When Megan Went Away
The cover of When Megan Went Away
|Genre||Children's picture book|
When Megan Went Away is a 1979 picture book written by Jane Severance and illustrated by Tea Schook. The book, published by the independent press Lollipop Power, concerns Shannon dealing with the separation of her mother and Megan, her mother's former partner. It is regarded as the first picture book to include LGBT characters, and specifically the first to feature lesbian characters, a distinction sometimes erroneously bestowed upon Lesléa Newman's Heather Has Two Mommies.
As a young lesbian working in a feminist bookstore in Denver in her early twenties, Severance sought to rectify the lack of picture book content she perceived for children with lesbian parents. When Megan Went Away was not widely distributed upon publication and proved divisive, with some praising the story for being an anti-sexist example of lesbian life and others finding its depiction of same-sex separation poorly timed, arriving at a moment when lesbian motherhood was on the rise. Copies of When Megan Went Away are primarily accessible in archives and library special collections as of the 2010s.
The story centers around Shannon, a preteen girl whose mother's partner, Megan, has recently separated from Shannon's mother. Shannon wanders throughout her house, noticing items Megan has taken with her, as well as items that remain, reminding her of her mother's former partner. Shannon makes a dinner of sandwiches and milk for herself and her mother, and grows angry when her mother fails to eat the meal. In the darkness, the two cuddle beneath a blanket, reflecting on good and bad times they shared with Megan, and crying together. Later, exhausted, Shannon and her mother make their way to the kitchen where her mother fries them both hamburgers.
Background and writing
Jane Severance recalled attempting to write stories when she was seven years old, having "always wanted to be a writer". She came out as a lesbian and moved to Denver to study education in college, later working as a preschool teacher. In Denver, she became involved with what she later characterized as "a very small subset of the lesbian community [...], the very young lesbian feminists". Severance observed among her peers what she described as "some pretty wretched parenting", noting that the lack of older lesbian role models, dearth of education, plus poverty, mental illness, and substance abuse all contributed to the challenges in parenting faced by the community.
Severance's life, in her words, "was all about being a lesbian" and she identified a need for picture book content about children with lesbian mothers like those around her. Despite a lifelong interest in having her work published, Severance was nevertheless unaware how to break into publishing. While working at Woman to Woman, a feminist bookstore, she encountered works published by the Chapel Hill, North Carolina-based feminist publishing collective Lollipop Power, a subsidiary of the Durham-based Carolina Wren Press. An independent lesbian press, Lollipop Power began publishing work in 1970 devoted to lessening gender stereotypes and gendered behavior in young children.
Severance wrote When Megan Went Away when she was approximately 21 years old. She wrote to Lollipop Power, whose address was listed on the back of their books, and submitted the book to them. During the editing process, Lollipop Power rewrote a section of the book, which Severance objected to. They also suggested that she change Shannon and Megan's names, lest readers get the impression that "only women with Irish heritage were lesbians".
When Megan Went Away was published in 1979 as a 32-page paperback illustrated by Tea Schook. Both the book's pages and its covers were printed on paper and bound with staples. Recommended for readers aged 5–12 years, the book did not receive a wide distribution upon its printing. Text of the story was also reprinted in 1986 in Ms. without Schook's illustrations. The story was run under the pen name R. Minta Day and published as part of the Stories for Free Children feature, consisting of anti-sexist, anti-racist fiction for children.
When Megan Went Away received no reviews from major book review magazines upon its publication. Lenore Gordon praised the story in the Interracial Books for Children Bulletin in 1980, writing that its strength lies "both in [Severance's] gentle storytelling voice and her use of detail." Gordon described Schook's illustrations as having "a pleasurable child-quality" to them, which she found to be tonally inconsistent with Severance's somber text. Similarly, Carolyn Moskovitz described the story in the WLW Journal as "a bit downbeat". Writing in 1989, the English professor Virginia L. Wolf suggested that the romantic nature of the relationship between Shannon's mother and Megan might not be recognized by child readers, but that some adult readers would likely understand the story's lesbian context.
While praising its attempts to depict an anti-sexist family, Gordon criticized When Megan Went Away for presenting "an uncommonly liberated lesbian lifestyle" which she viewed as minimizing the relevance of the book to a wider array of readers. According to the early childhood education scholar Danné E. Davis, the timing of the book's publication received criticism from some contemporary lesbians and feminists, who viewed the separation narrative of When Megan Went Away as detrimental to public perception of lesbian households at a time when lesbians motherhood was beginning to increase.
Before the late 1970s, several picture books with gender-nonconforming characters existed, but there were otherwise no LGBT characters within the medium of children's picture books. Scholars of children's literature generally consider When Megan Went Away to be the first published picture book to include any LGBT characters, as well as the first specifically to feature lesbian characters and the first to depict separation in a same-gender relationship. Though the text of the story never uses the word "lesbian" to explicitly identify the characters as such, the word is used paratextually in Severance and Schook's dedication at the beginning of the book: "This story is for all children of lesbian mothers, for the special hardships they may face, and for the understanding we hope they will reach."
When Megan Went Away is sometimes forgotten as the first picture book to feature lesbian characters, with that distinction instead given to Lesléa Newman's Heather Has Two Mommies, not published until a decade later in 1989. For a time, the website of Alyson Books, publisher of Heather Has Two Mommies,[a] listed Heather as the first lesbian picture book.
Though Newman originally claimed Heather was the first lesbian picture book, she later acknowledged that When Megan Went Away preceded her work. Newman has said that she is "very careful with the wording that [she] choose[s]" in distinguishing Heather, choosing to describe it as "the first picture book that portrays a happy family that consists of two lesbian moms and their child." Citing its success and notoriety, Severance has expressed the desire that Newman identify Heather as "the first successful book about lesbian mothers". Both Severance and Newman, who are personally acquainted, agreed that intangible factors like timing and luck likely contributed to the relative popularity of Heather. Severance additionally described Newman as "a hustler" who "knew how to run with" her book's popularity, while Newman stated that she believed Lollipop Power did a poor job of marketing When Megan Went Away upon its publication. In contrasting the ways in which Heather and When Megan Went Away were received, Davis wrote that both books were "Perhaps too early for their time".
Since When Megan Went Away was published, Severance has written two more books: Lots of Mommies (1983), a picture book about a girl raised by four women including her mother, and Ghost Pains (1992), a young adult novel about two sisters living with an alcoholic lesbian mother. As of 2010, she was continuing to write and searching for an agent in order to publish other works for a larger audience. Copies of When Megan Went Away are difficult to find in the 2010s. Their availability is limited to library special collections and archives, and when secondary sales of the book do occur online, copies may be listed for over 40 times the original retail price of $1.85.
- Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin (1981, translated into English 1983), the first picture book to include gay male characters
- 10,000 Dresses (2008), the first picture book to feature a transgender character
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