My oldest son (now three) has counted this book among his favorites for more than a year. It tells the story of Christian the lion, who became a YouTube sensation about five years ago. (I dare you to watch without tearing up!) For those not familiar with the story, two men purchase a lion cub from Harrods Department Store in the 1970s. They take him everywhere--the park, the pub, the beach--and he is a well-behaved and affectionate pet who likes to hug his people, Ace and John. But Christian grows (as lions do), and eventually Ace and John come to the (probably belated) realization that a London flat is no place for a lion. They relocate Christian to Kenya and leave him in the care of a Mr. Abramson, who helps reintegrate lions back into the wild. Several years later, Ace and John return to Kenya and find Christian, now fully grown and living in a pride, with a mate and cubs of his own. Amazingly, when Christian sees them, recognition is instantaneous, and he bounds over and nearly bowls both men over with the huge, enthusiastic hug that made him an internet celebrity.
My son loves this book because, come on, there're LIONS! On one page, after Christian gets to Kenya and sees the huge sky full of birds and smells honey blossoms on the breeze and scents gazelle in the distance, all of these new sensations tickle the adolescent cub's nose and twitch his tail and come rumbling out of his chest in a huge, loud ROAR... and this is unquestionably my toddler's favorite part, of course.
I love this book because Ace and John are two men, and while the story doesn't make a big deal about their relationship, it describes them as a family and the illustrations very subtly hint at their intimacy. There's nothing overt or sexual, of course (this is a kids' book!), but it's clear they are a couple: for example, they eat at a "romantic" restaurant with a red-checked tablecloth and a candle between them, and they go to the beach and camping and sprawl out with Christian lolling between them, wholly trusting, like a child with his parents. So many other kids' books about LGBT families are so overt about it, because that family structure is the point of the story. There is a place for that, sure, but I appreciate that Christian the Hugging Lion just presents Ace and John as they are, without comment, and the very lack of discussion or spotlight serves to normalize their relationship. It's just not that big a deal, which is the take-home lesson I'd like to sink in for my two boys, since they have two mommas.
I also love Amy June Bates' illustrations. They are so colorful and playful, and so period appropriate. Remember, Ace and John adopted Christian in the 1970s: they have long, hippie hair and bellbottom jeans, and they drive a giant yacht of a convertible.
(I'm using this as Z is for Zoo in Sock Poppet's A to Z 2014 Reading Challenge.)