My 19-month-old daughter consumes a magazine called Hello with the same avidity I bring to the New Yorker. Actually, no: I read the typical New Yorker story either once or never, and my daughter “reads” each Hello feature approximately 7,000 times. The magazine is published by Highlights, the creator of the venerable children’s magazine of the same name. But Hello is for much younger children, under 2 years old; the latest big story was about a baby kangaroo getting ready for his nap. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but suffice to say his mother both strokes his hair and reads him a story.
Last fall, a Hello subscriber named Kristina Wertz complained publicly about the lack of representation of LGBTQ families in the pages of Hello. “One of the reasons we appreciate Hello is the diversity represented—families of all races, interracial families, and grandparents,” she wrote in a widely shared Facebook post. “We are consistently disappointed, however, in the complete lack of same-sex parents in Hello magazine.” The post took on larger importance when a representative from the magazine replied that although they understood Wertz’s desire to see her “family situation” reflected in print, “for much of our readership, the topic of same-sex families is still new.” While the response nodded to the importance of inclusion, it made no promises, and the references to real families as a “situation” and a “topic” struck many readers as offensive. Highlights quickly apologized, and said it committed to “be more reflective of all kinds of families” in future issues of its magazines.
One Million Moms, the Goofus of advocacy groups, quickly urged its followers to pressure Highlights to “not cave into pressure from homosexual activists.” (Other entities One Millions Moms is currently mad at: Taco Bell, a “vile” TV Land sitcom called Teachers, and, naturally, Disney.) But overall, the backlash was minimal. In January, Highlights magazine made good on its promise, publishing an illustration of a family with two fathers loading up a car for a family trip. The drawing made the rounds online, and the issue seemed resolved.
The magazine Wertz had complained about, however, was not the flagship magazine Highlights—aimed at readers ages 6 to 12—but Hello, for much younger children. And seemingly without anyone noticing, both Hello and High Five, a Highlights magazine for children 2 to 5, have now published illustrations of families with same-sex parents.
I followed the Highlights brouhaha last fall, so when I opened the March issue of Hello a few weeks ago, I was struck immediately by a feature titled “Beach Day.” Here’s the text in full: “Do you hear the ocean waves? Do you feel the wet sand? Do you see your mommy’s smile as she waits to take your hand?” The first photo spread is a relative close-up of a toddler’s toes in wet sand. The second spread is a wider shot of the same stock photo, which shows the child toddling between two women who appear to be in their 30s; a brunette is encouraging the child to let go of her hands, and a blonde is beckoning the little girl forward. It immediately read to me as two moms on the beach, but the text only called one of them “Mommy.” (The stock photo service lists it under the heading “Happy Family.”)
I called Christine French Cully, Highlights’ editor in chief, to ask her if the photo had been deliberately chosen to portray a family with same-sex parents. “It was intentional, and I would say it was probably thoughtfully ambiguous,” she said. “If you are a mom in a two-mom family, we hope that you would see your family reflected in the pages of Hello. If you are not in that family design and you don’t wish to talk to your child about that, we haven’t forced your hand. If you’re not part of a same sex-couple but you want to talk to your children about that kind of family, then we think we’ve given you a springboard for discussion.”
Cully said the publisher starts planning issues nine months in advance, and it’s working on six different issues at any given time. When the controversy first exploded in October, it decided to quickly move forward, rearranging plans for issues already in progress. (The current issue of High Five includes an illustration of a family with two moms in the background of a story about recurring characters Tex and Indi.) Cully said it was easiest to do this with Hello, because so many stories include images of whole families. That’s rarer in the flagship magazine Highlights, because older children are more independent and their storylines are therefore more likely to include friends or independent action. Cully said they haven’t gotten much feedback from readers about any of the illustrations, but most of what they’ve heard has been positive.
The no-big-dealness of this shift feels in itself like a big deal to me. The children’s book Heather Has Two Mommies, about a little girl with lesbian parents, was published in 1989, when I was 9 years old. The book was banned, burned, and read into the Congressional Record by an outraged senator. I remember hearing grown-ups talking about it and feeling vaguely scandalized. When my daughter and I read Hello together, we progress page by page while she points to every object and person and asks me “Whaddat?”
“Whaddat?” “A doggie.”
“Whaddat?” “A basket.”
“Whaddat?” “A mommy.”
“Whaddat?” “Another mommy.”
The only thing I dread explaining to her as she grows up is how different things used to be, and how recently they changed.