A conversation with ‘Heather Has Two Mommies’ author Lesléa Newman
Heather Has Two Mommies, which was originally released over 25 years ago, was the first of its kind within the children’s literature space. A story about the daughter of lesbians was a forbidden topic to most in the mainstream literary world. A lot has changed since then, and now a newer version of the children’s classic has been released by Candlewick Press.
Lesléa Newman has written more than 20 children’s books and has had a distinguished writing career over several decades. We discuss this and more in our conversation for The Seattle Lesbian.
So, what made you originally decide to write Heather Has Two Mommies?
The idea originally was inspired by a lesbian acquaintance of mine. She suggested that as a parent she didn’t have any books to read to her children that shows a family like her own. I saw that there was a real need for this type of book, so I took the suggestion seriously. Growing up in a Jewish family in the 1950s, I developed and understood that there wasn’t much literature available for my family either. There were a lot of children’s books that were about Christmas, Easter and other holidays that were not related to my upbringing. So that was difficult to understand. It can be hard when there aren’t stories and messages that relate to your own. I felt compelled to do something about it.
It must have been difficult at that time to get it published. How did that go?
I sent it to dozens of publishers – large houses, small houses, lesbian publishers – who said “We don’t do children’s books,” [and to] children’s publishers who said “We don’t do gay books.” It was not an easy process.
Several said, “We understand there is an eager market for this book, but we wouldn’t touch it with a 10-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. Eventually, I co-published the book with a lesbian mom friend, Tzivia Gover, 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.”
What sort of negative and positive reactions did the book receive after its release?
Books were stolen, returned to the library with their pages glued shut, banned. In 1991, Joseph Fernandez, New York City’s 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 reading, 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 a 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 one 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, 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.”
I suspect it was much easier this time around to get the book republished. How did you make that decision?
Candlewick seemed the logical press to go to. I had worked with them on October Mourning and they do such beautiful books. My editor there and I had the idea pretty much at the same time. She asked “What’s happening with Heather?” And we agreed that we needed to get it out there and bring it into the 21st century.”
What sort of feedback have you had from children?
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.
Any advice for any future book writers?
Find your passion as a writer and pursue it. Find people who can give you honest feedback. As a children’s book writer, I have spent many hours reading children’s books myself. Its important to tap into as many experiences as you can that will help your writing.