When Julie Schanke Lyford went looking for a book that paralleled her daughters' blended extended family, she couldn't find one.
"We owned every book there was on diverse families, but there was nothing out there to show them theirs," said Lyford, 52, of West St. Paul. "At the time I thought, maybe we can find someone who could write our story for us."
When Lyford and her father, Robert Schanke, found unexpected time on their hands during the pandemic, they got around to crafting the picture book they had long imagined. It features a girl with two grandfathers. Not just one from Mom's side and one from Dad's, but a pair of "grampas" married to each other.
"Our grandkids don't know life without two grandfathers. But when no one has seen a gay grandparent they might not think of this as normal or even think about it at all," said Schanke, 80, a retired college professor. "We wanted to show a loving, modern family like ours."
An incident that happened to Lyford's younger daughter became the basis for "Katy Has Two Grampas," published this winter with illustrations by Mariia Luzina.
As a first-grader, Katy, both in the book and in real life, spoke with a lateral lisp. When she told her teacher that she was bringing her "grampas" to school for a Grandparents Day event, her teacher thought that she intended to say "grandpa and grandma," and corrected her.
This left Katy nervous about standing in front of her class to introduce them, worried that her classmates, too, would misunderstand her speech. But when the time comes in the book, Katy rallies her confidence and announces, "These are my grampas, and you know what? They're married … TO EACH OTHER!" She goes on to talk about fun times the trio shared, including playing on a backyard tire swing.
"The goal was to show Katy didn't mind bringing her two grandpas, she minded talking in front of the class because of her anxiety about her lisp," said Lyford. "That's real and that's relatable."
Gay grampas represent
Lyford had just graduated from high school in a small town in Iowa when her father and mother divorced. Schanke then came out and has been with his partner Jack Barnhart for 35 years; they wed in 2009 when Iowa legalized same-sex marriage.
While same-sex marriage became legal in Minnesota in 2013 and across the U.S. in 2015 when the Supreme Court recognized the unions, the father-daughter team were surprised when they could not get their hands on picture books with unambiguous depictions of married gay grandparents.
"We did our due diligence and our search turned up just two picture books that hinted at the relationship," said Lyford.
Schanke followed up with letters to the authors of the two books that showed a child with two grandfathers.
"In the books it didn't say if they were a grandfather and a great-grandfather, or maternal and paternal grandfathers. It wasn't explicit that they were married. I asked both authors why they didn't make [the relationship] clear and they both told me they wanted it implied, so readers would take it any way they wanted," said Schanke.
"But that doesn't make it a clear representation, which I think is so valuable."
Mirrors and windows
It was three decades ago when "Heather Has Two Mommies," a groundbreaking picture book about a girl with lesbian parents, was published to controversy. It was even banned in some communities.
In recent decades, children's books have expanded to show a greater diversity in families across the board. Educators see value in providing young readers with stories that let some children see their own lives reflected on the page while exposing other children to experiences that are not like their own.
In an influential essay, children's literature scholar Rudine Sims Bishop wrote that "children need windows and mirrors. They need mirrors in which they see themselves and windows through which they see the world."
"The idea that there are LGBT characters in children's books is not a new phenomenon but we still don't have enough of them," said Lisa Von Drasek, curator of the Children's Literature Research Collections at the University of Minnesota Libraries.
"I expect we will see more intergenerational stories about these families as more people who are out and growing older tell their stories. I only see the positives in showing these loving relationships."
Message of inclusion
Lyford's experience as the daughter of a gay dad proved transformative. As an ally and an activist, she first officiated at same-sex commitment services, campaigned for Minnesota's marriage equality amendment and then organized the Wedding Tent at the Twin Cities Pride Festival, earning her an award of recognition from Lavender magazine.
She hopes the book she conceived and co-authored with her father will continue her message of inclusion.
"Gay people have to continue to come out. So do children with gay parents and so their grandchildren, too. In my bubble, this is how it has always gone but I want to push the boundaries," she said.
"Katy Has Two Grampas," published by Minneapolis-based Wise Ink, is available for $17.95 in hardback at katyhastwogrampas.com, through online booksellers and at Mischief Toy Store, 824 Grand Av., St. Paul.