Monday, August 2, 2010

Review: In Our Mothers' House by Patricia Polacco

Author: Patricia Polacco
Title: In Our Mother’s House
Illustrator: Patricia Polacco
Publisher: Philomel Books
Publication Date: 2009
ISBN: 978-0-399-25076-7

Our Mothers’ house is just like any other household you may see. We laugh, work, play, and grow together. But one of the neighborhood families doesn’t accept us. You see, we have two mothers instead of a mom and a dad. This doesn’t matter to us. We are loved just the same.

In Our Mother's House by Patricia Polacco is told from the point of view of Meema’s and Marmee’s oldest child, an African-American girl. The reader sees bits and pieces of their lives as the narrator, Will (an Asian-American boy), and Millie (a red-headed Caucasian girl) grow up feeling happy and loved. A confrontation with the prejudice neighbor leads to a joining of forces by all of their other neighbors, showing their acceptance of this unusual family. The three children grow up, get married to heterosexual spouses, and have children of their own as their mothers grow older together. After their death, Will and his family live in the same house where “The walls still whisper our mothers’ name.” It is a place of love.

In Our Mothers’ House by Patricia Polacco opens by introducing each character, when each child joins the family and the jobs, hobbies, and personalities of the two mothers. From that point on, the book is a walk down memory lane, using small events from the children’s lives as they grow up to demonstrate the love that their mothers give to them. They dance, paint on the walls, slide down the banisters, go trick or treating in homemade costumes, get sick together, and more. The extended family is just as close and visits often. “What I loved the most about our family was that we could all speak our hearts. We never measured words.” The closeness of the neighbors to this family is demonstrated when a tree house is built and when a block party is held; they all pitch in to make each endeavor a success.

As each event changed with a turn of the page, I wondered if there was going to be a plot. The book seemed to be like a photo album, a collection of memories. I could see hints of a confrontation to come as the children meet with the rudeness displayed by Mrs. Lockner. She slams the door on them at Halloween, and her children don’t come to the tree house sleepover, even though they had been invited. “They just plain didn’t like us, I guessed. I couldn’t quite understand why.” Mrs. Lockner’s children are excited about the invitation to the block party, but Mrs. Lockner “glared at us, the way she always did.”

Finally, the expected confrontation takes place at the block party. ““I don’t appreciate what you two are!” she snarled at Meema and Marmee...and stalked off. “What’s the matter with her, Momma, what’s the matter with her?” Millie kept saying.... “She is full of fear, sweetie. She’s afraid of what she cannot understand: she doesn’t understand us,” Meema quietly said.”” The neighbors all hug the mothers and stay to talk until late that night. Although not openly calling the mothers lesbians, the implication is there. Will younger children understand the message of the story? Probably only those who come from families with same-sex parents will understand.

Just as I thought we were finished, one more random memory had to be included to demonstrate the love the mothers felt toward their children. They were to host the mother-daughter tea and had to wear dresses. Although the mothers never wear dresses, they do for this one occasion to support their children. This memory interrupts the closing. It is interesting, but not necessary. We already know by then how much the mothers love their children.

Finally, the story wraps up by showing each child’s wedding picture (heterosexual marriages) and what each child becomes when they grow up. The purpose of this appears to be to relay the message that being raised by same-sex parents did not affect the children’s’ future in a ‘negative’ manner. I wonder why Polacco did not have one of the children grow up to be gay. Her message was suppose to be that this type of family is normal, too, but none of the children grow up to display this definition of normality. The reader then sees the mothers growing older and playing with their grandchildren before they pass away. The house stays in the family as Will raises his family there, too.

Yes, the message is clear. Same-sex families who show love toward their children are just like all others. Multi-racial, adopted children, too, are just like all others. It doesn’t matter who is in the family so much as how you are raised. Yet the photo album method of portraying that message drags on and on, leaving me to wonder if it could hold the attention of the children it is written for. The bright colors and expressive faces and bodies of the characters throughout the story are what keeps the reader’s attention. Each character’s personality comes through, not through the words so much as through the illustrations.

One other thing concerns me. This book is an attempt to stop some of the fears and concerns regarding the effects on children who are being raised by same sex parents; however, there is still some stereotyping involved in Polacco’s rendering of the mothers. They are drawn with very short hair similar to a man’s hairstyle, and they always wear pants. The only time they don’t wear pants is for their daughters’ tea party because they are asked to wear dresses. “We had never seen either of them in a dress...ever!” This image is that of the stereotypical lesbian. Doesn’t this image need to be challenged, too?

Although there are shortcomings to In Our Mothers’ House by Patricia Polacco, there are so few books available to meet the needs of children being raised by same-sex parents that this book should be included in a library collection.

Review excerpts:
(May 1, 2009) “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.... This portrait of a loving family celebrates differences....” (Grades 1-4)

Horn Book (Fall 2009) “The nostalgic adult tone and dearth of actual plot severely limit the child appeal of this well-intentioned story played out in Polacco’s recognizable illustrations.”

Kirkus Review (March 15, 2009) “Unfortunately, while this ambitious picture book seeks to offer an inclusive vision of family, it ultimately comes up short.” (6-8)

Library Media Connection (October 2009) “The writing style is truly Polacco and the colorful illustrations are warm and loving. This is a strong and memorable story of a peaceful, devoted family unit.”

School Library Journal (May 1, 2009) “Is this an idealized vision of 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.” (Gr. 1-4)

ALA Rainbow Book List 2010
What’s New in Children’s Literature 2010 (Dr. Peggy Sharp)

Include In Our Mothers’ House by Patricia Polacco in your collection as an example of the diversity of families. The addition of several other books can support the message the story conveys. For middle school on up, Gay and Lesbian Parents by Julianna Fields (2010) is a nonjudgmental presentation of homosexuality and parenting, including a discussion on controversies, laws, when a parent comes out, and various religious and social issues that these families encounter. This book is a part of the series Changing Face of Modern Families published by Mason Crest Publishers (2010). Other books in this series are: Adoptive Parents, Blended Families, Celebrity Families, Families Living with Mental and Physical Challenges, First-generation Immigrant Families, Foster Families, Grandparents Raising Kids, Growing up in Religious Communities, Kids Growing Up without a House, Multiracial Families, Single Parent Families, Teen Parents, and What is a Family?. A website publication written by highschoolers is “The Viking Views.” In their May 28, 2008 edition they explore different families (

For the elementary level, include books on other family units that are different. Single-Parent Families by Sarah L. Schuette (2010) is a part of the My Family series published by Capstone. This series is written for K-3 students and also includes Adoptive Families, Blended Families, and Foster Families. Picture book stories on different families for younger students should be included in your collection. Murphy’s Three Homes: a Story for Children in Foster Care by Jan Levinson Gilman (2009) is written from a dog’s point of view as he is moved around to various foster homes. Some stories about adoptions from China include Star of the Week: a Story of Love, Adoption, and Brownies with Sprinkles by Darlene Friedman (2009), Made in China: a Story of Adoption by Vanita Oelschlager (2008), A China Adoption Story: Mommy, Why do We Look Different? by Frances M. Koh (2000), and Mommy Far, Mommy Near: an Adoption Story by Carol Antoinette Peacock (2000). Megan’s Birthday Tree: a Story About Open Adoption by Laurie Lears explores the wider family that open adoption creates. For teachers or homeschoolers, Teacherlink includes a unit “What Are Different Kinds of Families” at


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