Heather has Two Mommies Celebrates 25th Anniversary

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine

Twenty-five years ago, author and Berkshire resident Lesléa Newman co-published the now-famous children’s book Heather Has Two Mommies, a book that radically challenged the norms of children’s publishing. Two-and-a-half decades later, Heather is still making waves.

“I wrote Heather Has Two Mommies at the request of a friend,” Newman says. “She and her partner wanted a book they could read to their child with a family like theirs. I never expected the book to be so huge and controversial.”

First published in 1990, the book was widely protested, frequently challenged, and banned from schools and libraries. Yet Newman points out that there were many readers who were grateful for the book: “One parent told me their child loved it so much, he crossed out ‘Heather’ and wrote ‘Nick’ through the whole book!”

Since publishing Heather, Newman has written numerous other children’s books about families with same-sex parents, including Mommy, Mama, and Me; Daddy, Papa, and Me; and Donovan’s Big Day. She feels that these books have helped to fulfill a need in the children’s literary market, both to show children of same-sex couples that there’s nothing wrong with their families and to teach other children about different kinds of people.

Today, while the book still has its opponents, it is much more widely accepted. Newman feels this is a reflection of the increasing acceptance of homosexuality in America, a phenomenon that she says is reflected in much of modern literature.

“We’ve made huge leaps. Young adult books have just exploded with LGBT characters in the last few years,” she adds. “I feel like we’re moving in the right direction.”

However, Newman also points out that it’s still very difficult for most authors to publish books for young children that deal with homosexuality in any way.

“Publishers feel like it’s a niche market,” she says. “They think that not enough people would want to read that sort of book and they don’t want to take that chance. Picture books are expensive to produce. I hope that Heather will help change those perceptions.”

Newman also says there is a much broader need to increase the diversity of children’s books in general. “Right now, the charts are embarrassing. More than 90% of kids’ books have white main characters,” she notes. “We definitely need more characters of color.” She also expresses her support for more stories with protagonists who are gay, bisexual, transgender, of various religions, and from different backgrounds.

“They need to not just be ‘issue’ books,” she adds. “Children need mirrors and windows in stories. They need to be able to see themselves as the heroes, but they also need windows into other people’s lives. It lets kids see more possibilities. I think we should aim to accept, respect, and celebrate diversity.”

This transition away from the notion of issue-oriented stories and toward non-novelty diversity can be seen in Newman’s own work. Heather Has Two Mommies has been rereleased by Candlewick Press with new art and more streamlined text in honor of its 25th anniversary. Now Heather’s classmates include more children of color, more of the students have working mothers, and different family structures are visible. Most notably, one entire scene from the original book has been omitted from the new edition.

“When I was first trying to publish [Heather], a male editor told me that children would know that two women couldn’t have a child. I had to explain the situation somehow,” she says. As a result, Newman included a brief scene explaining in-vitro fertilization in kid-friendly language. “Some readers liked that I included it, but a lot of others felt uncomfortable. Some people told me it was a scene that made them hesitate to show the book to their children.”

In the new edition, Newman no longer felt the scene was necessary.

Today Heather’s two mothers don’t need an explanation. As the book emphasizes, there are many different kinds of families in the world, what really matters is that Heather has a home with a family that loves her.

Newman hopes diversity in children’s books will continue to grow. Changing the stories society tells might be able to help change the world for the better. “Matthew Shepard was a young man who was killed for being gay, by people who didn’t understand homosexuality,” she says. “Maybe if they had grown up reading books like [Heather] they wouldn’t have had so much hate for gay people. Maybe Matthew would still be alive.”

Newman has also written a number of children’s books about Judaism and Jewish holidays: Matzo Ball Moon, Runaway Dreidel, A Sweet Passover, and Here is the World. She was motivated to write these books for the same reason she chose to write Heather Has Two Mommies.

“When I was a kid there were no books about Jewish children and families,” she notes. “I felt alienated, but it wasn’t something I could express as a kid. I wanted to change that for kids today.”