A Blended Christmas: An Interview with Jennie Guay
Howie Blend Playdate Adventures is the first book in a promised series, how many do you hope to write and can you share a sneak peak of any future themes?
My aim is to have two more Howie Blend books released. I want to incorporate socio-economic dynamics as well as religious dynamics into the character development of Howie and his 5 friends. It’s so important when speaking to our kids that we highlight that we are not only beautifully different physically and within our family dynamics and structures, but we may have differing religious affiliations and perhaps differing financial means and lifestyles. This can be played out in the way we all celebrate religious holidays or the places we may vacation etc. These life elements, which our kids see everyday amongst their friends and peers, are integral components of understanding ALL of the beautiful ways we are all different and unique.
When you first came up with the idea and the characters was it clear to you that you wanted to write a series of books?
Not at all, I had originally started writing the stories just for my stepchildren so that we could read them something that reflected our family dynamic. It naturally developed into a ‘six stories in one’ children’s book and I saw the potential the book had to fill the gap for blended and diverse families, giving parents who are concerned their children do not see representation the option to find books that reflect themselves and their lifestyles on mainstream bookshelves. I am looking to expand Howie Blend into a television series as well, to accompany the books.
Your aim is to boost an understanding of diversity and diversity in children’s literature. What is it that you think is missing and how did this come to your attention?
It wasn’t until we entered a pandemic and my wife and I began homeschooling that I really started to notice a lack of representation in the books and content that our children were consuming. This realisation left me shocked and a little horrified.
I didn’t really consider just how important ensuring diverse and blended families like ours are represented was until shopping for a birthday present for one of our children. I was walking up and down the aisles at a children’s toy store when I realised there weren’t toys or books that showed families like ours. I never did find a book that represented our family instore. I had to dig online and order. You simply cannot find LGBTQ+ blended family books on the shelves of high street shops. In fact, its not just LGBTQ+ families that are lacking representation in mainstream childrens books and TV. It’s all families that aren’t heteronormative and nuclear. For instance - Divorced families aren’t mainstreamed, adoptive families are mainstreamed interracial families aren’t mainstreamed. There is huge portion of society that is completely left out of children’s mainstreamed books and tv. That was what drove me to write a children’s book which represents many types of beautifully diverse and blended families. I think it’s empowering for my children if they can open a book and see that families like theirs exist and are just as valid as any other. Validation for children is imperative to their healthy development, especially during their formative years. If I can’t see myself or my family in what I engage with everyday, what does that say about me and my value in this world?
Howie Blend is the name of your character and he comes from a Blended Family (I assume hence the name), what does the idea of a blended family mean to you and how do you explain it to children?
Despite what many books and TV programmes show, the reality is that families come in all shapes and sizes! Whether a family is created through a man and woman, or through artificial insemination; through egg and sperm donation, adoption, surrogacy or divorce and remarriage, a family is a family. The problem rooted in the past, one we continue to fail in, is creating content for children that reflects this reality. TODAY’s world. This problem was also made incredibly apparent when simply shopping for a birthday present for one of my kids. Teaching our children love, acceptance and inclusion should never be a ‘hard’ conversation some tips I often offer to parents are:
Start by reflecting on yourself. Your children are always watching what you do. They see how you handle stress, how you treat other people and how you deal with your feelings – and they soak it all in like little sponges – even when you don’t think they’re paying attention. Before you start having conversations with your children, consider how you have behaved in front of them and ask yourself the following questions:
- Have I asked them what they understand of our own family (whether divorced, blended or not)?
- How am I talking about issues surrounding diversity in general when my kids are in ear shot?
- Am I talking to my kids about racial diversity, differently abled children and LGBTQIA+ and ensuring they are equipped with the right information to engage with their peers in a healthy and respectful way and so that they feel comfortable in their own skin?
Once you have answered these, you will have a better gauge on what information your kids might have already picked up on and plan the way you want to communicate to fill in the gaps.
I would also say, never shy away from your kids questions. It can be embarrassing for us as parents sometimes and they often know how catch us off guard with their line of questioning. This is because kids are constantly processing messages and information from what they see, read and hear. They are inquisitive and if they haven’t yet started asking you the hard questions about things that may make you uncomfortable…they will! So make sure you are prepared and can answer them in an age-appropriate manner. Avoid shutting down a conversation, don’t lie or ignore the questions. It is important for children to feel encouraged to have open conversations with you about people, families and their uniqueness.
Afterwards, always reflect back on your conversation and think about any improvements for next time. When speaking to my kids about differences and diversity, I always refer to love. It doesn’t matter how different one person is to the next or how different one family unit looks to another; the foundation of a healthy family unit is unconditional love, understanding and acceptance, and that can come in different shapes and sizes. This is the message I ensure is CLEAR in all of my communications with my kids. Whether a family is created through “natural conception” with a man and woman or through artificial insemination, egg and sperm donation, adoption, remarriage or surrogacy, etc. a family is a family. No family is different, they are all unique and the love we feel for our families is the same.
How do you think the festive season, and other celebratory occasions, affect blended families and do you hope your stories will help?
Holiday time can be a chaotic time for both parents and children, which can be further complicated by the multi-family dynamic that comes with blended families. Parents in divorced situations and/or shared custody arrangements know that logistics are one of the most difficult things to manage. Especially at Christmas and other holidays. Our kids have two homes. We share equal custody. So for instance, Christmas school holiday time is split equally. This means our kids spend the first week at one home and the second week at the other. We have Christmas morning as the handover day so the kids get to share Christmas day at both of their homes – Christmas morning at one home and the afternoon at the other. This is alternated every year. This may not work for some families, but it works well for ours and Santa knows he makes two stops for our kids 😊 The goal is always to make it as seamless as possible for the children. This is going to vary depending on the situation and dynamic of each family.
How did you decide on the nature of the characters – are they based on children in your own life?
Some of the characters are inspired by families and kids I have come across in my life. I wanted to ensure that each of the six characters came from blended and/or diverse families. While there is of course LGBTQ+ families represented, it is not an LGBTQ+ focused book. Nor is it a book about race or abilities specifically. Howie Blend is a book with characters that represent a variety of different people and families; driving the message home to its readers that ALL of our differences and families are mainstream and valid.
Was writing this story, on this topic, a very natural process for you?
Yes absolutely! The whole process came naturally. Each story was inspired by playdates my children have had and things they like to do. As I mentioned, as there was nothing like Howie Blend readily available, I sat down with my pen and paper and started writing out of pure frustration and necessity! I began describing characters; how they looked, their personalities, characteristics etc. The more I wrote, the more alive each character became. From there, I was able to visualise their families and the kinds of playdates Howie would have with them.
Would you like to branch out and write books for children on other themes or is this series going to be all you feel you want to write?
I envision Howie Blend to not just be a book, but also a TV series, an app and even a line of toys so it can touch all aspects of children’s reading and play. I would like to create the first ever multisensory and inclusive children’s brand which parents are able to lean on as a tool to talk about the diverseness in our world.
How will you and your family be spending the upcoming festive season?
Every year I turn the house into a Christmas grotto! Well maybe that’s an exaggeration, but I certainly have every inch of our home covered in Christmas decorations. I absolutely LOVE Christmas! We will visit a couple of Santas Grottos, see the Christmas lights in our community, we do loads of Christmas baking (Christmas Bark is my speciality!) and we have the kids donate Christmas boxes to the same charity each year which they love to do. We will also have loads of lovely Christmas lunches and parties with friends and family over the month of December. But our absolute FAVOURITE thing to do as a family over Christmas is snuggle on our sofa with our two dogs in front of the fire and watch Christmas films. There is simply nothing better than that!
Jennie Guay, author of Howie Blend: Adventures with Family and Friends, the first of the series which looks to promote diversity in children’s reading and play, currently available online on Amazon, Waterstones, WH Smith, and Barnes & Noble.