Lesléa Newman publishes groundbreaking children’s book, Heather Has Two Mommies
December 16, 1989
Lesléa Newman’s Heather Has Two Mommies is the first children’s book about a family with two moms. The idea for the book came from a conversation on the street in Northampton, a town in western Massachusetts with a thriving lesbian community. An acquaintance stopped Newman on the street and said, "Listen. Somebody needs to write a book I can read to my child about a family like ours: a family with two moms and a daughter." Newman took up the challenge and wrote a story about Heather, a girl with “two elbows, two earlobes, two kneecaps, and two mommies.”
Finding a publisher for Heather Has Two Mommies proved difficult. Mainstream children’s book publishers were not interested in a book aimed at lesbian families, and lesbian publishers were not interested in doing children’s books. In December of 1989, Newman and her friend Tzivia Gover, a new lesbian mom, decided to publish the book themselves under the auspices of “In Other Words,” Tzivia Gover's desktop publishing business.
Lesléa Newman had published three books for adults and used her mailing list to raise funds for Heather Has Two Mommies. She asked people to pay $10 in advance for each copy and promised to return the money if the book did not get published. Word traveled quickly, and by the time the first 4,000 copies were printed, half were already sold. Soon independent feminist bookstores, such as the New Words in Cambridge, MA, were clamoring for Heather. Six months later, Sasha Alyson, the publisher of Daddy’s Roommate, a book about a child with a gay father, approached Newman and in 1990, Alyson Publications published a second edition of Heather Has Two Mommies.
When Heather became an Alyson Publications title, the book began to attract attention. Supporters dubbed Newman an "honorary lesbian mother," while detractors called her "America's most dangerous writer." Controversy erupted in a number of cities as communities divided over whether or not Heather Has Two Mommies had a place in public schools and libraries. In 1993, New York City Chancellor of Education Joseph Fernandez commissioned the Rainbow Curriculum to celebrate diversity. The inclusion of Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy’s Roommate in the curriculum caused an uproar. People who advocated removing the book prevailed, and Chancellor Fernandez lost his job over his support of the books’ inclusion.
In May 1998 in Wichita Falls, TX, a number of individuals and special interest groups organized to remove Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy’s Roommate from the public library. Reverend Robert Jeffress, Pastor of the First Baptist Church in Wichita Falls, checked out both of the library’s copies of the books and refused to return them. He later destroyed them, saying he would reimburse the library on the condition that they not be replaced. Over 300 people signed a petition to the library calling for the books to be moved out of the children’s section into a special, “adults only” section that consisted of the two books and no others. The American Civil Liberties Union got involved, and although the books were eventually moved back to the children’s section, the incident deeply divided the town.
Heather Has Two Mommies continues to raise controversy today. Every September, the American Library Association and other organizations against censorship sponsor Banned Books Week and release a list of the most challenged titles. Heather Has Two Mommies has been on this list every year since its publication. In spite of the opposition, Heather Has Two Mommies is still beloved by parents who are grateful for this resource to teach young children about diversity and inclusion. It is also cherished by a generation of children who are grateful to have grown up with a book that represented their own families.
Lesléa Newman is the author of 60 books and has received many literary awards including Poetry Fellowships from the Massachusetts Artists Fellowship Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, the Highlights for Children Fiction Writing Award, the James Baldwin Award for Cultural Achievement, and three Pushcart Prize Nominations. Nine of her books have been Lambda Literary Award finalists. After publishing Heather Has Two Mommies, Newman continued to write children's books about lesbian and gay families, including Felicia's Favorite Story, Too Far Away to Touch, Saturday Is Pattyday, Mommy, Mama, and Me, Daddy, Papa, and Me, and coming soon, Donovan's Big Day, a picture book about a little boy whose two moms get married. She is also the author of many books for adults that deal with lesbian identity, Jewish identity, and the intersection and collision between the two including A Letter to Harvey Milk, The Reluctant Daughter, In Every Laugh a Tear, and Every Woman's Dream. Currently Lesléa Newman is a faculty mentor at the Spalding University brief-residency MFA in Writing Program.
See also: Jewish Women and GLBT Pride; The "fine madness" of discovering Lesléa Newman; A chat with Lesléa "Heather Has Two Mommies" Newman and A toast to Heather! on Jewesses with Attitude.
Read Lesléa Newman's contributions to the blog here.