The new version of the classic, released this month by Candlewick Press.
It’s been just over 25 years since a sweet picture book called “Heather Has Two Mommies” was born. At the time, it represented a startling first in children’s literature — a story about the daughter of lesbians — and in the years since, the book has inspired everything from political ire and library bans to feelings of overwhelming gratitude and belonging within other gay families. Long out of print, it’s just been reissued, finding itself in a world much different than the skeptical one it encountered back in 1989. To mark the occasion, Yahoo Parenting spoke with its author, Lesléa Newman, who lives with her wife in Northampton, Mass. She has since written more than 20 books for children, and nearly as many for adults, including the latest, “I Carry My Mother,” a collection of poetry honoring her late parent. “I’m not a mother,” she says, “but I write about mothers all the time.”
Yahoo Parenting: How did you come to write “Heather Has Two Mommies”?
Lesléa Newman: I was walking down the street one day in Northampton and a woman came up to me and said, “I don’t have any books I can read to my family that shows a family like ours [with two moms]. Somebody should write one.” I took her request seriously, because I know what it feels like to be an alienated child: I grew up in the 1950s with no Jewish children’s books. I read books about kids trimming the Christmas tree and looking for Easter eggs but my family didn’t do those things, so I began to feel like my family was different, and I began to feel like there was something wrong with my family. I grew up in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, in a completely Jewish neighborhood, but my direct experience was less powerful than the messages I was getting from the media. When you don’t see yourself reflected back you can begin to feel really alienated. Of course, when I was a kid I couldn’t articulate this need. As an adult not only did I understand, I had the power to do something about it.
Lesléa Newman. Photo courtesy of the author.
YP: How difficult was it to find a publisher?
LN: I sent it to dozens — large houses, small houses, lesbian publishers who said “we don’t do children’s books,” children’s publishers who said “we don’t do gay books.” Several said, “We understand there is an eager market for this book, but we wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole.” Everyone says this was a courageous, radical thing to do, but I wasn’t really thinking like that. I was just thinking that someone asked me to write a book, so I wrote a book and I want to get it published. I come from a long line of stubborn Jewish women! Eventually, I co-published the book with a lesbian mom friend, and the first obstacle we faced, of course, was we had no money. We decided to fundraise — long before Kickstarter — by actually stuffing envelopes and licking them and putting stamps on them. We asked for a $10 donation and raised $4,000 that way. We printed 4,000 copies. It got written up in Newsweek in 1991 along with “Daddy’s Roommate,” basically saying that the composition of the American family is changing, and here are some books that reflect that change. And that really traveled around the world.
YP: The amount of controversy surrounding the book in its early years was intense. Can you give us a rundown?
LN: The books have been stolen, returned to the library with their pages glued shut, banned. In New York City [in 1991] Joseph Fernandez, chancellor of education, got a committee together of educators to make a “Children of the Rainbow” resource guide, as New York City is one of the most diverse districts in the country, and he wanted to reflect that. So they came up with a list of books — about African-American families, Asian-American families, all kinds of families, families with same-sex parents. It included “Heather Has Two Mommies.” None of them were required, they were just suggestions. So Mary Cummins, who was head of school board district 24 in Queens, started a “war” —the phrase that she used — and sent letters out to parents saying their kids were going to be taught about sodomy. She played on people’s emotions, not telling the truth and really riling people up. There were very contentious school board meetings, with people yelling at each other and almost coming to blows. I was on the “Montel Williams Show” and had to be escorted out after because of the fight in the lobby.
On the other end of the spectrum were the more delightful things, like watching the movie “Best in Show” and at point one of the dog trainers saying, “Well, Rhapsody has two mommies!” I was watching in a Northampton theater, and at this point the whole auditorium burst into applause. And then the nods over the years on “The Simpsons,” “Will and Grace,” “Gilmore Girls,” Conan O’Brien and “Heather Has Two Mallomars,” and Bill Maher, who did something on the three-parent babies [in the UK] with a satire called “Now Heather Really Has Two Mommies.”
The original cover art.
YP: It’s amazing to think about how much has changed with the rights and visibility of LGBT families since the book first came out.
LN: I’m going to be curious to see if it’s at all controversial now. When I wrote the book, gay marriage wasn’t even in the conversation. I remember I was in a gay pride march with a teacher who had a paper bag over her head because she was afraid she’d lose her job — and there was a preacher on the sidelines who had dragged a coffin onto the street and was yelling about how we were all going to hell. That was the atmosphere. Many young gay people now who have grown up with a whole different sense of freedoms are not aware that, in some ways, we were fighting for our lives. And I was literally begging people for $10 to help me publish my book. In 2008, a publisher (now Random House) actually called me up and asked me to write board books for kids with two dads and kids with two moms — “Mommy, Mama and Me” and “Daddy, Papa and Me.” So that’s a huge turnaround.
YP: What sort of reactions have you had from kids?
LN: There was a little girl named Tasha who wrote me a letter saying, “Thank you for writing ‘Heather Has Two Mommies,’ I know that you wrote it just for me.” There was a little boy named Nick who crossed out “Heather” and wrote “Nick” instead on every page. There was a kid slept with the book under his pillow. Then there was the kid who had two moms who was like, “I want a dog and a cat like Heather,” that was the most exciting thing to him. Kids don’t come into the world with this preconceived notion that a mom and a dad is the way things should be. They come into the world thinking, who’s going to love me? Who’s going to take care of me? That’s what matters — it doesn’t matter what the configuration is.