Lifestyle

‘Two Mommies’ author hopes new edition isn’t controversial

Steven Senne/AP

It sounds funny to say, but I hope this edition does not make a huge splash,” said Lesléa Newman. She’s the author of the landmark children’s picture book “Heather Has Two Mommies,” the sweet-natured story of a little girl about to start day care, and whose favorite number is 2. That’s because she has two legs, two arms, two eyes, two pets, and two mommies.

“Heather” debuted in December 1989, the first-ever children’s book featuring parents who were lesbians, and kicked up great controversy: From 1990 to 1999, it was No. 9 on the American Library Association’s 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books. Anti-gay groups from Oregon to Texas attacked it. New York City’s schools chancellor was fired, in part, because of it. Politicians lambasted it.

“Jesse Helms was my best publicist,” Newman joked of the late conservative senator.

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This month, Somerville-based Candlewick Press celebrates the 25th anniversary of “Heather” with a new edition, featuring an updated text and fresh illustrations by Laura Cornell, who has illustrated many of Jamie Lee Curtis’s bestselling children’s books.

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“When the rights became available, Candlewick jumped at the chance to bring this modern classic back to the wider marketplace,” said Katie Cunningham, the book’s editor. As society changes, she added, “books should serve as both mirrors and windows,” and indeed, this book’s reception has uncannily reflected the evolution of gay rights over the years.

Which is why Newman hopes for less splash: “I’d like us to live in a world where it’s not a big deal whether a child has two moms,” she said recently, sipping cappuccino at a pastry shop in Northampton, a few blocks from where she first got the idea to write “Heather.” It sprang from an urgent request.

“I think I was coming up the stairs at a 1988 Pride Parade fund-raiser pancake breakfast, and Lesléa was coming down the stairs,” said Amy Jacobson, a physician’s assistant at the Northampton Veterans Affairs Medical Center (and the inspiration for “Mama Jane” in the story). “I stopped her and asked, ‘Do you know anyone who could write a book for lesbian moms who have a kid?’ Because there’s nothing out there.’”

At the time, Newman had several books to her name. And Jacobson and her wife, Lynn Zashin, M.D., now her partner of almost 40 years (she inspired the book’s stethoscope-wearing Mama Kate), had a toddler named Sarah.

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“There were no resources back then,” Jacobson recalled. “At every step in Sarah’s schooling, we had to educate people about us. We handed out ‘Heather’ at many places. Kids would ask Sarah if she had a daddy, and the book helped protect her, helped explain us. This was the early days, you know; parents were nervous, some wouldn’t let their kids come to our house for a playdate.”

In 1993, the couple adopted Allie, their second daughter, from Guatemala. “Heather was the start of my activism,” says Jacobson, who read the book to both daughters throughout their childhood. But “Heather” had a hard time getting picked up.

“Mainstream publishers said ‘we don’t do lesbian content,’ while gay presses said ‘we don’t do children’s books,’ ” recalled Newman, adding that she got about 50 rejection letters.

Steven Senne/ap
Heather Has Two Mommies by Leslea Newman and illustrated by Laura Cornell

So Newman turned to Tzivia Gover, who owned a desktop publishing business called In Other Words. Together, they raised $4,000. Then they found an illustrator named Diana Souza — but could only afford to print black-and-white drawings — and got copies into a handful of independent bookstores.

One of those was the feminist bookstore New Words, in Cambridge, where “Heather” caught the eye of Sasha Alyson, founder of Alyson Publications, who’d published Michael Willhoite’s “Daddy’s Roommate,” a children’s book about a boy whose divorced father moves in with his male partner (it would become No. 2 on that same ALA Most Challenged Books List).

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Alyson offered to publish “Heather Has Two Mommies” in a second edition in 1990. After the book met wider distribution, it hit the news with a vengeance.

‘As a child, I didn’t know it was revolutionary. . . . But it’s hitting me now. My mom was the catalyst for all of it, and I’m so thankful that my parents fought for my sister and me every step of the way, even when I didn’t know they were fighting for us.’

In the fall of 1992, New York City school chancellor Joseph A. Fernandez tried to roll out the city’s new “Children of the Rainbow” curriculum, which encouraged diversity and fought bias. “Heather” became one of the books suggested, not required, as first-grade reading material. Mary Cummins, president of the city’s district 24 school board, told The New York Times the curriculum was full of “dangerously misleading lesbian/homosexual propaganda.” The ensuing firestorm led to the dismissal of Fernandez.

In 1994, Senator Bob C. Smith of North Carolina read “Heather Has Two Mommies” into the Congressional Record — the C-Span footage shows him clearly smirking — as a way to push for a “no promo homo” amendment to a federal education bill.

In 1998, Texas pastor Robert Jeffress checked “Heather” out of the library, and refused to return it. The city council voted to make a special “adults only” checkout section of the library for “Heather” and “Daddy’s Roommate,” which the courts struck down as unconsitutional.

What was all this like for Newman? “I felt incredulous,” she says. “I never thought my tiny little book would get noticed.”

A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., Newman now lives in Holyoke with her wife, Mary Vazquez. Early in her career, Newman was mentored by both Allen Ginsburg and Grace Paley, and is the author of more than 65 works for children and adults, including her poetry book “October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard” and her off-Broadway show “A Letter to Harvey Milk.” She was also the poet laureate of Northampton.

Still, “Heather” is her most famous work. Its prominence has even tilted to parody, from an episode of “The Simpsons” (“Bart Has Two Mommies”) to a bit from Conan O’Brien. Playing off right-wing attacks on the “radicalization” of the Girl Scouts, he renamed one of their cookie offerings “Heather Has Two Mallomars.”

It’s an intriguing exercise to compare the book’s various editions.The 2000 version, for example, included a long note to parents and teachers that recounts all the controversies surrounding the book. In the 2015 one, “we made a conscious decision not to have a foreword or afterword,” says Newman. “No explanation, no fanfare; it’s just a kids book about many kinds of family.”

Newman dedicated “Heather Has Two Mommies” to “Sarah and Miranda Crane and all of their friends.” Miranda is the daughter of publisher Tzivia Gover. And Sarah is Sarah Zashin-Jacobson, now 29. Reached by phone, she paused to reflect on what the book means to her and to so many others.

“As a child, I didn’t know it was revolutionary, and I can’t pinpoint when I knew it was a big deal,” said Zashin-Jacobson. “But it’s hitting me now. My mom was the catalyst for all of it, and I’m so thankful that my parents fought for my sister and me every step of the way, even when I didn’t know they were fighting for us. People ask me all the time ‘What was it like to grow up with parents who were lesbians?’ And I say ‘What was it like? My sister and I had two loving parents and grew up in a great, loving family.’”

The world is slowly starting to recognize families like hers, added Zashin-Jacobson, but slowly is the operative word. Recently, she went to Barnes and Noble, in Manhattan, to buy a copy of “Heather Has Two Mommies” as a baby shower gift. She looked and looked in the children’s book section, but couldn’t find it anywhere. It turns out it was shelved in the parenting section — as if were an “issues” book, and not meant for kids to stumble upon. “It’s a children’s book!” she said. “We’ve come so far, but we still have a long ways to go. And ‘Heather’ should never be hidden.”

Katharine Whittemore can be reached at katharine.whittemore@comcast.net.