Jake Gyllenhaal Admits He Had “No Idea” How To Be An Uncle To His Nieces

So he wrote a children’s book all about that special relationship.

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When his first niece was born, Jake Gyllenhaal had grand plans about what kind of uncle he wanted to be. He was going to be a cool uncle. “And I realized I have no idea what I’m doing. And I didn’t know what the hell I was doing for a long time,” he tells Romper by Zoom. “It wasn’t until I realized I just had to listen to my nieces and they’d tell me what ‘uncle’ actually meant and what ‘uncle’ was really supposed to be.”

He admits it took some time for him to get the hang of being a great uncle to Romona, now 16, and Gloria, 11. To be fair, there’s no instruction manual on the subject, but more troublingly to him, he couldn’t find any children’s books on the subject. Sure, Gyllenhaal and the girls had fun reading Knufflebunny together, or his childhood favorite, The Magic School Bus, but books about uncles and aunts? “There was no story that ever defined what that relationship is that I could read to them to say, ‘Oh, this is about what we have.’”

And so, not one to back down from a challenge, Gyllenhaal and his longtime friend Greta Caruso began writing The Secret Society of Aunts & Uncles. Beautifully illustrated by Dan Santat, the picture book tells the story of Leo and his (frankly boring) Uncle Mo. Despite his best efforts, Mo just doesn’t get what it means to be an uncle. He is so bad at uncle-ing, in fact, that the Secret Society of Aunts and Uncles summons him for some emergency training.

Easter eggs abound in this charming children’s book.Macmillan Publishing Group LLC

The book is as much an ode to Gyllenhaal and Caruso’s own relationships with their aunts and uncles as it was an ode to Gyllenhaal’s nieces. “I have an embarrassment of riches in the aunt/uncle department. Especially with my Aunt Nancy, to whom I dedicated the book,” Caruso tells Romper by email. “It wasn’t just the illicit sodas and skipped teeth brushing — although there was that, too, and it was glorious. My aunts and uncles were an expansive, steady force in my childhood, and that’s the idea we wanted to inject right into the heart of the book.”

Santat’s illustrations evoke a kind of busy whimsy — it’s the sort of visual storytelling that keeps children (and the adults reading to them) engrossed and noticing new things even after multiple readings. “The idea was to inject as many silly and surreal juxtapositions into the scenes as I could,” Santat tells Romper by email. “At first I was concerned that maybe I was overreaching in the oddness of my ideas but we would share the book sketches over a Zoom meeting and they encouraged me to push it even further. If anything, there wasn’t enough pages to share all the goofiness we had in store.”

Caruso, Gyllenhaal’s co-author, and their illustrator, Santat.Jack Coyne | Dan Santat

The book is also full of Easter eggs from Gyllenhaal and Caruso’s real life.

“They’re all over,” Gyllenhaal says, and begins ticking just a few of them off. Uncle Mo’s name is a nod to Ramona, whom the family calls Mo. (Don’t worry: no one’s playing favorites. There’s another character named Gloria.) Leo, the name of the nephew in the story, is named after Gyllenhaal’s dog. Even Leo’s glasses look like the red pair he used to wear as a kid. Other details and family members, including Caruso’s Aunt Nancy and Gyllenhaal’s beloved Uncle Bob, make appearances, as do Gyllenhaal, Caruso, and Santat as portraits. (We won’t spoil it but look toward the very end of the book.)

These days, Gyllenhaal’s nieces are a bit old for Uncle Jake to read them a story. But while the days of Knufflebunny and The Magic School Bus might be done, there’s still lots to talk about. “My 16-year-old niece is reading literature I can’t even wrap my head around,” he marvels. “And really, my younger niece has got such an incredible mind. So just being able to have a conversation with both of them about some of the deepest stuff, like politics and ethics… They’re just incredible,” he says. “They give me a lot of faith for the next generation, they really do.”

Gyllenhaal recognizes that being a great uncle means following his nieces’ lead.Stephane Cardinale - Corbis/Corbis Entertainment/Getty Images

And while watching children grow up is perhaps almost as tough on uncles and aunts as it is on parents, the relationship one can have with nieces and nephews is as important as they get older as ever, maybe even more so.

“We can make [nieces and nephews] feel like themselves in a way that I think is really important,” he says. “I think that’s the job: to act as a bit of an intermediary in the places where sometimes parents, because they’re so unconditionally caring and loving, can have blind spots and you can be like, ‘Wait, I can see over here.’ And I think it’s hopefully very helpful in a child’s life. Being called Uncle Jake, it’s an honor, in my opinion.”

The Secret Society of Aunts & Uncles is available now wherever books are sold.

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