In Our Mothers’ House
By Patricia Polacco
cover image retrieved November 25, 2012 from
Polacco, Patricia. In Our Mothers' House. New York: Philomel Books, 2009. ISBN 978-0399250767
This story of the love of a family is told by the oldest of the three adopted kids in the family. She and her younger brother and sister are of different ethnicities, but there is unconditional love and acceptance here, where they are growing up with two mothers and no father. Ordinary activities, which kids of all family arrangements experience, are related with love and compassion. The happiness and dedication of a family over a lifetime is portrayed with simplicity and tenderness.
Broaching a once-taboo subject, growing up in an ethnically blended home with lesbian parents, is handled with compassion and directness, even if it is presented a bit idyllically at times. This story also has the rare quality that the three adopted children in the family are from different races. Many books featuring adoption focus on same race additions to a family, or one race, rather than this multicultural mix. Ms. Polacco treats both areas with kind humanity, centering on the family’s enduring love.
Cultural markers are challenging to identify, since there are so few children’s books about living in a family with lesbian parents from which to draw comparisons. Illustrations depict the mothers with short, close-cropped hair. This is stereotypically considered to be indicative of lesbians. Other markers, that are more societal, include the family dealing with the disproval of a neighbor, and making every effort to build the family life they desire, such as participating in school events with the kids. The narrator describes her upbringing as one filled with love, which I believe would be just as culturally authentic as an upbringing in any family arrangement. The mothers are depicted in the illustrations glowing with love as they look at the children and at one another. This, too, is reasonable in a family that chooses to work at providing a loving, stable home.
The ethnicities of the adopted children provide another opportunity to examine cultural accuracy. Illustrations show the beautiful skin tones of the brother and sisters, depicting their different racial origins. Hairstyles are accurate, with the oldest sister having nappy black hair characteristic of African Americans, Will (the middle child) sporting straight, jet black hair characteristic of Asian Americans, and Millie, the baby of the family, with pale white skin, pink cheeks, and bright red hair commonly associated with those of Irish descent. One of the mothers, Meema, is described as being of Italian descent, and characterized as a wonderful cook. The full-figured Italian mother-cook is stereotypical of Italians.
This story is presented in a very idealized way. Is it a true representation of growing up in a family with lesbian parents? Possibly, but it should not be seen as typical. My personal experiences with children from such families is not nearly as positive, though I know that should not be considered the norm, either. Growing up differs vastly for all kids, regardless of home structure. In Our Mothers’ House tells one loving family’s story very well. It is a sweet picture book that can be enjoyed by readers who are interested in stories of family life, told from different perspectives.
Best Books Lists/Awards
Rainbow List, 2010 ; American Library Association; United States
Linda Perkins (Booklist, May 1, 2009 (Vol. 105, No. 17))
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. Similar in spirit to the author’s Chicken Sunday, this portrait of a loving family celebrates differences, too.
Kristine Wildner (Catholic Library World, March 2010 (Vol. 80, No. 3))
An idealized story filled with unconditional love and understanding, the narrative begins with the joy of a difficult adoption, explained in metaphoric terms as the mothers “flew over tall mountains and trekked through fierce storms just to bring me home.” Most of the book is filled with anecdotes of their happy lives with “Meema” and “Marmee”. The story concludes “happily ever after” with the women growing old together, and the children happily married to the opposite sex. Clearly, Polacco has written this book to fill a void in children’s literature to recognize and honor alternative family structures. The story itself is not remarkable--well-written, nicely illustrated, but not an outstanding effort. Whether or not our values condone this lifestyle, there are children in our Catholic schools living in similar situations. Many will welcome the recognition of these families in this story. Nevertheless, this book is bound to raise a lot of eyebrows, and perhaps displeasure, especially in a religious school. Librarians should understand their student and parent population, and consult with their principal prior to purchase.
Kirkus (Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 2009 (Vol. 77, No. 6))
The placement of the title's possessive apostrophe here is no typo: Two mothers own this house, and they have filled it with lots of love. Unfortunately, while this ambitious picture book seeks to offer an inclusive vision of family, it ultimately comes up short. Meema and Marmee's eldest daughter offers a sweeping narrative about three children embraced by their loving, interracial, adoptive family and multicultural community, with their "mothers' house" at the center of it all. It is outside of this safe haven that the children face overt and neatly contained homophobia in the character of one bad apple, who declares, "I don't appreciate what you two are!" The distillation of hate into a single character undermines the reality of systematic oppression faced by same-sex couples; furthermore, the flash-forward narration depicting each child grown and married into heterosexual, mono-racial unions ironically presents this family as an anomaly. There is a desperate need for books that present queer families as just another part of the American quilt, but this title, despite its obvious good intentions, doesn't do it.
· Students will brainstorm a list of things they enjoy doing with their family. They will then each select one event that is a treasured time with the family. Create a graphic organizer detailing the specifics of that event- Who is involved, Where does it take place, When is it most likely to occur, What goes on, Why is it special? Students will use this information organizer to write a three - five paragraph paper about this special event. Illustrate the text.
· This is a story of a non-traditional family. Students will read other stories of non-traditional families, such as Do I Have a Daddy? : A Story for a Single-Parent Child by Jeanne Warren Lindsay, Black, White, Just Right! by Marguerite W. Davol, or All Kinds of Families by Norma Simon. Students will select one of the stories and compose a poem about growing up in that type of family. Poems should include sensory and emotive descriptions.
· The family in In Our Mothers’ House enjoys time spent together. Select at least five events described in this story to illustrate together, creating a mural of special family activities.
· The narrator describes and the illustrator captures the physical descriptions of the narrator and her siblings. Students will create a self-portrait and write a brief description of themselves from the shoulders up. E.g.: hair, eyes, skin tone, facial features, etc.
· Students will research their family heritage, back to at least their great-grandparents on one side of the family. Students will create a family tree, showing family members on each side of the family, names, illustration, and a sentence describing the person, based on interviews with family members.
Other books by Patricia Polacco
· Boat Ride with Lillian Two Blossom
· The Keeping Quilt
· Uncle Vova's Tree
· Babushka's Doll
· Just Plain Fancy
· Thunder Cake
· Appelemando's Dreams
· Dream Keeper
· Some Birthday!
· Chicken Sunday
· Mrs. Katz and Tush
· Picnic at Mudsock Meadow
· Babushka Baba Yaga
· The Bee Tree
· My Rotten Redheaded Older Brother