Heather Has Two Mommies, Lesléa Newman’s picture book featuring the everyday life of a girl and her two mothers, has spent a quarter century as a trailblazer, a lightning rod for controversy, a punchline, a political hot potato (read on the Senate floor for the Congressional Record), and for many, a beloved favorite. Candlewick is celebrating the book’s 25-year milestone by publishing an all-new illustrated edition for today’s kids and families.
Back in 1988, Newman, already the author of a book of poetry, a short story collection and a novel, had never thought about creating children’s books. That all changed after a chance encounter in her Northampton, Mass. neighborhood. “An acquaintance, who happened to be a lesbian mom, had stopped me on the street and as we were talking she said, ‘There are no books that show a family like ours. You should write one.’ ” Newman recalled. “I decided to take it seriously. I knew how those kids felt. When I grew up in the 1950s there were no books about a Jewish girl eating matzoh ball soup with her bubbe on Shabbat. I definitely felt like an outsider. It struck a chord with me.”
She jumpstarted her own children’s book edification at the public library, checking out “armloads of picture books” to familiarize herself with the format. It wasn’t long before she turned her hand to writing. “I sent the manuscript to many publishers – small, large, lesbian, alternative, you name it. But none of them wanted it,” she said. Newman then spoke with a friend, Tzivia Gover, another lesbian mom, who had a desktop publishing company called In Other Words, and the pair decided to publish the book together. “We raised all the money ourselves,” Newman said. “And this was pre-Kickstarter. We stuffed and licked envelopes and used mailing lists from the readings I had for my books for adults. We raised $4000, mostly in $10 donations. We promised people a book or their money back if it didn’t get published. A year later 4000 copies were printed and about half were spoken for.”
Heather Has Two Mommies gradually moved out into the world, and several months after its release, Sasha Alyson, who had published Daddy’s Roommate (1991) at his company Alyson Publications, came upon the book in a bookstore in Cambridge, Mass. He contacted Newman right away. “He said, ‘Why don’t we join forces?’,” she said. “He bought all the remaining stock we had and became the book’s publisher.”
Initial response to the book was very positive. “At first, it was mostly gratitude from lesbian moms,” Newman recalled. “Then there was a short mention in Newsweek, about how the face of the family is changing and here are some books that reflect that. Then the news traveled around the world and the controversy began. Throughout the ’90s there were many, many instances of people using the book for their own political agendas.” The title was challenged and banned in school systems across the country.
“I was surprised, disheartened, and tried to distance myself from it,” Newman said. “On Christian TV there was someone saying my book was the work of the devil. It was astonishing. What happened to live and let live?” Another thing that took Newman by surprise was “the power people gave to the book. They said, ‘If my kid reads this once, they’ll grow up to be gay.’ It’s completely illogical. I was a voracious reader of books about kids who had a mom and a dad and not one of them caused me to grow up and not be a lesbian.” What all the controversy around Heather did cause Newman to do was become an activist, writing and speaking about how to make the world a safer, better place for all.
Despite its rocky reception in some arenas, the book soldiered on for a good run until Alyson went through a “reincarnation, then went out of business,” says Newman, relegating Heather out of print. “I got so many requests for it I bought up as much stock as I could. This book began and ended with boxes in my basement. It had come full circle.”
A New Life
Though Heather had a busy life to keep up with, Newman never stopped writing. In 2012, Candlewick published one of her other projects, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard, a YA novel in verse, that describes Newman’s response to the 1998 hate-crime murder of gay college student Shepard in Wyoming. Newman worked on the novel with Katie Cunningham, a pairing that led to further collaboration, and a new life for Heather. “Editing that book was a powerful and rewarding experience, and I was eager to work more with Lesléa,” Cunningham said. “Not long after we wrapped up that project, the rights to Heather Has Two Mommies became available and we jumped at the chance to reintroduce that classic story to a contemporary audience.”
Newman said, “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.”
Updating included finding a new illustrator, and Laura Cornell got the job. “I love the new illustrations,” said Newman. “She looks like a confident kid wearing a fantastic outfit and you can tell in the art that her moms adore her and let her be herself.” Cunningham concurred when discussing her vision for the project. “Our primary goal was to return this book to the child-centered object that Lesléa intended this book to be when it was first published.” To that end, Newman pointed out that there was a conscious effort not to add any parents’ note or foreword. “I wanted it simply to be a kids’ book.”
Refining the book’s look, “We knew that we wanted illustrations that were bright and lively and approachable, and we thought Laura Cornell’s buoyant style was a great match for Heather’s personality,” said Cunningham. “Creative director Chris Paul and design assistant Hayley Parker did a fantastic job of supporting Laura throughout her process, as well as making all of the thousands of tiny, nearly invisible design decisions that really make a book feel fresh and inviting.”
Newman slightly rewrote some portions of text, but just to “tighten things up and create better flow,” she says, “because I think I’m a better writer now. But the message is still the same: the most important thing about a family is that the people in it love each other.”
The new edition of Heather is just reaching consumers now, but early word on the book has been encouraging. “So many folks, from librarians to consumers, have let us know how grateful they are that Heather Has Two Mommies will be easy to find again,” Cunningham said. “Those comments are so gratifying. In many ways, the world is a different place from the one that Heather made her way into more than 25 years ago; I’m hopeful that the book will be only as far away from any reader as a trip to the family bookcase or a visit to the local library.”
Looking at Heather’s evolution, Newman noted, “It’s been an amazing journey for a writer and a book. It’s a microcosm of what has gone on in the world. Twenty-five years ago, gay marriage was never mentioned, now the Supreme Court will hopefully pass it. But LGBT kids are still getting teased, beat up and even murdered. If you think things have really changed, walk into a high school boys’ locker room. Books are a way to educate people and help the world become a better place. Progress is not as fast as we’d like it to be, but we’re moving in the right direction. It’s a new era, a new day for Heather, and a new day for the world.”