Dispelling the myth of ‘normal families’ for children

Samuel Langley-Swain, Founder of Owlet Press, speaks to their newest author Laura Gallagher about the myths around ‘normal families’ and the need to dispel them: 

Samuel Langley-Swain (SLS): Having never worked in publishing before, I set out on a huge journey as a new parent and self-published author to create an inclusive children’s book publisher in Owlet Press. The jump from author to publisher was the steepest learning curve – learning on the job required hard graft and some ‘fail-fast’ experiences to truly learn the ropes before finding the right partners to help us grow. Unlike many smaller publishers in the market (who are often founded from people leaving larger presses), I literally grew Owlet Press from the ground up and wanted to do things differently.  

I used my drive as a father and my curiosity as an author to shape and grow the business organically. Having enjoyed (and endured) the roller coaster experience of becoming an adoptive parent to two children overnight, I was both provoked and inspired by my children’s universe and particularly their challenges, so began to pen small notes of stories in any moments of ‘downtime’. Being part of a two-dad family I was acutely aware that my children felt our family wasn’t normal and this was further emphasised by the lack of diversity in the books they would read. My focus for Owlet Press was ‘problem-solving’ books for children’s wellbeing, their society & the planet but one thing that always stood out to me was the need for ‘incidental inclusivity’. While we had some really fun and exciting stories to publish, it was important to me that our readers would see children like themselves, with all types of families and backgrounds, within these stories. You won’t find any ‘perfectly normal families’ or white picket fences in our books. Life isn’t perfect and we shouldn’t paint families to be either. 

Laura Gallagaher (LG): No, life is not perfect, by any means, but I feel that I spent my childhood thinking it would be so. When I was a child I was obsessed with musicals and Disney films; I was a dreamer, I loved making up stories, I was (and still am) a hopeless romantic, and a bit of a perfectionist, so finding out that I would need fertility treatment in order to conceive a longed-for baby was a huge shock. How had no one ever told me that infertility was a real problem? How I had got through the first 32 years of my life not knowing anyone that had struggled to conceive or make a family? Why was I so ashamed and embarrassed when the doctor told me I would need IVF to fulfil my dream of becoming a mother? I now know that infertility/assisted conception and adoption are normal, very common and have made dreams come true for so many couples out there, but why is the subject still so taboo? I feel, and this is why my children’s book Robo-Babies is so important to me, that the conversation should be started early. Talking about the emotions around infertility and also the fact that starting a family might not be a straight forward journey is something that will help to build the resilience and understanding of future generations.  

SLS: I completely agree with the harm of happily ever after. While I sadly haven’t come to expect seeing a two-dad family at the heart of an animated film or book, any character that did not fit the nuclear family would almost certainly be a villain or portrayed negatively, for example a step parent, foster carer etc., and don’t even get me started on the overt obsession with orphans and absent parents in films!  As a Christmas treat, we watched three films in the cinema in the same week last year, and they all had themes of parental abandonment! Not only was this triggering but these constantly negative portrayals of anyone that doesn’t fit the typical family model do start to invoke feelings of shame in my children. 

LG: Shame is definitely a word I respond to, and have felt first hand. Going through IVF and the pain and longing for a child, while it was successful for me and my husband, took its toll on our mental health and I have spoken to so many other couples about feelings of shame around infertility. Our son, Rafe, was born two years ago, and we conceived nearly three years ago now. At that time, there wasn’t a book out there that dealt with the feelings and shame around infertility. With Robo-Babies I want to ensure parents own their journeys and celebrate their family types and the wonderful communities they belong to with their children. 

Robo-Babies illustrates a range of family set ups, ultimately celebrating love as the fundamental ingredient in any family, no matter how that family comes together. The use of robot characters was chosen as a way to convey the message clearly and simply to children; robots have parts and sometimes they don’t work, which makes the robots feel sad. The beauty of the book is that it has many layers and can be interpreted to suit the reader or their circumstances. 

SLS:  For me, when we identify an area of family life that is usually not spoken about in children’s books, we collaborate and become part of incredible communities along the way. Engaging targeted communities (such as the adoptive community through my title The Blanket Bears, endorsed by Adoption UK) also plays a key role in our growth as well as national school visits and events. These books become an important pillar in the community in creating recognition and understanding.  

LG: Yes, and Robo-Babies already seems to be doing this in the run up to publication; people are so thrilled to see the book coming out and are using the term ‘Robo-Babies’ to describe their own miracle children! People have told me they are buying copies not only for their own Robo-Babies but for the other children in their extended families, so they can open up the conversation and help everyone to understand their journey. Having pitched this book to many of my friends who had what I would consider a ‘normal’ route to parenthood, they were excited to read this story to their children, in the hope that it takes away the stigma of lack of knowledge and understanding. Why not educate ALL children on these issues? Why not prepare children and help them understand?  

SLS: Seeing the joy in children and parents as they recognise themselves in books is the life blood that keeps me working really hard as a small publisher and author. As I first toured my books around schools and family events, it became so important to me to be able to make a positive difference to the lives of children through writing, reading and publishing stories.  As Owlet Press grows and is getting noticed, we are able to work with new authors from under-represented facets of our society who have the same beliefs as we do. 

LG: That’s why I am so happy to be part of the Owlet Press family. It feels like Robo-Babies is in good company with the other Owlet Press books that educate and help children. How amazing that books can do so much for their readers, children and adults alike! I feel very lucky and grateful that Owlet Press took a chance with my dream and helped it to become a reality. 

SLS: We are so happy to have you! Every one of us in ‘the nest’ is inspired by the challenges children face and we want to package some big issues into joyful and thought provoking stories for them to discuss with friends, families and schools, preparing them for adult life in our complex world. Our uplifting, diverse stories celebrate characters, authors and illustrators and, most importantly, families of all types and all communities. 

Robo-Babies by Laura Gallagher, illustrated by Nicci Martin, is published by Owlet Press (25th August 2020), £6.99 paperback. www.owletpress.com 

Any opinions expressed may not truly reflect those of the FCBG.

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