Welcome to the Family
Q&A with Mary Hoffman and Ros Asquith
Q1. Welcome to the Family takes one element of The Great Big Book of Families – the arrival of new members into a family – and explores all the different ways a baby or child can become part of a family. When didyou get the idea for writing Welcome to the Family? Who came up with it?
Mary:It actually arose out of a conversation we were having with Lo Stampatello, the Italian publishers of the Great Big Books of Families and Great Big Book of Feelings. The two women who run Lo Stampatello are life partners with four children together and are dedicated to showing a wider range of families in the books they publish. And it meshed with ideas that Janetta Otter-Barry and I had talked about years ago when we were wondering about doing a picture book about fostering and adoption. As with the Great Big Books, of which this is a sort of spin-off, we want to show the full range of possible family situations, while also stressing that some people do not live in families and may or may not be happy about that.
Ros: Initially I thought it would be a very tricky subject to do for this age group. I was concerned it might come across as a biology primer, but soon realised we could do it with humour. My main stipulation was, no diagrams! But I was quickly won over to the idea because I meet so many children who come from such a wide variety of families and these simply aren’t catered for in most children’s books. We are running to keep up with real life.
Q2. What was your publisher’s response to the book? How has it been received by overseas publishers?
Mary: Janetta tells me that we have eight foreign editions on the first printing and we
feel confident that there are more to come. The responses we are getting indicate that this book is unique in showing all the ways babies and children come into their families and in the breadth of the types of families we show in the book.
Ros: We’re hoping it will match The Great Big Book of Families and The Great Big Book of Feelings, now in eighteen languages.
Q3. Did you work with or consult any particular organisations or groups over the content? Did you test any spreads or sections out with children?
Ros:I talked to children about their differing experiences of coming into families. One eight year old patiently explained to me that she had three mums, four dads, two brothers and seven half-siblings. She was confused herself – and so was I, when I tried to draw her family tree with her! Another boy was fostered three times before being adopted. Children are eager to see representations of families that reflect their own lives. Teachers feel the same, so I feel there will be a big welcome for this book.
Mary:Not formally in my case on this book, though I know Janetta tried the text out in a primary school. I had one family I know very much in the forefront of my mind, where the parents had a first child by sperm donation from a gay friend and then unexpectedly a second child who was theirs biologically. The first child had three sets of grandparents and used the terms “dad” and “bio-dad.” Where were the books showing that sort of family?
Q4. The book covers a huge range of different often complex situations clearly and in a way that children will be able to understand. Were anyspecific arrivals into the family particularly challenging to depict?
Ros:It was all a challenge for me as an illustrator: how for instance, do you show, visually, that a child is adopted? That is why cartoons are so useful – adding speech bubbles allows the children – and parents – to tell their stories.
Mary: For me the hardest thing was making sure I wasn’t writing a sex education book! There is some minimum information you have to have in there but we very much didn’t want it to be a biology lesson; it’s about a range of ways of coming into families.
Q5. Text and pictures complement each other perfectly. How closely together do the two of you work?
Mary: As closely as we possibly can! It’s a huge advantage that Ros is also an accomplished writer and that, although I didn’t have quite as many Good Fairies at my Christening as she did, I did Art to A level and have quite a visual imagination.
Ros: Very closely. We had several meetings about the essential ideas, then I went away to do a shed-load of roughs that vaguely represented the themes. Then slowly (very slowly) the book took shape with countless revisions. Some ideas were too complex to include, others had to be jettisoned for reasons of design and space. Alas, I had no good fairies, as I was never christened – but Mary, as you can see, had more than enough for us both.
Q6. As with all your collaborations, there is a great deal of humour here. How important is that to you? Do you have a favourite cartoon in this book?
Ros:Whenever I got passionate about anything at school, I found people drifting away. My response was to make the same point, but humorously. People drifted back. I’ve found this remains true today. It’s not simply about sugaring the pill, it’s a way to make serious observations accessible, and I hope, enjoyable. Or, as my cartoon creation Doris, (a cleaner) used to say: ‘Loaf and the world loafs with you. Sweep and you sweep alone.’ I quite like the girl with the watering can trying to grow a baby along with the plants.
Mary: I think it’s vital, when you are dealing with such big, important, serious themes, to find a light touch. I love the baby-making machine, which came entirely from Ros’s fecund imagination!
Welcome to the Family, Mary Hoffman and Ros Asquith, Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 978-1847804617, £11.99