When Lesléa Newman published her children’s book Heather Has Two Mommies in 1989, the very idea of same-sex marriage seemed like a pipe dream. The LGBTQ community was still in the throes of the HIV crisis; few states forbade sexual orientation discrimination; and the Supreme Court had affirmed the constitutionality of sodomy bans, essentially permitting the criminalization of homosexuality. At the time, a picture book about a young girl with lesbian parents felt like a radical act—and the culture, caught off guard, responded with shock and outrage.
Twenty-five years later, when Christine Baldacchino published Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress, a children’s book about a gender nonconforming schoolchild, the American LGBTQ landscape had changed dramatically. Same-sex marriage bans were falling around the country, a majority of states permitted gay adoption and prohibited gay discrimination, and Time was poised to announce the arrival of a “Trans Tipping Point.”
Together, Heather and Morris bookend the most important era of LGBTQ history; each filters the most important issues then facing the community through the lens of children’s storytelling. I spoke with Newman and Baldacchino over the phone about their work and their hopes for the genre they helped to pioneer.
Slate: Lesléa, what prompted you to write Heather Has Two Mommies?
Lesléa Newman: This has become lesbian lore over time, but it’s actually true. I was walking down the street in Northampton, Massachusetts—Lesbianville, USA—in 1988. And a woman stopped me and said, “I don’t have a book that I can read to my daughter that shows a family like mine. Someone should write one.” By someone, she meant me. I grew up in the 1960s with no books about Jewish kids. I knew how alienating it could be to not see a family like yours in a book. You don’t belong, you think—there’s no place for you, because your family is different, and our culture says difference is inferior rather than wonderful. I took it seriously and felt like maybe I could make a difference in a child’s life.
What was the reaction like when the book came out in 1989?
Newman: From the very beginning, lesbian mothers were thrilled. But there were people who were less than thrilled. The book very quickly became this cultural icon that stood for the destruction of civilization as we know it. It was burned, banned, defecated on, challenged in libraries, returned to libraries with the pages glued shut, read on the Senate floor into the congressional record. Anti-gay protesters blew up the cover and toted it around on placards in protest.
Christine, what inspired Morris Micklewhite?
Christine Baldacchino: I worked at a prekindergarten program, and there was one 4-year-old boy who liked to wear this gold dress from the dress-up center with little red shoes. One day, his mother came to pick him up for a dentist appointment and saw him wearing the dress. She told the director that she didn’t want to him wearing the dress because he looked “ridiculous.” Every day after that, for several weeks, the boy asked me where the dress was. Was it getting fixed? Cleaned? Eventually he figured out that the director had removed the dress on purpose so he wouldn’t be able to wear it. Then he told me, “If you bring back the dress, I promise I’ll never wear it again.”
Newman: You’re breaking my heart! This is the saddest thing I’ve ever heard.
Baldacchino: I was in this position where I wanted him to have the dress, and I knew what the director had done was wrong—but I was broke! I couldn’t afford to be fired from my job. So instead, I wrote the first draft of Morris Micklewhite. My plan was to write it so I could read it to the class. At first, I wasn’t aiming to get published.
Newman: Did you read this book to the class that this child was in?
Baldacchino: I had to have the book approved by the director before I could read it in class, and he rejected it. He told me, “I really don’t like that the kids bully him for wearing the dress.” I didn’t even know what to say.
When you did publish the book, Christine, what was the reaction?
Baldacchino: There hasn’t been a lot of controversy. I’ve heard stories here and there. Apparently one boy brought the book home from his school library, and his mom marched him back to school, made him return it, and tried to get it banned. I’ve also spoken at a couple of Catholic schools where they’ll let me read the book, but they’ll say to me beforehand, “Can you curb it away from gender identity and gender issues?”
Newman: But how would you do that?
Baldacchino: Exactly! That’s the story! Some schools want it to be more of a broad anti-bullying story. Rather than Morris being himself and the dress being a part of him—which is the message I’m hoping people get from it—they want the book to be about how Morris just likes to dress up for fun.
Newman: Like, there were no other clothes in the dress-up center that day, so Morris got stuck with the dress?
Baldacchino: Yeah. You’ll see instructors at some schools visibly bristle when I get to the dress. But it’s unavoidable! It’s his dress! On one page, the dress is at home with him on his bed. It’s in his home—a part of who he is. Focus on the bullying aspect of it? Fine. But not the gender identity thing? I don’t know how I’m supposed to do that! One is intertwined with the other!
Newman: That’s just absolutely insane. I want to tell you, I am absolutely in love with Morris. It’s a book that has the potential to change children’s lives.
Lesléa, have you ever had experiences like Christine’s, where schools have tried to muffle Heather’s message?
Newman: At one school, in Virginia, I got called into the principal’s office! The school had brought me in to talk about another book of mine, Hachiko Waits, about a dog that lives in Japan. At the last minute, they realized, Oh no, she’s also the author of Heather! I was already at the school. They demanded that I not talk about Heather. I told them, “Frankly, I wasn’t planning to. But you can either pay me now and I won’t talk, or pay me and I’ll talk—and I’m not going to make you any promises.” So they let me give my talk.
Did Heather come up?
Newman: Believe it or not, a little girl who was in the audience asked me if I had written Heather. I loved that child. I wasn’t going to lie, so I said yes, and we talked about it for a minute. That kid probably got expelled.
Have you seen kids react poorly to the book?
Newman: Never. Because kids aren’t born with hatred. They aren’t born with this preconceived notion that this is a family, and this isn’t. That has to be taught.
Baldacchino: A lot of kids have responded really well to my book. With the few kids who have said they don’t like the book, you can sort of tell, from their language, that they’ve been fed beliefs or prejudices by their parents. One boy said, “I think Morris should meet another boy in a dress and they should drive off a cliff together.” Not just, “I don’t think boys should wear dresses,” but this really violent imagery.
Newman: A Thelma and Louise image.
Baldacchino: Exactly. And it wasn’t just that he didn’t like to see boys wearing dresses—he thought they deserved to die. And he specifically wanted the two of them together, so it was clearly not just that he was a boy in a dress, but that he was a gay boy in a dress who should drive off a cliff with another gay boy. It didn’t feel like something this child, or any child, would conceive of on his own. Whenever a child has said to me, “I don’t think he should be wearing a dress,” it’s usually followed by something that sounds like a sentiment they’d heard from an adult.
That’s an especially odd reaction, because there’s no implication in the book that Morris is gay.
Baldacchino: Who knows? Maybe he’s just a boy who likes a dress. Maybe he is gay or trans. Right now he’s a 4-year-old boy who wears a dress.
Newman: That’s a perfect answer. The only label I would put on Morris Micklewhite is Morris Micklewhite. He’s 4 years old! Plus, gender expression and sexuality are two separate things. It’s so interesting that people feel they have to find a label to smack on a kid.
Lesléa, you mentioned that there were no books about lesbian parents when you wrote Heather. There are certainly more LGBTQ children’s books today than there were in 1989.
Newman: There are definitely more opportunities, but it’s still very difficult to get a children’s book published with LGBT themes. Publishing is a business, driven by a bottom line—money. A lot of publishers still think of this as a niche market, a small market, and think it’s not going to be profitable. Still, very exciting things are happening. In 2008 I was approached by a publisher and asked to write two books for 6-month-old kids about a kid with two moms and a kid with two dads. It was a huge thing that the press came to me, 20 years after I was begging people to publish Heather. So things are changing. We’re taking baby steps. But are there enough LGBT kids’ books? No. Then again, there can’t be too many.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Nightlight is Slate’s pop-up blog about children’s books, running for the month of August. Read about it here.