead
When Bea’s father marries his boyfriend, she is presented with not only a new dad but a new sister – and things don’t go quite as smoothly as she might hope. An uplifting, beautifully told story that touches on divorce, gay parents and therapy, but is ultimately a moving celebration of blended families in all their complicated glory.
5. To Night Owl From Dogfish by Holly Goldberg Sloan and Meg Wolitzer
Polar opposites who have never met in person, Avery (Night Owl) and Dog Fish (Dogfish), have one thing in common – their dads are dating. Told through emails as the sort-of-stepsisters become best friends, then fight to save their fathers’ relationship, it’s a sweet, touching, gently funny story of family and friendship.
6. Blended by Sharon M Draper
Illustration from the front cover of Blended by Sharon M Draper
A moving story about a girl, Isabella, switching endlessly between the worlds of her divorced parents – one of whom is white and the other black. Torn between worlds based on race lines, Isabella becomes acutely aware of her own identity as a biracial child. A timely and unwavering book that tackles topics rarely addressed in middle-grade fiction.
7. We Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen
The story of two kids on the polar end of the social scale – socially awkward Stewart and mean-girl Ashley. When their parents move in together, their worlds collide. A heart-warming and masterfully told story that deals with grief, bullying, gay parents and new families, and perfectly captures the voices of two protagonists trying to navigate the fraught years spent on the cusp of adolescence.
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