Queer parents often wonder what their children will call them, but the Lotterys have it figured out. There’s MaxiMum (from Jamaica), CardaMom (of the Mohawk Nation) and their co-parents, PopCorn (from the Yukon) and PapaDum (after the tasty cracker of his native India, not because of a lack of intelligence). The two same-sex couples are co-parenting seven children and a menagerie of animals in Emma Donoghue’s funny and clever new middle-grade novel, “The Lotterys Plus One.”
This is the first book for that age range from Donoghue, a lesbian mom herself, whose 2010 adult novel “Room” was an international bestseller and shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize. “The Lotterys Plus One,” with its blend of family shenanigans, whimsy and heart, should win her new fans — and Caroline Hadilaksono’s illustrations perfectly capture Donoghue’s whimsical, energetic tone.
The parents, we learn, are two couples who became best friends and decided to have a baby together — then won the lottery, bought a big house in Toronto, grew their family further through childbearing and adoption and took the mutual surname Lottery. The parents gave up their jobs so they could stay home and teach the children without sending them to school, bringing a hippie-ish and free-range sensibility to the process.
The family’s life of controlled chaos is thrown off-kilter when PopCorn’s father, whom the children have never met, is diagnosed with dementia and must come to live with them. “Grumps,” as the children call him, is curmudgeonly and conservative. Everything about the Lotterys seems to bother him, including their co-parenting arrangement, the fact that the children are all named after trees and the multigrain pancakes they serve. He’s homophobic and racist, too, albeit more because of old-fashioned assumptions than overt hatred. Still, he’s family, and the arc of the story shows us what can happen when people of different mindsets ultimately learn to find common ground.
The story is told from the perspective of 9-year-old Sumac, the sensible “good girl” among her multiracial, multiethnic, neurodiverse siblings. As the practical one of the family, she’s a good guide for readers as well, translating family slang such as “fleetings” (family meetings) and “Camelottery” (their house), and giving us insight into other family members. The fact of four queer parents is taken as a given and is only one of the many distinctive things about the family.
The book begs comparison to Dana Alison Levy’s recent two middle-grade books about the Fletchers, another large, queer, multiracial, multiethnic family. There’s a similar wackiness and warmth to both the Lotterys and the Fletchers (who have two dads, four boys and two pets), although the Lotterys, with their even-bigger family and house, financial independence and unschooling feel a little less like a family one might actually meet. This doesn’t make them any less likeable (in fact, some children might aspire to live in the Lotterys’ 32-room house and not have to go to school), but gives their story a slightly more fantastical bent. It’s well worth becoming acquainted with both families, though, for despite their similarities, they each have different stories to tell.
Coincidentally, Levy’s latest book has just come out, and shares some characteristics even as it tells a unique story. “This Would Make a Good Story Someday” follows the Johnston-Fischers, a two-mom family who are the Fletchers’ neighbors. After one of the moms, a blogger, wins a fellowship to take a family train trip across the country and write about it, they pack up their three daughters (biological and adopted; two white and one Asian) and eldest daughter’s boyfriend and depart. As with the Lotterys, it is the sensible middle child (in this case, 12-year-old Sara) whose perspective forms the bulk of the tale.
Most of the book is framed as Sara’s summer journal, which she writes to escape “the endless family togetherness” of the trip. Her writing is interspersed with notes from her moms, sisters and assorted other characters to give us a textured look at the family, the people they encounter and Sara’s personal transformation during the summer between elementary and middle school.
The fact of having same-sex parents isn’t at all the focus, but nor does Levy shy away from moments when it makes a difference, as when Sara hesitates to ask another character about his family because “as someone with two moms, I know all too well how annoying family questions can be.”
Levy mixes hilarious family escapades with amusing facts about the places they visit, and throws in a distinct but not pedantic dash of social justice, mostly through Sara’s elder sister Laura, who is considering dropping out of college to be an activist. Despite the humor, though, the book also offers much insight into the nature of relationships, familial and otherwise, and ends up being surprisingly touching.
One can find commonalities, too, among all of the families above and the multiracial, multiethnic, two-mom, five-kid, adoptive and biological family of Freeform’s television series “The Fosters.” All of these families, though, are part of a longer tradition of fictional stories about large families, such as the Bradys and their bunch, the Bradfords of the late-’70s show “Eight Is Enough” and even the March family of 1868’s “Little Women.” Perhaps the appeal is that large families offer many opportunities for varied perspectives and dramatic interactions. The more recent families are queerer, more multiethnic and created in more diverse ways — but just as the older stories reflected the tenor of their times, so, too, do these newer ones. Invite them into your home today.