Thematic Route edited by MeTRa Centre, University of Bologna (Italy)


In children’s fiction, families often play a central role and many stories take place in a domestic setting. However, “book” families as opposed to “real” families still tend to be widely represented as the traditional nuclear family: father, mother, children. Such a stereotypical portrayal is still too often presented as the norm, thus ignoring the complexity and plurality of everyday real life experienced by most children, both directly and through their friends’ lives. As Mary Hoffman notes in The Great Big Book of Families, “Once upon a time most families in books looked like this – one daddy, one mummy, one little boy, one little girl, one dog and one cat. But in real life, families come in all sorts of shapes and sizes.”

Children’s literature and picture books have been widely analysed, revealing their role in fostering and reinforcing gender stereotypes, in terms of male and female characters’ portrayal, gender roles and asymmetrical male-female relationships. In particular, female characters tend to be under-represented and passive; they are mostly depicted in enclosed spaces, performing traditional roles. When it comes to parents and parental roles, both mothers and fathers tend to be depicted stereotypically. Stereotypical gender roles persist and traditional gender-stereotyped parental behaviour dominates: the traditional model of the mother as homemaker and the father as breadwinner mostly remains the norm. Mothers are selfless, nurturing, overly affectionate, and/or controlling, strict and matronly; they are depicted as busy undertaking domestic chores and involved in childcare. Fathers are often under-represented, they are “invisible,” absent, uninvolved in childcare and domestic activities, working outside of the house, unaffectionate and unable to express emotions. By fostering unequal, hierarchical gender and social roles, families are therefore central to a mechanism of underestimation of female characters, qualities, and activities generally at work in the representation of female and male characters, both children and adults. At the same time, male characters are “imprisoned” in rigid and conservative representations of masculinity that limit the possibility of alternative models. Both heterosexual nuclear families and highly normative images of mothers and fathers still prevail.

If gender representations are paramount to children’s socialization and identity development, it is then essential to offer all children books that mirror their lives as well as stereotype-free books that value and validate their experiences of families. The inclusive portrayal of families aims to validate the everyday experience of children, notwithstanding the type of family they belong to. Families are no longer monolithic, but plural and changing. A representation that takes into account that reality, without hierarchically ranking different family experiences, meets children’s desire and need for acceptance and belonging, while educating them to diversity and respect.

In light of this mainstream representation, both of families and characters within them, books dealing with “non-traditional” families underline how each experience of family is valuable and positive, that families may come in different shapes and sizes, and that one family is not better than another. Books gathered under this thematic route help children discover the different forms a family can take and the different ways in which it can be created. Families can be nuclear (Una familia muy normal), single-parent (Una mamma e basta; Mara i tata), same-sex (Heather has two mommies; Le mie due mamme; Il matrimonio delle mie due mamme; Je ne suis pas une fille à papa; Papa, c’est quoi un homme haut sèkçuel?; Daddy’s roommate; Mi papá es un payaso; Yo tengo dos mamas), multiracial (Questa non è una baby-sitter); parents can be divorced and families blended (Qual è il segreto di papà?; Yo también tengo un padre; Ma super famille), children can be adopted or in foster care (Matilde si fida; Осиновяване / Adoption; Welcome to the family) and their parents may not be their biological ones. By meeting different families, sometimes human sometimes animal (La famille dans tous ses états; Naše obitelji; ¡Maravillosas familias!; In famiglia; The great big book of families; Worm loves worm), children learn that what matters is happiness and love, not gender, biological origin, and skin colour. The books included in this bibliography celebrate diversity and convey a multifaceted, pluralist, non-discriminatory portrayal of families in terms of composition, gender, and ethnicity.

These family-themed books promote cultural and mutual understanding and teach children the importance of diversity, gender equality, and respect. By widening the representation of families to encompass the plurality of real-life families, these books also break gender stereotypes, especially in terms of parental portrayals and roles. Sometimes mothers and fathers are single parents, and they are happy and fulfilled; mothers are strong and resourceful, they work and have a career; fathers are portrayed while spending time with their children, taking care of them, undertaking domestic chores or helping in domestic activities, thus sharing care and domestic work with their partners; they are also shown having feelings and emotions. Some books focus on the relationship between a father or a mother and their child, underlining the value and importance of a strong emotional bond. But families are not made up of only parents, even grandparents (Il trattore della nonna; W i nonni!), brothers and sisters (Mia sorella è un quadrifoglio; ¡Manda narices!; L’une belle ; Oh, boy!; Маслекют на горния етаж / Maslekjut on the upper floor), uncles and aunts (Il matrimonio dello zio; Willie and Uncle Bill) join these new, multifaceted, stereotype-free portraits of “real” families.

The inclusive portrayal of families proposes that “the bond that unites a family is not that of blood, but that of respect and joy for each other’s lives. What makes us parents and children is neither flesh nor blood; it is the heart” (Sandro Natalini, In famiglia).


Some outstanding books on families:

  • Andrés, José Carlos, Hernández, Natalia, Mi papá es un payaso. NubeOchoEdiciones, Madrid, 2015.
  • Austrian, J. J., Curato, Mike, Worm loves worm. HarperCollins/Balzer& Bray, New York, 2016.
  • Battilani, Antonella, Matilde si fida. Almayer, Modena, 2008.
  • Boulanger, Anne, Papa, c’est quoi un homme haut sèkçuel? Zoom éditions, Merzig, 2007.
  • Емилова, Ваня, Илиева, Антоанета, Маслекют на горния етаж (Maslekjut on the up floor), Рива, София, 2016.
  • Fiengo, Maria Silvia, Not, Sara, Il matrimonio dello zio. Lo Stampatello, Milano, 2014.
  • Guerrero, Luisa, ¡Maravillosas familias! ONG por la no discriminación, Barcelona, 2011.
  • Herrera Patiño, Gladys, Kaia, Una familia muy normal.Edex, Bilbao, 2012.
  • Hoffman, Mary, Asquith, Ros, The great big book of families. Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, London, 2015.
  • Hoffman, Mary, Asquith, Ros, Welcome to the family. Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, London, 2014.
  • Honoré, Christophe, Guillopé, Antoine, Je ne suis pas une fille à papa. Thierry Magnier, Paris, 1998.
  • Honoré, Christophe, Le Gac, Gwen, L’une belle, l’autre pas. Actes sud junior, Arles, 2013.
  • Iacolucci, Fabiana, Il matrimonio delle mie due mamme. Il Ciliegio, Lurago D’Erba, 2017.
  • Iacolucci, Fabiana, Le mie due mamme. Il Ciliegio, Lurago D’Erba, 2017.
  • o.o., Našeobitelji. Roditelji u akciji – RODA, Zagreb, 2017.
  • Knežević, Đurđa, Grozaj, Petra, Mara i tata. Pučko otvoreno učilište Korak po korak, Zagreb, 2006.
  • Kuruvilla, Gabriella, Giandelli, Gabriella, Questa non è una baby-sitter. Terre di Mezzo, Milano, 2010.
  • Lázaro López, Carmen, Yo tengo dos mamás, ¿y tú?Autoedición, Madrid, 2016.
  • Liván, Paco, Prieto, Iván, ¡Manda narices! OQO Editora, Pontevedra, 2005.
  • Masini, Beatrice, Junaković, Svjetlan, Mia sorella è un quadrifoglio. Carthusia, Milano, 2012.
  • Maxeiner, Alexandra, Kuhl, Anke, La famille dans tous ses états. La joie de lire, Genève, 2017.
  • Милчева, Велина, Коларова, Емилия, Осиновяване: Кученцето Лила избира майка (Adoption: Puppy Lila chooses a mother). Прес, София, 2009.
  • Murail, Marie-Aude, Oh, boy! L’école des loisirs, Paris, 2015.
  • Natalini, Sandro, In famiglia. Fatatrac, Firenze, 2011.
  • Newman, Leslea, Cornell, Laura, Heather has two mommies. Candlewick Press, Somerville, 2016.
  • Nöstlinger, Christine, Yo también tengo un padre. Alfaguara, Madrid, 2002.
  • Obber, Cristina, Vinciguerra, Silvia, Giorgia e Giorgio. W i nonni! Settenove, Cagli, 2017.
  • Pardi, Francesca, Bucher, Ursula, Una mamma e basta. Lo Stampatello, Milano, 2013.
  • Pardi, Francesca, Guicciardini, Desideria, Qual è il segreto di papà? Lo Stampatello, Milano, 2011.
  • Raisson, Gwendoline, Le Huche, Magali, Ma super famille. Père castor – Flammarion, Paris, 2009.
  • Roveda, Anselmo, Domeniconi, Paolo, Il trattore della nonna. Giralangolo, Torino, 2014.
  • Schwartz, Amy, Willie and Uncle Bill. Holiday House, New York, 2012.
  • Willhoite, Michael, Daddy’s roommate. Alyson Wonderland, Los Angeles, 2001.
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