Banned Books:  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.   The description didn’t specify if customers would the Russian edition, whose sale was prohibited by the country’s gay propaganda law–or something else.  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.  They turned out to be a North American imprint issued by 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: by Peniarth in the United Kingdom and Wales; by Oratia in New Zealand and Australia; and New Africa Books in South Africa.

Both books feature a rainbow family or a gay or lesbian couple with children: the little boy has two mommies, and the girl two daddies.  The unstated point is that these families are ordinary and easy for any child to relate to.  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 proudly tells his sleepy parents and sister about this small but mighty step towards independence. Bedtime, Not Playtime tells about the fun the family had one night when 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 incorrectly assumed that these books had been 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 to the visual teaching concrete information rather than narrative.  A board book’s format places significant limitations on its creators beyond the situation where a member of the intended cannot yet read and needs a literate mediator. Whatever a board book’s contents, the competent reader will resort to improvising on the text in order to point out to the listening child connections between their circumstances and those in the book..

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.”   According to Schimel, the books have now been published in 37 languages in 46 editions.

To attempt this much in a really elementary reading text is testimony to the combined 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 heavyset, while daddy number two is of color and wears glasses. They both have beards and look like nice guys.  Mischief radiates from the big round eyes of the great big orange cat and the black and white terrier.  Refreshingly, the kids are just kids who are alert, happy, secure, and loved.  In less skillful hands, the joyfulness of the stories could have been overwhelmed by good intentions. Schimel and Braslina humorously present special occasions many parents and children share every day.. Being overexcited and trying to quiet yourself down when you are the only one awake.  Trying to respond to a wideawake toddler before you’ve had your coffee. Portraying 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 that has been incorporated into the post.

Banned Book Week 2019: Strega Nona

DePaola, Tomie, Strega Nona: An Original Version of an Old Tale. 1st Little Simon board book ed. New York: Little Simon, 1997. Cotsen Collection, Moveables 37931

In 1975, Tomie dePaola published the wonderful Strega Nona, a story of a kindly strega, or witch, from Calabria who helps the townspeople with their troubles; after all, as dePaola says, “Strega Nona did have a magic touch.” The story centers around her magic pasta pot and her young helper, Big Anthony, who gets into some trouble when he tries to do magic, himself.

Strega Nona is the first in a series of pictures books featuring Nona and Big Anthony; however, none reached the acclaim of the original. In 1976, it was awarded the Caldecott Honor and it was voted one of the “Top 100 Picture Books” of all time in a 2012 poll sponsored by the School Library Journal. It is not hard to see why this book is so beloved. The story is a timeless lesson in following the rules or risk punishment, and the illustrations are beautifully graphic and delightfully charming.

DePaola, Tomie, Strega Nona: An Original Version of an Old Tale. 1st Little Simon board book ed. New York: Little Simon, 1997. Cotsen Collection, Moveables 37931

However, despite these honors, Strega Nona also has the distinction of being a challenged and banned book. It was banned from a number of children’s libraries in the United States for depicting magic, witches, and witchcraft in a positive light. It takes its place with other challenged and banned books whose plots focus on supernatural or magical worlds, and whose characters are often witches and warlocks. According to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, Ronald Dahl’s The Witches, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, have all been challenged or banned for the same reasons as Strega Nona.

DePaola, Tomie, Strega Nona: An Original Version of an Old Tale. 1st Little Simon board book ed. New York: Little Simon, 1997. Cotsen Collection, Moveables 37931

So what’s all the fuss about? Strega Nona, or Grandma Witch, is an old, wise woman who uses her magic to help the townspeople get rid of headaches, find love, and get rid of warts. She has a magic pasta pot that boils up a good, hot meal for dinner. One day, Big Anthony sneaks a peak while she says her pasta incantation:

Bubble, bubble, pasta pot,

Boil me some pasta, nice and hot,

I’m hungry and it’s time to sup,

Boil enough pasta to fill me up.

And watches as she ends the spell with:

Enough, enough, pasta pot,

I have my pasta, nice and hot,

So simmer down my pot of clay,

Until I’m hungry another day.

Of course Big Anthony misses Nona blowing three kisses to the pot to end the spell. The next day, he goes to town to tell everyone about the magical pasta pot. No one believes him and tells him to confess to the priest for lying.

DePaola, Tomie, Strega Nona: An Original Version of an Old Tale. 1st Little Simon board book ed. New York: Little Simon, 1997. Cotsen Collection, Moveables 37931

When Strega Nona leaves to visit a friend, she tells Big Anthony to continue his chores and not to touch her magic pot. He doesn’t listen and proceeds to conjure a pot of pasta to show the townspeople that he was telling the truth. Unfortunately, he doesn’t know how to make the pot stop because he didn’t see Nona blow three kisses to it at the end of her spell. The town is overcome by pasta until Strega Nona returns and stops the pot from cooking. The townspeople are ready to “string him up,” but wise, old Nona replies, “The punishment must fit the crime,” and gives Big Anthony his punishment in the form of a fork. He has to eat all of the pasta!   

DePaola, Tomie, Strega Nona: An Original Version of an Old Tale. 1st Little Simon board book ed. New York: Little Simon, 1997. Cotsen Collection, Moveables 37931

DePaola depicts Strega Nona as a good witch who is more concerned with helping people than devouring children and doing harm. At the end of the story, she is the hero and teaches Big Anthony, and the children who are reading the book, a valuable lesson. Yet, her good magic and grandmotherly ways have been challenged. Granted, there is a line in the book that states, “Even the priest and the sisters of the convent went [to Strega for cures], because Strega Nona did have a magic touch.” This one line and the images that accompany it could very well offend the Catholic Church. But enough to challenge or ban the book? As Amy L. Campbell from the blog “A Librarian’s Life in Books” said in a September 30, 2010 post:

… if you’re against the magic of Strega Nona, are you still telling them about the magic of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, babies coming from the stork? … Do you still take them to see Disney movies and allow them to play pretend? 

As she points out, childhood is a magical time filled with wonder. And let’s be honest, what Mom or Dad wouldn’t want a magical pasta pot on those busy school nights filled with soccer practice, piano lessons, and homework? I sure would.