NEW YORK — A playful picture book about a little girl named Heather and her two happy mommies was a cultural and legal flashpoint 25 years ago, angering conservatives over the morality of same-sex parenting and landing libraries at the center of community battles over placement in the children’s stacks.
Today, Heather — of “Heather Has Two Mommies” — has a lot more company in books for young kids about different kinds of families, but hers was out of print and seemed visually dated. That’s why creator Leslea Newman decided on a new version, updating the look of her watershed story with fresh illustrations from a new artist and tweaking the text to streamline.
There’s one big change, but you have to squint to notice: Heather’s Mama Kate and Mama Jane wear little matching rings on their marriage fingers.
“I don’t specifically say that they’re married but they are,” Newman explained from her home just outside Northampton, Mass. “I don’t know where I could have smoothly inserted that into the text. That’s not what the story is about. The story is really about Heather.”
Heather was Newman’s first picture book and is certainly her most well-known. The latest edition, out this month, is from Candlewick Press, with illustrations by Laura Cornell replacing those of Diana Souza.
Newman wrote the story in 1988 after a chance encounter in Northampton with Amy Jacobson, a lesbian mom who was looking for reading material that better reflected her life with her partner — now wife — and their young daughter — now grown.
“Every step I was educating people about our family because there was nothing else,” recalled Jacobson. “If I hadn’t done it somebody else would have found an author. The book needed to happen.”
Newman, a full-time writer and poet at the time, chronicles Heather’s love of all things “two,” including her moms, one a doctor and the other a carpenter. When Heather joins a home-based play group — changed to “school” in the new version — she is saddened when teacher Molly reads the children a story at nap time focused on a daddy.
As the children chime in with their fathers’ occupations, Heather bemoans, “I don’t have a daddy,” when asked what hers does for a living. The original story has her tearing up as she wonders if any other family looks like hers. The update has the children chiming in with the work of their mommies AND daddies, and it eliminates Heather’s tears.
The process of getting Heather published in 1989 was a slow one.
“After I wrote the book I sent it to many, many publishers. Small presses, large presses. Children’s book presses told me to try lesbian presses. Lesbian presses told me to try children’s book presses. Nobody was really interested,” Newman said.
There were about 50 turndowns. That’s why she co-published the book with a friend who had a desktop printing business. The two found an illustrator and financed the endeavor mostly from $10 donations, promising each contributor a copy from the 4,000 they printed up.
Soon, writer and businessman Sasha Alyson came knocking. He had just put out another picture book, “Daddy’s Roommate,” about a divorced father who lives with his same-sex partner, when he spotted Heather in a Cambridge, Mass., bookshop and offered to take it on.
Heather quickly took off and the repercussions — for both Newman’s book and “Daddy’s Roommate” by Michael Willhoite — were big.
Opposition to the books in New York City, primarily among members of one local school board in Queens, contributed to the downfall of schools Chancellor Joseph Fernandez. He had defended them as optional reading for elementary school classrooms in a broader “Children of the Rainbow” curriculum intended to encourage teachers to better embrace diversity.
Both books landed at the center of a federal court battle in Wichita Falls, Texas, after Dr. Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church, waved them around during a sermon on “Sodom and Gomorrah” and blasted them as anti-God and unsuitable for children.
He and other opponents took to checking the books out of the local library without return, only to have supporters drop off new copies for loan. The City Council, on a 4-3 vote, decided to take the issue to those with valid library cards, allowing for 300 to demand the books be moved from the children’s section to an adult shelf. A judge deemed the effort unconstitutional and the city didn’t appeal.
Lead attorney for Heather and her supporters, John Horany, had a personal injury practice in Dallas but signed on to work with the ACLU to defend the books on constitutional grounds after an old friend told him of the controversy in Wichita Falls, where he grew up, heading to the library to stay cool during sultry summer days.
“He said your hometown is about to be the laughingstock of Western civilization,” Horany said.
That barely touches the trouble encountered by “Heather Has Two Mommies” in hot spots around the country. Newman said it was banned, burned and even defecated upon by a library patron in Ohio. It was among the nation’s most challenged books in libraries for a good part of the ’90s.
“It’s the book that brought to the forefront the issues, the conflicts, over what materials concerning GLBT identity, lifestyles should be available to young kids,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy director for the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom in Chicago. “It was a time when we were really first acknowledging what we call the culture wars now, and the idea that there would be books actually acknowledging that families headed by same-sex parents existed.”
In 1992, the town of Fayetteville, N.C., was divided on whether Heather should remain in the public library. Opponents nearly defeated an $11.4 million bond issue to build five new library branches, running a newspaper ad that declared:
“Cumberland County Library takes the lead in pursuit of legitimizing homosexuality. Can prostitution, bestiality or incest be far behind?”
The referendum passed by a slim 316 votes.
“It’s been a long 25 years,” Newman said, laughing.