Combine four boys of assorted ages, two dads, a Maine coon cat and a dog named Sir Puggleton into a home and stir well. Sprinkle on a doting aunt, a surly neighbor and assorted classmates. Season with a collapsing backyard hockey rink, an untimely power outage and a Thanksgiving culinary disaster. Dana Alison Levy’s superb new middle-grade novel, “The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher,” from Delacorte Press, combines all these ingredients and more to create a hysterically funny story that is simultaneously full of heart.
Levy, who lives with her husband and children in Massachusetts, studied English literature and marketing before turning to writing. She said in an interview that she was inspired to write “a kind of classic, slice-of-life family story like the ones I grew up with,” but that she wanted it “to reflect the diversity of our world more accurately.”
LGBTQ-inclusive books for middle-grade readers are harder to find than those for either younger children or young adults, but the Fletchers’ tale is a standout even in the larger field of middle-grade novels. Levy noted, “I do write for young adults as well, but this story always felt very much like a middle-grade book, where the challenges of navigating the wider world were just starting to emerge for the characters.”
The book opens on the first day of school and takes us through a raucous year in the family’s life. Six-year-old Frog (not his real name) is about to start kindergarten with his invisible cheetah friend in tow. Ten-year-old fourth-grader Jax soon has to contend with a school project that involves him trying to interview their crotchety neighbor. Eli is also in fourth grade, but is off to a new school for gifted students, where he soon discovers that it’s not quite what he expected. Twelve-year-old sixth-grader Sam loves soccer and his new cellphone and finds to his surprise that he also likes being in the school play.
Some of the incidents in the book, Levy said, are “ripped from the headlines” of her own life. Like the Fletchers, she owns “a rather enormous cat,” who, like theirs, has fallen into the tub. She is coy about which other outrageous events in the book reflect her own experiences, though, which seems a judicious call.
This is not a book “about” being in a gay-headed family. As real LGBTQ parents know, most of daily family life is the same regardless of family structure. Levy nevertheless astutely includes one situation where many LGBT-headed families find themselves singled out for scrutiny — the first Family Night at a new school.
“They are lucky enough to live in a pretty great community, and having lived there since they were born, they feel quite comfortable,” Levy said. “But I also wanted to at least acknowledge that there are countless tiny moments, sometimes ill-intended, often not, that diverse families have to weather.”
Even more astutely, she has the Fletcher boys confidently and humorously explain their family to their friends — without needing an adult to help them out.
Levy adds to the family’s diversity by making one of the white dads Jewish and the other Episcopalian, with one adopted son who had been born to Indian Hindu parents, one who is African-American and two who are white. They have a multi-holiday celebration each December to honor all of their cultural backgrounds, but their big extravaganza is Halloween, because they wanted “something that belonged to everyone in the family.”
Their annual neighborhood Halloween party is legend — although this year, things go a little awry …
The book also deals deftly with gender expectations — not about (as might be expected) one of the gay dads, but rather one about soccer-jock Sam deciding to be in the school play. He then gets teased by some classmates for participating in such an “arty” activity. Levy again empowers the child and allows Sam to discover his own path here. She has Papa observe that such teasing is “the silliest thing I ever heard,” but avoids a preachy parental lecture.
She was inspired to include that storyline, she said, because Sam, as the eldest brother, reminded her of her own older sister.
“Growing up, I thought she was the coolest person in the whole world,” she explained. “Sam had some of that coolness for me, but I wanted to challenge him and challenge his younger siblings. I wanted him to have to move outside of the world he was so successful at, and I wanted his brothers, especially Jax, to have to think about what it means to be the cool kid.”
Readers can rejoice that the Fletchers’ adventures will continue. Levy said a sequel, tentatively titled “A Fletcher Family Summer,” is scheduled for June 2016.
“It carries on with more shenanigans, this time on Rock Island, a made-up New England island. There they try and save an endangered lighthouse and figure out how to navigate changes both in themselves and in the island they love.”
My own (completely unsubstantiated) hope is that Disney, whose ABC Family subsidiary brought us “The Fosters” (about two lesbian moms and their five teens) will make the Fletchers into a movie or series for pre-teen kids. The Fletchers have both the wackiness and warmth that have characterized many of the best on-screen families. They’d be a great addition to the pantheon. In the meantime, we can be grateful they’re in print.
Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (mombian.com), a GLAAD Media Award-winning blog and resource directory for LGBT parents.