Representation Matters: Lesléa Newman, children's book author
It's February, the month of love, but in the UK it is also LGBT History Month. So we thought it would be a great idea to shine a spotlight on Lesléa Newman (pronounced Les-lee-ah), whose groundbreaking picture book Heather Has Two Mommies was one of the first to represent lesbian parents and celebrate the love that binds all kinds of families. When Lesléa kindly agreed to be interviewed by our super intern, Jess, we were stoked! Read on to learn about Lesléa and why she wants to change the world one book at a time.
Hi Lesléa! Can you introduce yourself to our readers and tell them a bit about the kind of children’s books you write?
My name is Lesléa Newman and I write board books, picture books, chapter books, middle-grade novels, teen novels, novels-in-verse and books for adults, too! The only type of book I know I’ll never write is a cookbook!
What kind of books did you read as a child?
I loved Dr. Seuss. I loved books about animals. I loved classic novels such as Little Women.
Did you ever see yourself in the books you read as a child?
I particularly related to Anne Frank, as I read her diary when I was just about her age and like her, I am Jewish.
Why do you think that children should be able to identify with the books they read?
It’s so important for children to see themselves in books. It makes them feel validated and that they have a place in the world where they belong.
Why did you start writing inclusive children’s books?
This is not something I made a decision to do. It just came about naturally, as I write about the world in which I live.
How have you seen the benefits of writing inclusive children’s books?
I have met children with two moms who were very excited about having a book that showed their type of family or gender expression.
Heather Has Two Mommies celebrates love in all kinds of families. It features gay parents, single parent-households and step-parents. Why is it important to deconstruct the nuclear family in children’s books?
It’s important because kids live in all types of families and they all deserve to see themselves reflected in a piece of children’s literature.
Heather Has Two Mommies was first published in 1989 and an updated edition was released in 2016. What was the reaction to it then, and how has its critical reception changed?
Many people were thrilled about the book. And many people were horrified by it. There were all kinds of protests and attempts to remove it from libraries and school curriculums. Now, thirty-two years later, I don’t hear about these types of protests. And I’m happy to say that now there are many more books about two-mom and two-dad families. And there needs to be many more.
Why is it necessary that children should be able to challenge homogenous social constructs, such as Sparkle Boy’s treatment of gender, at a young age?
It is important for children who do not fit into the gender binary (which is an artificial construction) to see themselves in literature so that they feel validated. And it is important for others to see them as well, to expand their notion of gender. Most children think that this is not a big deal. And hopefully those children will retain that attitude of respect, acceptance, and celebration when they become adults.
What do you hope children’s books will look like in the future?
I hope children’s books will reflect the society in which we live and feature characters of all races, religions, cultures, sizes, genders and family constellations. We are moving in that direction and I hope this trend continues.
Thank you, Lesléa! You can learn more about her and her books from her website, Twitter, and Facebook. Plus, this insightful article on the 'immeasurable' value of Heather Has Two Mommies for one family, and for society as a whole, will make your heart grow three sizes.
Lesléa Newman is the author of 75 books for readers of all ages. Recent picture books include Sparkle Boy, Gittel's Journey: An Ellis Island Story and Welcoming Elijah: A Passover Tale with a Tail. Her literary awards include two American Library Association Stonewall Honors and the National Jewish Book Award. Her picture book, Heather Has Two Mommies was the first picture book to feature a happy family consisting of two moms and their child.