At first glance, “Harvey the Hippo Meets Mickey Mandarin” looks like any other children's book, with adorable illustrations by West Mt. Airy's Leslie Pontz of beautiful animals – giraffes, zebras, hippos and ducks – and clever poetry by her sister, Chestnut Hill's Abby Pete.
But on second glance, you quickly realize from the subtitle that this is “A Story of Non-Binary Friends,” i.e., animals that do not identify as either exclusively male or exclusively female but rather as “non-binary.” For example, Mickey Mandarin is a multi-colored duck who says, “I live in the forest, I live near a lake. I live like I am, neither a hen nor a drake. You don't know me well, so this I will say: The pronouns I use are them and they.”
Pontz and Pete will have a book-signing event Wednesday, June 28, from 5 to 8 p.m., at the Chestnut Hill Brewing Company, behind the Chestnut Hill Hotel. The pub will be doing a promotion at that time. Anyone who buys the book will get a free “Pride Plate,” an appetizer with whipped feta cheese, grilled bread, crispy chickpeas, watermelon, tomato confit and cucumber salad.
This is the second children’s book written by the two sisters. In 2021, they wrote ”Harvey the Hippo: A Tale of Good Food Choices,” published by Loving Healing Press of Ann Arbor, Michigan, which also published the new one.
Why write a sequel about non-binary animals?
“I worked on this book to support my grandchild, who identifies as non-binary,” Pete said. “I love her, no matter what. The point of the book is that you can identify as non-binary, no matter which gender you are.”
Pete said that, after looking for books about the needs of non-binary children, she quickly realized that more were needed.
“I did research to understand the issue, to find out what the needs are for a child who is non-binary, and went to many bookstores to look for information,” she said. “Those books are almost nonexistent.”
Pontz said she hopes their book will help others learn to get comfortable with changing norms around gender.
“The idea of introducing this non-gender issue is the point of the book – we did a book signing, for instance, and met the guardian of a girl who we were told is non-gender,” she said. “It's a new, awkward concept, and there’s a lot to understand. I still have a problem with the pronouns. ‘Nibling,' for example, is a niece or nephew who is non-binary, and transgender is not the same as non-binary.”
The sisters just might be making history. When I Googled “Children's books about non-binary animals,” none came up, so “Hippo” may just be the first. Lots of books about non-binary people did come up, but they are all clearly geared toward adult readers, not children.
One of them, “Life Isn't Binary,” by Meg-John Barker and Alex Iantaffi, offers this interesting insight: “Much of society's thinking operates in a highly rigid and binary manner; something is good or bad, right or wrong, a success or a failure, and so on. Challenging this limited way of thinking, this ground-breaking book looks at how non-binary methods of thought can be applied to all aspects of life.”
Anna Kiesnowski, a Roxborough psychotherapist who specializes in working with LGBTQ and “gender expansive” young people, said, “If you want to read a book that will help kiddos feel seen, included and celebrated, you will find this story of friendship and community wonderful. 'Harvey the Hippo Meets Mickey Mandarin' is heartwarming."
Pontz, who (with husband, Curtis) has five children and eight grandchildren, went to Wissahickon High School and Syracuse University, where she earned an undergraduate degree and masters degree in art. A fiber sculptor, Pontz has shown internationally in numerous invitational and juried exhibits.
Pete, who in 2007 purchased (with her husband, Ron) the Chestnut Hill Hotel and Farmers Market, later renamed Market at the Fareway, went to Wissahickon High School and Temple University as an English major. She taught English in central Pennsylvania and then started a family catering business, which lasted for 12 years before having children.
In addition to the June 28 event, Pontz and Pete will have a book signing at booked in Chestnut Hill on Sept. 9, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
For more information about “Harvey,” visit harveythehippo.com. Len Lear can be reached at email@example.com