Little Board Books that Wouldn’t Be Banned:  Lawrence Schimel’s Rainbow Family Stories Illustrated by Elina Braslina

A collage of covers for Schimel’s Rainbow Family Books in a variety of languages.

Last summer, two children’s books ran into trouble with authorities in Hungary and Russia because they featured families headed by same-sex parents.  At first, I assumed the books originated in the old Eastern bloc and anticipated a bit of a wild goose chase finding copies for Cotsen.

A little detective work on the web revealed that copies in English translation (the texts were originally written in Spanish) would become available September 2021 from Amazon acting as distributor for Sphere, the Russian charitable foundation and co-publisher with the Russian LGBT Network.  According to the Amazon listing, a very limited number would be given away, which was puzzling, as it was unclear if Amazon was giving away copies of the Russian edition, which could not be legally sold because of the country’s gay propaganda law, or something different.  Amazon charged for the books when the order was placed and gave a firm shipping date in September.

Two weeks ahead of schedule, the books were left on the doorstep and I could see what exactly I had purchased. The Amazon listing had given no indication that the North American publisher would be Orca, an independently owned Canadian book publisher that champions Canadian authors and its indigenous peoples, promotes diversity, and prints in Canada on Forest Stewardship Certified paper. Three other English-language editions have been issued in different parts of the world: in the United Kingdom and Wales by Peniarth; in New Zealand and Australia by Oratia, and in South Africa by New Africa Books.

Both books feature a rainbow family:  the little boy has two mommies, and the girl two daddies.  The unstated point is that these families are perfectly ordinary otherwise.  Early One Morning is narrated by a little boy, who describes how he and the big marmalade cat get themselves some breakfast without making a mess while the rest of the family sleeps in.  The little boy swells with pride when he tells his sleepy parents and sister about this small but mighty achievement. Bedtime, Not Playtime tells about the fun the family had the night the bedtime routine was disrupted.   When the dog steals the girl narrator’s stuffed bear and won’t let it go, daddies and daughter have to chase him all through the house to rescue the toy.  Once the mission has been accomplished, the romp suddenly ends when daddies and dog fall asleep, leaving the little girl wide awake with her teddy.  There’s nothing to be done except for them to quietly count sheep in bed.

I had taken it for granted that these books were self-published by amateur authors and likely to have relatively low production standards. Not only were the books attractive, they were superb examples of storytelling in a genre that lends itself much more often to the visual teaching concrete information.  A board book’s format places significant limitations on its creators beyond the situation where a member of the intended audience member cannot read yet and needs a literate mediator alongside to interpret the words. Whatever the contents of a board book, the competent reader will resort to improvising on the text in order to point out to connections between their circumstances and those in the book to the listening child..

After seeing the books, I wanted to know more about the circumstances of their creation and publication by award-winning author Lawrence Schimel, a distinguished literary translator, writer and anthologist bilingual in Spanish and English.  His poetry, science fiction, and children’s books often deal with LGBT and with Jewish themes.  Schimel’s board books attempt to connect  not only with “ kids who might be in same-sex families or discovering their own LGBT identity, but for all kids to see these families that exist in the world…and to prevent a generation from growing up brainwashed by this political homophobia.”  The books, according to Schimel, have been published in 37 languages in 46 editions.

To attempt so much in a really elementary reading text is testimony to  the combined ambition and talents of Schindler and his gifted Latvian collaborator, illustrator Elina Braslina.  Her chunky, colorful, two-dimensional  figures are very nicely differentiated.  Daddy number one daddy is white, bald and could afford to lose a few pounds.  Daddy number two is of color and wears glasses. They both have beards and look like nice guys.  Mischief twinkles behind the big round eyes of the great big orange cat and the black and white terrier.  Refreshingly, the kids are just kids as we wish all could be—alert, happy, secure, and loved.  In less skillful hands, the moral values and political convictions could have so easily overwhelmed the stories’ joyfulness. When the volume of corrosive explosions against difference of all kinds seems so loud so much of the time, it is encouraging to see how lovingly Schimel and Braslina have presented special moments that many parents and children share although they may not always be remembered.   Being overexcited and trying to quiet yourself down when you are the only one awake.  Trying to respond to a very excited, wideawake toddler before you’ve had your coffee. Moments like these may not change the world, but their power shouldn’t be discounted either.Thanks to Lawrence Schimel, who contacted me and provided additional information which has been incorporated into the post.

Marks in Books 13: A Drawing of a Rose in Mrs. Sherwood’s The Re-captured Negro

It’s easier to find doodles, scribbles, and inscriptions in children’s books than polished drawings.  When I discover one, I always hope that it will provide some insight into the artist, who presumably owned the book and had some reason for decorating the page.

The other day I opened up a rather sorry-looking American book from the 1820s, which had on the back of the front free endpaper a handsome color drawing of a rose below a name in a hand that could be contemporary with the book.  The more I looked at the book, the more difficult it became to draw any conclusions about the drawing.

The name above the drawing is “William Crowell.” Lacking a date or a place, there’s no information in the book to help answer the question when his name was written in the book,  or to try and identify him,  his home or age.

Would a boy or young man be as likely to choose the subject of a flower than a girl or young woman?  Is it possible that the signature and drawing were made by a girl or woman presenting the book to him as a gift? Or does that line of thought simply demonstrate how easy it is to fall back on gender role stereotypes when there is no information to query.  While this makes it easy to construct a plausible little scenario, it shuts down thinking about alternative explanations.   William Crowell might have been an enthusiastic gardener or plant collector.

The frontispiece, showing Dazee being pursued by the slaver. The illustration is a copy of the frontispiece in the original British edition published by F. Houlston ca. 1818.

But why would anyone draw a rose in a 72-page pamphlet by Mrs. Sherwood, the famous British evangelical woman writer?  It seems irrelevant to the story of  Dazee, a West African boy taken by a slaver operating illegally after Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act in 1807.  An anti-slavery patrol of the Royal Navy liberates him before he can be sold and takes him to freedom in Sierra Leone.  A missionary takes an interest in the boy, a willing convert to Christianity who finds peace when eventually reunited with his mother, who also embraces his faith.

What if there is no connection between the signature and the drawing: they might have been done at separate times by different people.  The person who drew the rose may have had no interest in the story at all, but simply been looking for a blank piece of paper to fill.  Seeing a beautiful rose, he or she pulled the book out of a pocket and captured its appearance.

Whether or not we know how the rose came to be drawn in this tract, the bibliographic record will record the presence of the drawing, the signature, and the little vignette on the title page.  Some researcher may recognize the book as having belonging to a library that was dispersed sometime ago and be delighted to add this to the list of books it once contained.  Someone curating an exhibition may want to include it as a specimen of amateur botanizing.  What matters is that these traces left behind in The Re-captured Slave are discoverable.