The Classroom Bookshelf
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Who’s in My Family?

Who’s in My Family?: All About Our Families
Written by Robie H. Harris, Illustrated by Nadine Bernard Westcott
Published by Candlewick Press, 2012
ISBN # 9780763636319

Grades K-2

Book Review

“Wherever you live, wherever you go, there are all kinds of families.” So begins Who’s in My Family?, the latest picture book in the Let’s Talk about You and Me series by best-selling author Robie H. Harris. Harris explores the idea of families through both a straightforward, informational narration and the speech balloons of Gus and Nellie, an observant and  enthusiastic brother-and-sister duo. Together, the text presents an upbeat comprehensive discussion about what families are and what families do: “Families go to the market, to the library, to the doctor, to the dentist, to the park, to the zoo—and to so many other places together”. Add in Westcott’s digitally created, cheery illustrations, and you have an idyllic, inclusive concept book of the many permutations that families can assume, from human to animal. The thoroughly positive and undemanding tone of the book makes this an ideal text to share with very young children as they begin to explore their relationships in the world, as well as what makes them and their families similar and different to those around them.

Teaching Invitations

  • Describing a Day of Family Activities. Harris asserts, “Families fly kites, ride bikes, play catch, get haircuts, buy new shoes, visit friends or grandparents—and do so many other things together.” Have students document and describe one day (preferably a weekend day or another day when everyone is able to be together) in the lives of their family. Use All the World, by Liz Garton Scanlon, as a mentor text to show how to use rhythm, tone, and other figurative language in their descriptions and avoid writing merely a “laundry list” of the day’s events. 
  • Thinking about Our Own Families. The text provides abundant examples of diverse kinds of families. So do the illustrations. Going page by page, have students identify and list the kinds of families that are mentioned and depicted. Then, ask if they see their kinds of families on the list, or if they know of anyone whose families fit the descriptions. Have the students bring in photos of their families to complete the list, and invite different family members to class to help your students name and explain who is in their family, and what they like to do together. You might even turn activity this into a class bulletin board, blog, wiki, or glog to share with others. 
  • Animal Families. The book also takes time to explain that human families are just as diverse as families in the animal world. Engage your students in an inquiry about the different types of family units found among animals. For example, rabbits and fish have multiple babies at once, while whales and horses give birth to and take care of one baby at a time. In some animal families, the male partner assumes a major share of the childrearing efforts, such as seahorses and penguins. Have small groups of students pick an animal species they would like to research, and then create a class blog or wiki about those animals’ families. You might also want to share a clip from the popular Animal Planet television series Meerkat Manor to launch this unit (see the website in Further Explorations below). 

Critical Literacy

  • Family Difficulties. Who’s in My Family? concludes with the narrated text, “Most of all, and most of the time, and no matter what—children and grown-ups and their families really do love one another!”, as well as the Gus’s exclamation, “Families love to be together!” While the purpose of Harris’s book is to celebrate the diverse make-up and daily activities of families, it may inadvertently position children whose families are not able to embrace such statements. As educators, we must deal with the tough reality that some of our students live in family circumstances marked by violence, substance-abuse, estrangement, illness, financial hardship, and other less-than-happy situations on a daily basis. While sharing this book with students, make sure to observe any student responses that express any disconnections to the themes of the text, even subtle disconnections. As professionals, you’ll know best how to handle the situation on an individual basis. Perhaps you’ll want to engage the student in a one-to-one conference, or give him/her a creative writing assignment to respond to the text, or perhaps pair this text with another picture book that deals directly with some of these tough issues. 
  • Investigating Different Views on Family. – Harris and Westcott do a commendable job including and honoring diverse definitions and understandings of what families are and what they do together. However, a substantial number of people believe in stricter definitions of families and may therefore disagree with the themes and representations in this picture book. Rather than ignore or refute that dissent, engage your students in a thoughtful inquiry about why people hold different definitions and views on families. Where and from whom did they learn those definitions? Why are they held valuable? Could there be other acceptable definitions, or perhaps circumstances that would allow for different definitions to be accepted? What happens when different people hold different values and definitions about families? What can be done to help us reach common ground and understanding? This is a tricky matter, but one that can be successfully explored in primary grades. For help learning how to carry on such conversations with young children, see the professional articles and books on critical literacy instruction by teacher educators including Jerome Harste, Vivian Vasquez, Stephanie Jones, and Maria Souto-Manning. 

Further Explorations

Online Resources

Robie H. Harris’s website
http://robieharris.com 

United Nations International Day of Families
http://www.un.org/en/events/familyday

Families First Parenting Programs
http://www.families-first.org

Families and Work Institute
http://www.familiesandwork.org

Meerkat Manor – Animal Planet series
http://animal.discovery.com/fansites/meerkat/meerkat.html

Books

Hoffman, M. (1995). Boundless Grace. New York: Puffin Books.

  • The sequel to Hoffman’s popular book, Amazing Grace, follows the titular character to Africa where she meets her father’s new family.

Frame, J. A. (2003). Yesterday I had the blues. Ill. by R. G. Christie. XXX: Tricycle Press.

  • In this picture book, a young boy contemplates how his different emotions impact the various members of his family. 

Jenkins, E. (2001). Five creatures. Ill. by T. Bogacki. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux.

  • A lighthearted picture book about a young girl who compares and contrast the three humans and two cats that make up her family. 

Kuklin, S. (2006). Families. New York: Hyperion Books for Children. 

  • A nonfiction picture book featuring interviews with children from fourteen very different families. 

Morris, A. (2000). Families. New York: HarperCollins. 

  • A photoessay picture book of family diversity across the world. 

Myers, W. D. (2009). Looking like me. Ill. by C. Myers. XXX: Egmont, USA. 

  • A jazzy picture book in which a young boy seeks out all the people in his life who make him who he is. 

Oelschlager, V. (2009). A tale of two daddies. Ill. by K. Blackwood & M. Blanc. Akron, OH: Vanita Books, LLC.

— (2011). A tale of two mommies. Ill. by M. Blanc. Akron, OH: Vanita Books, LLC. 

  • Two picture books about the nontraditional make-up of two children’s families, each told from the perspective of a curious young peer. 

Parr. T. (2010). The family book. New York: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. 

  • A whimsical picture book celebrating the diversity of families. 

Richardson, J., & Parnell, P. (2005). And Tango makes three. Ill. by H. Cole. New York: Simon & Schuster. 

  • The picture book true story of two male penguins in the Central Park Zoo who partner up to hatch a penguin egg and raise a family. 

Scanlon, L. G. (2009). All the world. Ill. by M. Frazee. New York: Beach Lane Books. 

  • A 2010 Caldecott Honor book that celebrates a modern family’s day spent together. 

Grace Enriquez About Grace Enriquez

Grace is an associate professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former English Language Arts teacher, reading specialist, and literacy consultant, she teaches and writes about children’s literature, critical literacies, and literacies and embodiment. Grace is co-author of The Reading Turn-Around and co-editor of Literacies, Learning, and the Body.