Monday, November 18, 2013

IN OUR MOTHERS' HOUSE, by Patricia Polacco


1.      BIBLIOGRAPHY
Polacco, Patrica.  (2009).  In Our Mothers’ House.  New York: Philomel Books.
ISBN 978-0-399-25076-7
2.  PLOT SUMMARY

In this story, their family of three kids has two mothers.  They go through life laughing and loving each other. Small vignettes are told of ways that Marmee and Meema love their adopted children with all their hearts.  One family in the neighborhood does not like theirs, but this family does not let that family keep them from being a part of the neighborhood or from loving each other.

3.      CRITICAL ANALYSIS

Patricia Polacco is a well-known children’s author who often has written about her past and her Russian, Jewish heritage.  In this case, according to the back jacket sleeve, she did not feel there were enough books that supported “these wonderful, yet untraditional” family structures, so she wrote one.  As Dr. Vardell states, “This topic makes many people uncomfortable.  Some even object to children’s books containing the topic of homosexuality in any way” (Gay Literature for Young People, n.p.)  If a community is reluctant to have literature that references a family with gay or lesbian parents, In Our Mothers’ House would be a good place to start.  It is not didactic, but rather simply shows how much love can be found in an unconventional family.  The family’s healthy love speaks for itself. 

The story is told from the point of view of the oldest child, beginning by saying how Marmee and Meema “walked across dry hot deserts, sailed through turbulent seas, flew over tall mountains and trekked through fierce storms just to bring me home” (Polacco, n.p.)  Right away, the two adult women are established as loving mothers, who are determined to do what is right for their child.  Then the other two children arrive, three years apart each.  The illustrations are warm family scenes, with the women holding their children and everyone smiling.  The fact that each child is a different ethnicity is not mentioned, though the art does a wonderful job of representing each child as an individual, not a racial stereotype.

Because the narrator is a child, the reader must infer why the neighbors don’t like their family for most of the story:  “They just plain didn’t like us, I guessed.  I couldn’t quite understand why.  We always tried to be respectful and friendly, like our mothers taught us.”  Most adults won’t have to guess, but for many children, this may still be a bit of an inference.  It is not until near the end of the book that the neighbor states outright, “I don’t appreciate what you two are!”  Even then, the word “lesbian” or “gay” is never used.  The other neighbors all hug Meema and Marmee and thank them for the block party—showing their support of their family.  So even though Meema and Marmee face judgment, it is minimal in the story.  It peeks through here and there, like when they all go trick or treating or when the treehouse was finished and the Lockner kids were not allowed to come play.  But the focus is really on their wonderful family.

There is no feel-good ending for the Lockner family either, which is a breath of fresh air.  They don’t suddenly see the light and decide that Marmee and Meema are wonderful mothers.  In reality, many families who judge gay/lesbian households are not going to change their mind. But what makes a difference in this story are the neighbors that have always loved this family and show that support publicly, making this a positive book for a family with two mothers or two fathers. 

There are many images of a whole, happy family bursting with joy and love, such as when Polacco writes, “…all of our family holidays began in the kitchen.  Our grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins usually came for the weekend.  Our Italian grandpa, our nonno, was in charge of cooking.”  And the image shows arms widely outstretched to give wonderful hugs to all the kids and family members.  In every possible way, Polacco creates a family image of love, a wonderful place to be.  Through both text and illustrations, this family is presented in an incredibly positive light, which was Polacco’s goal.  “Our mothers loved to laugh,” and “We laughed and laughed,” and “How we loved them for doing this for us.” The implied statement is, “What’s not to love about this family and these two ladies?”

Gentle pencil and soft marker colors create realistic sketchy drawings in Polacco’s signature style.  She shows all three children grown up and married as the book develops.  The emotions on their faces are clear and very poignant.  When Meema and Marmee see their grandchild walk, readers can see their pride and joy. 

The end is touching, as it shows the two women aged but still smiling, arms around each other.  They are sitting on a chair amid a field of stars.  The text tells us, “They passed away within a year of each other.  Will, Millie and I placed them together in a green hillside overlooking the bay very near the place where they pledged their love to each other so many years ago.”  The very last image show the house at night, lit up from within, with children running with sparklers in the darkness.  All three of the children have grown up, married and had children.  The two mothers are gone, but not forgotten, as Polacco writes, “The walls still whisper our mothers’ names.  All of our hearts find peace whenever we are there…not only remembering them, but being there, together in our mothers’ house.” 

This book is a powerful testament to the love and acceptance found in many alternative/nontraditional families. 


4. REVIEW EXCERPT(S)

“Gr 1-4-This gem of a book illustrates how love makes a family, even if it's not a traditional one. The narrator, a black girl, describes how her two Caucasian mothers, Marmee and Meema, adopted her, her Asian brother, and her red-headed sister. She tells about the wonderful times they have growing up in Berkeley, CA. With their large extended family and friends, they celebrate Halloween with homemade costumes, build a tree house, organize a neighborhood block party, and host a mother-daughter tea party. The narrator continually reinforces the affectionate feelings among her mothers and siblings, and the illustrations depict numerous scenes of smiling people having a grand time. Most of the neighbors are supportive, except for one woman who tells Marmee and Meema, "I don't appreciate what you two are." Eventually, the children grow up, marry heterosexual spouses, and return home to visit their aged parents with their own children. Is this an idealized vision of a how a gay couple can be accepted by their family and community? Absolutely. But the story serves as a model of inclusiveness for children who have same-sex parents, as well as for children who may have questions about a "different" family in their neighborhood. A lovely book that can help youngsters better understand their world.”  School Library Journal, May 1, 2009.

“The oldest of three adopted children recalls her childhood with mothers Marmee and Meema, as they raised their African American daughter, Asian American son, and Caucasian daughter in a lively, supportive neighborhood. Filled with recollections of family holidays, rituals, and special moments, each memory reveals loving insight. At a school mother-daughter tea, for instance, the mothers make their first ever appearance in dresses. The narrator recalls ‘My heart still skips a beat when I think of the two of them trying so hard to please us.’ Only a crabby neighbor keeps her children away from their family. Meema explains, ‘She's afraid of what she cannot understand: she doesn't understand us.’ The energetic illustrations in pencil and marker, though perhaps not as well-rendered as in some previous works, teem with family activities and neighborhood festivity. Quieter moments radiate the love the mothers feel for their children and for each other. Similar in spirit to the author's Chicken Sunday, this portrait of a loving family celebrates differences, too. Pair this with Arnold Adoff's Black Is Brown Is Tan (2002), Toyomi Igus' Two Mrs. Gibsons (1996), or Natasha Wing's Jalapeno Bagels (1996) for portraits of family diversity.” Booklist, May 1, 2009.

5. CONNECTIONS
  • Read other books by Patricia Polacco and do an author study.  She has a great many well-loved picture books from which to choose.
  • Read Chicken Sunday, also by Patricia Polacco, and compare and contrast the families presented in that book with In Our Mothers’ House.  Both celebrate families.  Try doing a Venn Diagram to compare and contrast the stories.
  • Read another book that demonstrates a different type of family diversity.  The book Two Mrs. Gibsons, by Toyomi Igus, celebrates growing up biracial by talking about her Japanese mother and her African-American grandmother.
  • Read A Tale of Two Daddies, which also celebrates nontraditional families and supports the GLBTQ, or Daddy’s Roommate, by Michael Willhoite, which includes a divorced father who then finds a male partner. 
  • Try rewriting In Our Mothers’ House from the point of view of one of the mothers, or from the viewpoint of a neighborhood child who is a friend.  How would it be different?
  • Explore Patricia Polacco’s website, which is a wonderful, rich resource and found at http://www.patriciapolacco.com/ .  She has electronic postcards you can make and send, bookmarks you can print with certain images from her books, activity ideas, Q and A related to some of the books (such as giving more information about the Amish for her book Just Plain Fancy) and other interesting facts.  It’s fantastic!


6.  PERSONAL REACTIONS

I have loved Patricia Polacco for years.  I had never read this book, though, so I was glad to check off one more Polacco book that I have read.  I own quite a few of them and this is one I’d be happy to own, too.  It may be a bit of overkill, how happy and wonderful everything is in the story.  We never see the mothers fight, or feel really hurt  by the rejection of their neighbor, but I think that’s okay, given Polacco’s goal.  It’s pretty clear that this book is meant to be positive PR for gay/lesbian families, but I am fine with that.   They get enough negative attention.  I am glad that Polacco has written a great book for children that highlights that love can be found in any family, and love is what counts.

Works Referenced:

Igus, Toyomi.  (2013).  Two Mrs. Gibsons.  New York:  Lee and Low Books.

Oelschlager, Vanita. (2010). A Tale of Two Daddies. Akron, OH: Vanitabooks.

Polacco, Patricia.  (1992).  Chicken Sunday.  New York:  Penguin Group.

Vardell, Sylvia.  (2008.)  “Overview” Culture 6 Inclusion Lit  Texas Woman’s University.  Blackboard class LS 5653, Multicultural Literature for Children and Young Adults.  Web.  Accessed November 18, 2013. 

Willhoite, Michael.  (1990). Daddy's Roommate.  New York:  Alyson Publications.


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