“If You Can’t Teach Yourself” is a monthly series in which a young woman explores a cultural artifact in furtherance of her queer education. Think of it as your syllabus for Queer Culture 101.
In the late 1980s, author Lesléa Newman was walking down the street in Northampton, Mass., where she lives, when a lesbian mother of a young child approached her about writing a children’s book about a little girl with two mommies.
As a Jewish woman who grew up practicing her religion and celebrating Hanukkah in the 1950s and ’60s, Newman remembered just how alienating it felt not to see families like hers reflected in the picture books she read as a child. So she accepted the mother’s proposal, thinking she might be able to create something that could help children from queer families see themselves and their families represented.
The project would eventually become Heather Has Two Mommies, a lesbian-inclusive picture book regarded as a first of its kind in contemporary children’s literature. Not surprisingly, getting it onto shelves wasn’t easy: Newman reached out to many publishers—mainstream publishing houses, smaller-scale publishers, even LGBTQ imprints—but nobody showed interest. So she and her close friend fundraised the whole endeavor, knocking on doors, collecting $10 donations in envelopes, and keeping copious records. Their grand total: about $4,000.
Newman and her friend co-published the first edition of Heather Has Two Mommies in December 1989, complete with illustrations by Diana Souza. Six months later, Heather was acquired, reprinted, and distributed by Alyson Publications, a small LGBTQ publisher that had previously made waves with Daddy’s Roommate, another children’s book featuring a same-sex adult couple.
“Looking back, I was very naive,” Newman tells me over the phone. “I didn’t really think anybody would notice it. I mean, nobody wanted to publish it, so I just thought it was going to be this little grassroots publication that would have its happy little life, and that would be it.”
But reader, “a happy little life” was not in the cards for Heather Has Two Mommies. Because it portrayed a same-sex couple in a positive light, it was challenged widely and aggressively. The book—a heartwarming, innocuous tale of Heather, her two mothers, and their unconventional, but totally normal family life—would go on to become one of the most banned books in the United States in the ’90s. By the time 1999 rolled around, the American Library Association had ranked it No. 9 on its most-banned-books list, with Daddy’s Roommate coming in at No. 2. For perspective, the titles were higher on the list than J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and Madonna’s graphic coffee table book Sex.
School administrators, librarians, and local lawmakers all tried to get Heather off the shelves, but Newman and her publishers refused to buckle under the pressure. If anything, the uphill battle Newman fought to get Heather published and sold galvanized her. She’s received countless letters and messages over the years thanking her for the book, which for many children of same-sex parents was the first (and sometimes only) children’s book they could find in which they could read about a family like theirs. Since 1989, Newman has published some 70 books for readers of all ages, including more children’s titles with LGBTQ themes such as Sparkle Boy (2017) and The Boy Who Cried Fabulous (2004).
Heather was also reprinted and redistributed by Candlewick Books in 2015, with new full-color illustrations by artist Laura Cornell. Newman even had the chance to update it. In the original version of the book Heather begins to cry when she realizes in class that she doesn’t have a daddy, but when Newman revisited the text, she says she thought, That’s really nothing to cry about.
“Now in the new edition, she’s not really sad or particularly upset,” Newman says. “She’s more just curious, like, Am I the only one here who doesn’t have a dad?” That wasn’t the only change she made. “When the children draw pictures of their families, I had a child in the 2015 edition being raised by grandparents. Since that seems to be so prevalent now, I thought it was important to add that in.”
The intense pushback Newman received in the ’90s and early 2000s seems somewhat shocking in 2019. As a journalist, I receive several LGBTQ children’s books, middle-grade reads, and Young Adult novels for consideration each month. However, Newman says that in her experience the tides of the publishing industry didn’t really start to turn until the late 2000s and early 2010s, when she was asked by a major publishing house to write a pair of board books for toddlers and very young readers—one about a gay couple, the other about a lesbian couple.
“It was kind of interesting that my friend and I had gone from begging people for $10 so I could publish Heather Has Two Mommies to a publisher actually asking me to write a book, or two books, that were geared towards kids even younger than kids who were reading Heather,” she says.
Indeed, flipping through Heather serves as an important reminder of just how far we’ve come. Authors like Newman and Michael Willhoite, who wrote Daddy’s Roommate, helped normalize what so many of us take for granted: ordinary queer couples living their lives and raising children. It’s because of them and the long line of LGBTQ advocates who came before them that queer families seem so commonplace today—and the discrimination that same-sex parents continue to face under the Trump administration seems so appalling. It’s because of them that I can live my life as an openly bisexual adult—and write about it, sometimes rather explicitly—with relatively little fear.
That’s not to say the fight for inclusion in children’s literature is over. Newman is clear about that. “I think we have definitely made improvements, but we are very, very far from being where we should be,” she tells me. “There still are definitely not enough books that show all kinds of diversity, and we need so many more.”
She adds that children don’t enter this world with preprogrammed prejudices. Biases like sexism, racism, and homophobia are learned—but they can also be unlearned.
“If they were not raised in our society or culture, which is impossible, kids would just be whoever they are,” Newman says. “But that’s what I’m trying to do: create a world where that can happen, a world where a little boy who relates to the character of Casey in Sparkle Boy can just paint his nails and wear a sparkly skirt and have nobody bat an eye.”
The 2015 edition of Heather Has Two Mommies is available wherever books are sold.