[Image Descriptions: Illustration from an inner page of What’s My Superpower? by Aviaq Johnston & Tim Mack]
In this post: Shame-free children’s books celebrating single mothers.
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Children’s Books Celebrating Single Mothers
When I was little and got upset over little-kid things, my single mom didn’t have the resources other parents did.
She couldn’t tap out when she was tired and overwhelmed.
She couldn’t promise that everything would turn out okay.
She couldn’t afford to bribe me with toys or treats or hire a therapist.
Instead, my mother would tell me stories about her own childhood. She used storytelling to teach me something new, to tell me that I wasn’t alone, and to give me hope.
When I was feeling ugly, she’d tell me stories about the terrible haircuts her mother gave her before picture-day. When I was picked on at school, she’d tell me stories of the bullies she defeated. When I was lonely, she’d tell me stories of her childhood, crowded into a home with nine siblings.
It was genius. She taught me the power of a story. She taught me how to destigmatize, validate, and normalize our identities and our experiences. She taught me the power that fuels everything we do in Books for Littles.
She used storytelling to teach me something new, to tell me that I wasn’t alone, and to give me hope.
So this mother’s day, we’ll celebrate with a collection of picture books that normalize and validate the experiences of single-mother families.
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Single-Mama Stories For Kids Under 3
All of these are appropriate for single-mamas-by-choice, since there’s no mention of a second parent.
*Pretty sure Hands & Hearts (bonus points for normalizing Deaf families) fits here too, but it’s been a while since I read it. If you happen to have a copy on hand, would you mind leaving a comment to let us know if a second parent is mentioned?
And while I usually give some side-eye to books that claim to be ‘for girls’ or ‘the Black version,’ Lullaby for a Black Mother is a rare and appropriate exception. It would be validating read in a Black household, but hugely problematic for white and non-Black people of color to read, as it objectifies and focuses on skin tones. Stuff like “Oh, little dark baby, Night black baby.”
I know this is hard for those of you for whom all things are accessible, but not everything has to be centered on light skin. You’ll be okay.
Celebrating Hard-Working Single Mamas
LET ME TELL YOU why ‘How Mamas Love Their Babies‘ is the BEST book for mother’s day.
If you’re a SWERF (Sex-worker-exclusionary-radical-feminist), this book is going to boil your blood. You should leave now, BTW, because Books For Littles is not for you. A feminist works for equal rights for everybody. Excluding women for their industry is such pure nonsense and SWERFS are nonsense. Go.
For those of you still with me – yay!
The premise of the book is that mamas use their bodies to care for their children. Some (emphasis on ‘some’) mamas use their bodies to grow their babies, feed their babies, snuggle their babies, work outside the home and/or stay at home to care for their babies.
I’ll admit, we struggled to get through this book – the artwork doesn’t cater to kids and they resented reading it. The vintage collages were designed to appeal to trendy hipsters, not to meet kids where they’re at.
But the message is solid, and it’s worth reading. When my kids whined, I told them they’d have to suck it up – they need to understand that the unpaid, invisible labor of women and the under-valued careers dominated by women are hard, valuable work – such as house-cleaning and food service. They managed.
Some of the images (protest signs calling for fair wages and daycare) show how activism is another way to care for our children. While the text doesn’t mention sex work, the author explains that mamas sometimes wear uniforms (from baggy to tight, like a scuba diver’s) and some mamas dance, with images showing platform shoes and a stripper pole, and on a later page, a hotel bed.
This is amazing – because many mamas do have to/choose to support their babies with a career in the sex industry, and these women deserve the same credit for the hard work they do caring for their children. They ALSO deserve access to the same healthcare, education, worker’s rights, and safety my family has access to – something they’re not going to get if we insist they stay invisible.
Big Momma Makes The World (spin on a religious creation story), Creepy Monsters, Sleepy Monsters, How Mamas Love Their Babies, Kate and Nate Are Running Late, Hey Little Baby, Wild Child, Mars Needs Moms, and Teddy’s Favorite Toy. All of these are appropriate for single-mamas-by-choice since there’s no mention of a second parent.
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Children (of Single Mamas) Who Went On To Change The World
The following books are about famous people who were raised by single mothers (but are not themselves single parents). In each of these books, we see how the support and hard work of their parents provided them with the stamina and resources they needed to succeed.
Heads up, these are parents who were not single by choice, although the mentions of death/abandonment by a second parents are brief and age-appropriate.
Caveat for Sonia Sotomayor: While this book offers us an antidote to the demonizing of single mothers in the media, Beverly Slapin from Des Colores offers us some insight into the inevitable whitewashing that happens when a middle-class white man writes about a Puerto Rican Latina navigating economic inequity, and you should be aware of these missteps before reading it with your kids.
And let’s not forget the influential, forward-thinking feminist Dorothea Lange, who divorced her husband and raised her children on her own while managing a career that inspired Americans to develop a social security system.
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Obstacles Facing Single Mothers
For those of you would prefer less sugarcoating – Our culture values individualism and many single mothers don’t have extended family or community ties to rely on. We demonize and discriminate against mothers, women, and unmarried people in jobs, housing, and healthcare. Being the sole breadwinner and parent is difficult, and these books touch on some of the complicated aspects of being a single-parent family.
Boats for Papa (parental abandonment/death and the double workload on the parent left behind), A Father Like That (parental abandonment), Mama Does The Mambo (death & parent dating), Shelter In Our Car (poverty).
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Navigating Obstacles Together
Away is so good! A multiracial, single-parent and single-child family communicate through post-it notes because the daughter is busy with school and mom is busy working. This feels accurate, but also loving and supportive as the daughter prepares for her first time at sleepover camp. Bonus points for the subtle way Qin Leng normalized the daughter’s hearing aid. YES. SO GOOD!
Away, The Road Home (non-binary/gender unspecified parents and children), From The Stars In The Sky To The Fish In The Sea (non-binary child, mother), Hush Little Dragon. All of these are appropriate for single-mamas-by-choice since there’s no mention of a second parent.
Also I should add that Hush, Little Dragon is deliciously macabre, and not for squeamish families. Set to the tune of ‘Hush, Little Baby,’ mama fetches various villagers for her baby to devour. They all get away – but if your kid isn’t into people screaming in terror, maybe skip it. It’s adorable.
I think Over and Under the Pond might fit in here too, but I can’t remember it. I wanted to love this book that normalizes a Black family, but it’s soooo boring. It’s painfully forgettable, and boring books make kids resent the characters they represent. Read at your discretion.
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Single-Parent, Single-Child Family Constellations
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Mamas Who Play
These ones are outside my wheelhouse – my mom struggled in raising me, and we barely saw each other because she worked so much. The first time I saw her laugh, I was 19 years old.
BUT – I know there are single mothers who have the resources and support it takes to occasionally enjoy your time together with your kids. So these are for you! All of these are appropriate for single-mamas-by-choice since there’s no mention of a second parent.
Fostering Independence & Unconditional Acceptance
From body positivity to neurodiversity, all of these stories feature healthy and supportive relationships based in mutual respect, with mothers who foster their children’s independence and views. All of these are appropriate for single-mamas-by-choice since there’s no mention of a second parent.
*Pretty sure Because Your Mommy Loves You fits here too, but I need to double check that no dads are lurking in the background.
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Generational Culture Conflict
The work of Rukhsana Khan deserves it’s own category, because her work is like ten levels above your standard children’s book. I’ve read thousands of children’s books and she’s operating on a whole new level.
The Red Lollipop, a story of sibling conflict, compassion, and forgiveness, validates the experience of children whose parents grew up immersed in a different culture than their own – with all of the social conflicts and frustration that creates. As the daughter of an immigrant, I found this hugely validating. Aaand also it features a single mother (no other parent is mentioned in the story.)
In Silly Chicken, we learn that Rani’s father has died, but that’s just background for her mother’s affection for the family pet, a chicken Rani finds insufferable, akin to sibling rivalry. Being jealous of a chicken sounds ridiculous – unless you’ve actually been a single child, desperate for the attention of your only parent, only to have it stolen by a preening Pomeranian who shits on everything. J/K (not kidding.) I’m fine. IT’S FINE. Also add to that some layers of loss, guilt, and redemption in a children’s book. Someone give this author one billion literature awards.
These stories aren’t for everyone (and there are lots of oblivious white folks from two-parent homes getting all huffy about them with pearl-clutching reviews). But for those of us who have had this experience, Khan offers us comfort in knowing we’re not alone. Rukhsana Khan is a genius.
AWARDS! Give them to her! Someone write a letter or something – wait how even do authors get accolades for stuff?
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Stay Curious, Stand Brave & Be Nice To Your Mother
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