Earlier this year, I interviewed a wonderful young illustrator called Béatrice Boutignon for a TV story I was doing about the gay marriage and gay adoption debate in France. To date, Boutignon has published three children’s books that gently challenge traditional preconceptions of family. I finally picked up her latest book Un air de familles (published by Le Baron Perché) this week and loved it so much that I decided to review it on Goodreads. Tender, persuasive, and completely undidactic, I think Boutignon has hit all the right notes with a young audience that matters enormously in how society will shift in opinion as time goes on.
A cool bit of trivia to show you how this book matters: politician Dominique Bertinotti gifted a copy of it to the Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira herself, who was widely applauded for her passionate defence of gay rights before the French National Assembly last month. So don’t you scoff now. Big differences can come from the small things.
My review, originally on Goodreads:
Un air de familles is a beautifully illustrated children’s book that tries to dismantle traditional preconceptions of family. In this “big book of little differences”, Boutignon uses soft pastels to introduce all sorts of animals and family types: the adopted marmot in a family of racoons, a single polar bear mother, father ostrich with his new boyfriend, mother crane who comes from another country. There isn’t a particular narrative that holds the characters all together. Rather, It is a sampling of day-to-day events of real life, with families at the carnival and in the doctor’s waiting room. The images unfold in two-page spreads, with a short narrative of voices on one end. It’s not immediately apparent who the voices belong to, but Boutignon leaves small hints to help you identify the character in the spread by what he or she says, making the book interactive as well as educational. I definitely found it fun to search for the characters and can imagine that children would too.
With my two papas, we often go to the museum.
They always tell me the stories behind the paintings.
Papa and mama are very impressed by the totem.
When we grow up, my sister and I are going to make one that is just as beautiful!
My brother and I love the painting of the pink flamingos.
My little sister, the daughter of mama and her new lover, just thinks it’s silly.
But what makes this book truly special is its message and timeliness. Un air de familles was published while the gay marriage and gay adoption debate was still raging on in France. For months, all everyone could talk about was whether legalising gay marriage and gay adoption would be a “threat” to family values. Many argued that children had a right to a “normal” family, to grow up with a mother and father.
Boutignon’s illustrations and words push beyond these social constructions in a gentle and undidactic way. The voices you hear in this book are the unassuming voices of the children themselves. A baby chick wonders where his two adventurous mother hens will take him traveling tomorrow. A baby elephant falls asleep as his African dad sings him African nursery rhymes and his Indian mum murmurs Indian lullabies. Three young polar bears cuddle up with their single mother in bed. At the end of the book, Boutignon has inserted an empty box next to a long line of families asking “And you, what is your family like?” It is a soothing and uninvasive lesson about how families come in all shapes and sizes, including your own, and that it’s okay.
If you’re reading this with a child, you’ll no doubt be wondering if you should explain the issues of diversity and tolerance as you go through the book. But you don’t really need to. Boutignon has struck upon a simple and wonderful truth: that children recognise love and happiness when they see it, that that’s what truly defines a family, and that’s all there is to it.