Know what picture book is having a big birthday this year? Lesléa Newman’s Heather Has Two Mommies is turning 25 years old, and Candlewick Press is celebrating with an anniversary edition of the book. Originally illustrated by Diana Souza, this birthday edition includes illustrations from Laura Cornell, who has illustrated many of Jamie Lee Curtis’ bestselling picture books.
But you know why the author doesn’t want A Big Deal made out of this book? In an article for The Boston Globe last month, Newman told Katharine Whittemore that she hopes this new edition “does not make a huge splash.” That’s because when it was released in 1989, it was the first children’s book to include lesbian parents. As a result, as the article explains, it rested snugly in the Top 10 of the American Library Association’s 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books for 1990 to 1999. Fortunately, if you check ALA’s Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books list for 2000 to 2009, the book is not listed. That’s definitely progress of a sort, though we still have a long way to go in this country when it comes to gay rights.
You could surely say it made a big splash when it was first released—for all the wrong reasons. Controversy surrounded the book, and those firmly against equal rights for gays vehemently opposed its publication. Jesse Helms was Newman’s best publicist, the author joked with Whittemore. For this new edition, she even opted out of a special foreword or introduction to the book. “The time for explaining was past,” she told Alex Heimbach at Kirkusthis week. Understandably, she wants to let the story be, since we as a country should be long past objections to same-sex parenting.
It’s smart for Candlewick to have chosen such a bestselling illustrator for this new edition. Many parents know her work, and perhaps those more reluctant to read such a book to their children—from parents to educators—will give the book a second glance. And the new illustrations, as the Kirkus review notes, don’t include the lesbian stereotypes that hampered the book’s first incarnation.
Since Heather’s publication, we’ve seen more picture books that include gay characters. The picture book import King and King, written by Linda de Haan and illustrated by Stern Nijland, remains one of my favorites. There’s a new one coming soon, but this one includes two dads. Miriam B. Schiffer’s Stella Brings the Family, with illustrations from British artist Molly Clifton-Brown, will be on shelves in early May.
This book has a lot in common with Newman’s groundbreaking book. Stella has a happy home life and two gay parents. When she gets to Elmwood Elementary School one day, she’s anxious to learn there will be a special Mother’s Day celebration. What will she do? Everyone else in her class has mothers. (“Howie had two!” Schiffer writes, perhaps even in a nod to Heather.) She frets for days until she realizes family is more than just two parents. It’s also aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. Her solution is to invite the whole lot of them. All goes well. The end. It takes a village, as they say.
The book is, in many ways, a descendant of Heather Has Two Mommies, primarily in that it normalizes gay parenting. It’s all about affirmation and accord. There’s no great disquiet or unrest in the narrative, no Sturm Und Drang to speak of. Stella’s only conflict is that her parents don’t fit into the mold the school has established for celebrations. But she makes it work. And child readers surrounded by homophobic adults in their lives who read this book will see it can work too. And that’s a powerful thing.
And, in my book, kind of A Big Deal. Which is why I raise my glass (let’s make it an elementary-classroom cup of grape juice) to Heather and Stella.
STELLA BRINGS THE FAMILY. Copyright © 2015 by Miriam B. Schiffer. Illustrations copyright © 2015 by Holly Clifton-Brown. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher, Chronicle Books, San Francisco.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.