Lesléa Newman writes about happy families, functional relationships and well-adjusted children. That’s earned her a place on the American Library Association’s list of most banned writers.
Author of 60 children’s books, Newman wrote the iconic Heather Has Two Mommies in 1989 so her friends’ children could read a story about themselves. But she said the book isn’t just for kids with two moms.
She said it’s important for children from traditional families to learn that not every family looks like theirs. And no matter what those families look like, those children are loved.
Newman knew she wanted to be a writer from early on. What might not have been apparent when she was young was that she’d make a name for herself portraying non-typical families.
“I grew up on Dick and Jane,” she said. “As a kid, I was being fed gender roles.”
Newman knew she didn’t fit those roles. As a child, she hated playing with dolls.
“I find them incredibly creepy,” she said.
While Heather may be her best known book, A Fire Engine for Ruthie may be her most personal.
“That would be me as a child,” she said.
Ruthie challenges gender stereotypes for girls because she has no interest in dolls but loves to play with fire trucks.
The same year, Newman published The Boy Who Cried Fabulous, about an overly exuberant boy named Roger. At first his parents ban the word fabulous from his vocabulary but eventually learn to appreciate their fabulous son.
Newman said she understands just how emotional gender roles are to some. A pastor in Wichita Falls urged people to check out Heather from the library and not return it. Around the country, people stole, defaced or burned the book and protested libraries that carried it.
Her publisher once offered 500 copies to libraries around the country that had lost theirs. The books were snatched up in just hours.
And the Wichita Falls pastor, the Rev. Robert Jeffress, that advocated destruction of public property, now heads First Baptist Church of Dallas.
Newman said that although her books are some of the most boycotted, they’re not the only ones being written about nontraditional families, nor were they the first.
She cited The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, published in 1936, as one of her inspirations.
Ferdinand is a bull who would rather smell flowers than participate in bullfights. The book, written before the Spanish Civil War, was seen at the time as being about pacifism, but most readers today would see him as a gay bull.
Another of Newman’s favorite books is King and King by Linda de Haan. The prince of the kingdom must marry, but he is uninterested in every princess his parents arrange for him to meet. Finally, one princess is accompanied by her brother. The two princes fall in love and they live happily ever after.
Oliver Button is a Sissy, by Tomie dePaola and published in 1979, about a boy who deals with bullying, was ahead of its time in dealing with a problem that has gotten worse in recent years.
Newman continues to write about the wide diversity of families and modern experiences children face.
“Single mom, single dad, losing a pet, losing a grandparent, losing someone to AIDS,” she said are all themes she’s dealt with.
The prolific writer has had a tremendous impact on how families are depicted in children’s books.
“Now, girls are encouraged to be anything,” she said.
And gay children are accepted by their parents, and kids with same-sex parents can read stories about other families like theirs.
And banned or not, for it’s 25th anniversary, Heather Has Two Mommies will be released next year with new illustrations.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 26, 2013.
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