(Originally published in Bay Windows, June 25, 2009.)
“Writing has always been my political activism,” said Lesléa Newman, author of Heather Has Two Mommies, the classic 1989 children’s book that was the first to feature a child with two moms.
Her two new books, however, are sweet, simple tales of family life, without any overt politics or agenda. Mommy, Mama, and Me and Daddy, Papa, and Me (Tricycle Press: 2009) are sturdy board books for toddlers, with ink-and-watercolor illustrations by award-winning English artist Carol Thompson. They each show a child with two moms or two dads, respectively, going through everyday activities such as playing in the park and painting pictures.
“What I really wanted to do with these books . . . was show a loving family where there was no issue involved. It was just a kid with his or her parents having a great day together,” said Newman. She wrote them after her editor suggested there was a need for books for the very youngest children with same-sex parents, and that she would be the perfect person for the task.
Although she is best known as the author of Heather, Newman has in fact written over 50 books for children, young adults, and adults. Her other children’s books include The Boy Who Cried Fabulous, Gloria Goes To Gay Pride, and Saturday Is Pattyday. Her adult books have dealt with topics such as lesbian and Jewish identity, AIDS, eating disorders, butch/femme relationships, and sexual abuse. She is currently the poet laureate of Northampton, Mass., and has garnered an impressive list of awards, including Poetry Fellowships from the Massachusetts Artists Fellowship Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, the Highlights for Children Fiction Writing Award, and the James Baldwin Award for Cultural Achievement. Nine of her books have been Lambda Literary Award finalists.
Unlike Heather, her two new books do not discuss negative reactions to same-sex parents. “I think that Heather was the first of its kind, so I felt like it was important to address certain issues,” she explained. “Now, I think it’s just as important to just have a book that’s a fun day for a kid to read, which ‘normalizes’ his or her family. To a kid, especially a kid the age in these board books, there are no issues. The issue is: who is in my family? Do they love me and do they take care of me? Are we having fun? It’s not the gender of the parents. I just wanted to mirror some of the other board books that are out there that show a kid with a mom and dad. It’s just a really light, fun, happy story.”
She admits this is a change from her more didactic approach in Heather. “I think [Heather] was important, it served its purpose, and I’m proud of it, but it definitely is a book with a message,” she admitted, adding, “Twenty years ago, I was very naïve. I didn’t realize it would be such a controversial book. The whole notion of gay and lesbian families seemed to be very surprising to many, many people.”
Even though her latest books are less issue-driven, they still push boundaries. Unlike other recent children’s books about same-sex parents, such as And Tango Makes Three and Uncle Bobby’s Wedding, Newman’s books tell the story through human characters, not animals. Using animals “seems to be more of a safe way to talk about these issues,” she said. “I was very clear that I did not want these books illustrated with animals.”
She hopes children from all types of families, gay and straight, will relate to the books and see the same-sex parents as “no big deal” or recognize that they’re just like the parents of a kid they know. She feels, however, that it is still tough to get non-LGBT families to be aware of and read such works. “I think it comes back to the whole ‘personal is political,’” she observes. “Often, it takes someone whose kid is best friends with a kid who has two moms. . . . If they start caring about this family, then maybe they would be moved to do something like that.”
Getting LGBT-inclusive books into schools and public libraries can be an even harder task, she said. “Often all it takes is one irate parent, and then the whole thing starts to explode.”
For parents who are trying to promote these materials, she advises, “Be prepared. Anything can happen. Be brave. Have a support system around you. Stick to your guns. Know that what you’re doing is important, and it’s important for kids to know the truth about life, and that’s what they deserve.”
Newman plans to continue writing books that celebrate the truths of LGBT families. Her next book from Tricycle Press, called Donovan’s Big Day, “is about a little boy whose two moms get married. The whole book happens on the day of their wedding.” It is due out in 2011.
Before that, fans can look forward to a special 20th anniversary edition of Heather this fall from Alyson Books, with new, full-color drawings by Diana Souza, the original illustrator.
Even as she revisits her older work, though, Newman is looking ahead. “I have great hope for the younger generation, which has grown up hearing the word gay and lesbian with much more frequency than I certainly did,” she said. “I do think that things are changing and will continue to change for the better.”