Fur Better or Worse: Gay Guinea Pigs Wed in New Children’s Book

Uncle
Bobby’s Wedding
, by Massachusetts
author and illustrator Sarah Brannen, is more than just a good LGBT-inclusive
children’s book; it is a good children’s book, period. Like 2005’s And Tango
Makes Three
, about two male penguins who hatch an egg together, it is
likely to garner critical praise as well as ultra-right censorship.

Uncle
Bobby
moves us from feathers to fur, however, and tells the sweet story of
Chloe, an anthropomorphic young guinea pig who worries that Uncle Bobby won’t
keep having fun with her after he marries his boyfriend Jamie. Uncle Bobby
explains that their special times together will not end; Chloe will not be
losing an uncle, but gaining one. The book ends at the wedding, with Chloe as
the enthusiastic flower girl.

Written
from Chloe’s perspective, Uncle Bobby deftly expresses a young child’s
concerns about family relationships and change. It stresses the power of love
to encompass both old and new. Brannen’s rich watercolor drawings match the
tranquil but sometimes playful tone of the text. She has filled the guinea
pigs’ world full of trees, flowers, lakes, and cozy firesides. One can see why
she cites Beatrix Potter as an artistic influence, though Brannen’s characters
seem somehow more cheerful.

The
book’s great strength is that Jamie’s gender is a non-issue throughout. Unlike
many older LGBT-themed children’s books, such as Heather Has Two Mommies,
it doesn’t focus on a child struggling against negative views of her family.
That approach has value for some, but Uncle Bobby indicates it is now
possible to present a same-sex relationship without the need to defend it or
compare it, however favorably, with a heterosexual norm. (Even the excellent And
Tango Makes Three
contrasts the same-sex penguin pair with the usual
opposite-sex couples.) This leaves Brannen free to concentrate on her other
themes, and opens up the book to a wider audience.

The
theme of a niece questioning her gay uncle’s devotion is not a new one,
however. Mini Mia and Her Darling Uncle, by Pija Lindenbaum (R & S
Books), appeared in the U.S.
in late 2007 as a translated Swedish import. (Uncle Bobby was already at
the publisher.) Like Chloe, four-year-old Mini Mia is jealous of her uncle’s
new beau. She acts out in retaliation, pouring sugar on the boyfriend’s shoes
and throwing his towel in the pool, but ends up bonding with him over their
shared love of soccer. Mini Mia stops short of marriage, though.
Mischievous children may find more humor in Mini Mia’s antics than in Chloe’s,
but parents may prefer Uncle Bobby for its calm pacing.

Brannen
says her mellow tone was deliberate. “I felt that I wanted to handle the story
very delicately, because I really wanted this to be as accessible to as many
people as possible. I mean, yes, there are two men getting married, but apart
from that, I didn’t want to put anything in that might bother someone. I tried
to keep it family friendly and reflective of my own life. I didn’t want
anything someone could make a nasty joke about.”

The book is far from somber,
however; adults and children may both smile when Chloe gets soda up her nose
laughing at Jamie’s ballet imitation. Still, there is a serenity about it that
makes it a perfect bedtime read.

Uncle
Bobby
is the first book Brannen both wrote and illustrated, although she
has worked as an illustrator for many years. She did not, however, set out to
write a book about a same-sex relationship.

In the spring of 2005, she was
trying to write a story of her own for her five-year-old niece, who was
fascinated with weddings. Marriage equality had just become law in Massachusetts. “This was
in the news a lot, and I kept seeing such joyful couples,” Brannen explains. A
young gay couple with whom she was friends would also talk to her about the
garden wedding they dreamed of having. “It hit me one day: I’m going to make it
a same-sex wedding. It wrote itself at that point.”

Why
guinea pigs? Brannen wanted a species whose coloring would indicate Bobby and
Jamie were both male. Birds, however, “look silly in clothes,” she says. She
finally chose guinea pigs, which she had raised as a child. “They have these
fat little bodies like water balloons with little legs. I thought they would
look funny and cute walking around on their hind legs.”

She departed from
nature, though, and arbitrarily colored the females brown and males black and
white. “I decided not to make them terribly realistic. I wanted just to create
fat little furry people.”

Brannen paid attention to certain details, however,
such as making sure the wedding guests included both same- and opposite-sex
couples. “I didn’t want to make a big, huge deal out of it,” she says, “but I
certainly thought this is part of the little world they live in.”

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