Lesléa New­man is the author of more than sev­en­ty books for chil­dren and adults. Many of her books explore themes of par­tic­u­lar rel­e­vance to the LGBTQ com­mu­ni­ty, while oth­ers offer her own inter­pre­ta­tions of the Jew­ish expe­ri­ence. We spoke about some of her most acclaimed works, and about her engage­ment with issues of rep­re­sen­ta­tion in books for young peo­ple. The inter­view has been edit­ed for length and clarity.

Emi­ly Schnei­der: Back when you pub­lished A Let­ter to Har­vey Milk, which had some deeply mov­ing short sto­ries and was very favor­ably reviewed, you had a won­der­ful quote from one of the sto­ries where a char­ac­ter, Rachel, sums up the chal­lenges of her iden­ti­ty in the state­ment: Being a les­bian is lonely…Being a Jew is lonely…Being alive is lone­ly.” The mat­ter-of-fact brevi­ty of that def­i­n­i­tion still seems stun­ning to me. Do you now see it as dat­ed, or do think it is still a reli­able sum­ma­ry in some ways of a gay Jew­ish woman’s life today?

Lesléa New­man: First of all, I’m a lit­tle stunned that I was so wise when I was thir­ty-years-old! I don’t real­ly remem­ber writ­ing that but it’s actu­al­ly a pro­found state­ment that I believe is true. I think there are moments in every human being’s life when one feels lone­ly, and I real­ly like this quote from Maya Angelou: I write out of the black expe­ri­ence about the human expe­ri­ence.” That’s kind of how I feel. I write out of a Jew­ish les­bian expe­ri­ence about the human expe­ri­ence. So, yes, I def­i­nite­ly think that quote is still rel­e­vant today.

ES: The Angelou quote is won­der­ful. It gets to the core of one of the things I’d like to speak with you about — the spe­cif­ic and uni­ver­sal aspects of your work. Even though you have writ­ten over sev­en­ty books, you will always be known for Heather Has Two Mom­mies, orig­i­nal­ly from 1989, reis­sued in 2015, because it was rev­o­lu­tion­ary in pre­sent­ing a role mod­el for chil­dren who had not seen them­selves in books before. Can you bring us back to the cli­mate for LGBTQ books for kids back in 1989? How did you come up with the idea for that ground­break­ing book? And you must have met with some resis­tance, what gave you the chutz­pah to persist?

LN: There was no cli­mate because no LGBTQ books for kids exist­ed. The sto­ry of how I came up with the idea for the book has become kind of a leg­end. A woman stopped me in the street in Northamp­ton, Mass­a­chu­setts, and said I don’t have a book that shows a fam­i­ly like that…somebody should write one.” I became that some­body. I thought about my own expe­ri­ence of grow­ing up as a Jew­ish child in the 1950s and 1960s and nev­er see­ing myself in a book. I had a pret­ty tra­di­tion­al child­hood in terms of read­ing, like Dick and Jane and, when I got old­er, The Bobb­sey Twins. There was absolute­ly no book about a lit­tle girl eat­ing mat­zo ball soup with her bub­by and light­ing can­dles on Fri­day night. So, I knew the lone­li­ness of that. When I wrote the book, nobody would pub­lish it. I sent it to at least fifty pub­lish­ers, and what gave me the chutz­pah is com­ing from a long line of fierce women. My mater­nal grand­moth­er, whom I was very close to, always said, Just because they said no to me, do you think I’m fin­ished?” So that’s kind of how I live. A friend of mine, Tzivia Gov­er, and I decid­ed that we would co-pub­lish the book togeth­er. The book came out in 1989 by In Oth­er Words press, which was owned by Tzivia, and six months lat­er Alyson Books became the offi­cial pub­lish­er of the book.

When I wrote the book, nobody would pub­lish it. I sent it to at least fifty pub­lish­ers, and what gave me the chutz­pah is com­ing from a long line of fierce women.

ES: Two of the main changes from the orig­i­nal book to the lat­er edi­tions were the deci­sion to remove the short sec­tion on alter­na­tive insem­i­na­tion, and, more sig­nif­i­cant­ly, to change Heather’s emo­tion­al response to hav­ing two moms but no dads, in the 2015 revi­sion. What prompt­ed those changes?

LN: I ulti­mate­ly decid­ed that the alter­na­tive insem­i­na­tion scene didn’t belong there. If a scene can be tak­en out with­out affect­ing the rest of the book, it doesn’t belong there. Kids like for­ward motion in a book. I also changed the scene in the orig­i­nal edi­tion where Heather cries when she real­izes that she is the only child in her class with­out a dad­dy. It is a won­der­ful oppor­tu­ni­ty as an author to be able to edit your own text. Twen­ty-five years lat­er, I real­ized there was noth­ing to cry about. Heather’s real­iza­tion is just an obser­va­tion. It doesn’t car­ry that sense of emo­tion­al dev­as­ta­tion. A kid knows that a fam­i­ly is the peo­ple who love them, who take care of them, and who keep them safe in the world.

ES: In 1997 you had a piece in The Horn Book which ties togeth­er two parts of your iden­ti­ty which have informed your work, being Jew­ish and being gay. How do you think the sit­u­a­tion today has changed for Jew­ish, gay, and gen­der non-con­form­ing kids in find­ing books where they can see themselves?

LN: Being raised as a Jew was great prepa­ra­tion for being a les­bian because I was sur­round­ed by strong Jew­ish women, and I was taught ear­ly on that com­mu­ni­ty and social jus­tice were very impor­tant. I car­ry those val­ues through my whole life as a Jew, and then also in the LGBTQ com­mu­ni­ty. You know, I remem­ber the first time I saw a Jew­ish chil­dren’s book very clear­ly. I was in a book­store at about twen­ty-sev­en-years-old and it was The Carp in the Bath­tub, a won­der­ful clas­sic, right? I pulled it off the shelf and looked at it. I saw a fam­i­ly just like mine, and in the book­store, I began to cry; I’m tear­ing up now, actu­al­ly, because it was so mean­ing­ful to me. So that is why when this woman asked me to write Heather Has Two Mom­mies, I imme­di­ate­ly said yes even though I had nev­er writ­ten a chil­dren’s book before. Now there are hun­dreds of pic­ture books that fea­ture Jew­ish fam­i­lies and, as you know, I’ve writ­ten over a dozen myself. So, I’m very pleased about that. And in terms of LGBTQ pic­ture books, I would not say there are hun­dreds, but there are dozens.

I pulled it off the shelf and looked at it. I saw a fam­i­ly just like mine, and in the book­store, I began to cry; I’m tear­ing up now, actu­al­ly, because it was so mean­ing­ful to me.

ES: In The Horn Book piece, you observe that ““Heather Has Two Mom­mies and Daddy’s Room­mate” are not about sex. They’re about fam­i­lies. Clear­ly it’s the adults, not the chil­dren, who can’t take the sex out of homo­sex­u­al­i­ty. Do you think peo­ple protest­ing or feel­ing uncom­fort­able with those books today are any less obtuse about that fact, or has lit­tle changed?

LN: The closed mind is a closed mind. These books are about fam­i­lies and inclu­sive­ness. If some­one is going to see that as con­tro­ver­sial, I don’t know how to fix that, except by putting out books that show all types of chil­dren and all types of fam­i­lies. When I write a children’s book, my goal is to have the child read­er feel good about them­selves. The protests stem from fear, from the desire to con­trol your chil­dren. You don’t know who you give birth to — they might be a child who grows up part of the LGBTQ com­mu­ni­ty. Your job is to respect, accept, sup­port, and cel­e­brate them.

ES: You put that very elo­quent­ly. Speak­ing of books which bring tears to your eyes, I real­ly love My Name is Avi­va. You received very pos­i­tive reviews for it, and most of them were sen­si­tive towards its uni­ver­sal­i­ty. The lit­tle girl in the book has a weird, Jew­ish name and she wants to have an ordi­nary name that no one will mock. Some reviews cat­e­go­rize the book as almost exclu­sive­ly Jew­ish. One rec­om­mends it specif­i­cal­ly for Jew­ish col­lec­tions. Anoth­er, from Book­list Online, actu­al­ly prais­es it with the phrase, Although not overt­ly reli­gious, this will be most wel­comed by Juda­ic col­lec­tions.” There’s a whole tra­di­tion of mod­ern pic­ture books about chil­dren deal­ing with the dif­fi­cul­ty of hav­ing an eth­nic name, includ­ing last year’s Alma and How She Got Her Name by Jua­na Martínez-Neale, and Yang­sook Choi’s The Name Jar, from 2003. It is rare to see those books reviewed as exclu­sive­ly for His­pan­ic or Asian chil­dren. Do you think that Jew­ish books are still, even to well-inten­tioned read­ers and pro­fes­sion­als, less intu­itive­ly accessible?

LN: So, this is an inter­est­ing issue and I will just pref­ace it by telling you a lit­tle anec­dote. I was in a work­shop about diver­si­ty many years ago. The work­shop leader was try­ing to make a point, and she said, If you like straw­ber­ry ice cream, go to the left side of the room. If you like pis­ta­chio ice cream, go to the right side of the room.” Peo­ple divid­ed. She said some­thing like, If your favorite col­or is blue, go to the right side of the room, if your favorite col­or is red, go to the left side of the room,” and there was some over­lap. And then she said, If you are a per­son of col­or, go to the left of the room, if you are a Cau­casian per­son, go to the right side of the room.” The atti­tude of the room changed; peo­ple weren’t laugh­ing any­more. So peo­ple divid­ed, and there was a group of peo­ple who, with­out say­ing any­thing to each oth­er, went to the mid­dle of the room. The work­shop leader was very puz­zled. She asked, Who are you?” and I said, We’re the Jews.” With­out know­ing any­thing about any­body else, all of us grouped togeth­er. I said to myself, These are my peo­ple, and we don’t know where to go.” So, in the We Need Diverse Books,” move­ment, it is just as you said. The Jew­ish book about names is not seen in the same way as oth­ers with the same mes­sage, as a book about learn­ing to have pride in your name. We are not pure­ly part of the main­stream world, and yet, we’re not seen in the same way as oth­er exclud­ed groups. We should be includ­ed more in the con­ver­sa­tion about diversity.

ES: Your most recent book, Gittel’s Jour­ney, is deeply Jew­ish, but at the same time it’s such a uni­ver­sal nar­ra­tive about immi­grants. Giv­en the fact that there are so many immi­grant nar­ra­tives in children’s books, what moti­vat­ed you to tell your own ver­sion of the story?

LN: I’ve seen many reviews about Gittel’s Jour­ney, and I don’t think one has said it is only appro­pri­ate for Jew­ish libraries and read­er­ship. It’s a Jew­ish sto­ry, but it also has uni­ver­sal appeal because this is a coun­try of immi­grants. It’s also a sto­ry that I grew up with, based on my godmother’s moth­er, whose name was Sadie Gringrass. It was just one of those sto­ries which was in my blood and my bones, and it was lying dor­mant until, recent­ly, I saw a pho­to in the news of a boat of Syr­i­an refugees wash­ing up on the shores of Turkey. I looked at the faces of these peo­ple who are so hope­ful and dis­traught at the same time. I remem­bered the sto­ry, and decid­ed to write it. Gittel’s char­ac­ter is also based on my grand­moth­er, Ruth Levin, who came to this coun­try in 1900 with her moth­er and their Shab­bos can­dle­sticks, which I now own. I think that every immi­grant sto­ry deserves to be told, just like for every Holo­caust sur­vivor and vic­tim. They all have a com­mon thread, but they’re all unique, because every indi­vid­ual is unique.

It’s a Jew­ish sto­ry, but it also has uni­ver­sal appeal because this is a coun­try of immigrants.

ES: In some ways, Gittel’s Jour­ney seems like an homage to clas­sic pic­ture books. Not only Amy June Bates’s rich col­or palette and the wood­cut frames around the text, but also the high pro­por­tion of words to images, a less com­mon choice today than in the past.

LN: When­ev­er I write a book, I don’t real­ly think about the length of the text. I just write the sto­ry that needs to be told in the way that it needs to be told — it’s not a pre­con­ceived idea. I let the sto­ry take me on its own jour­ney. I was very lucky, because my won­der­ful edi­tor, Howard Reeves, shared my vision and found Amy June Bates, who I think is a genius, and she clear­ly put her heart and soul into this book. It’s a pic­ture book for slight­ly old­er read­ers, maybe six- to nine-year-olds, but adults have tak­en to the book and love it, too.

ES: I’d like to go back for a minute to tie togeth­er some of our dis­cus­sion. The emi­nent schol­ar Rudine Sims Bish­op famous­ly used the metaphor of mir­rors and win­dows to make the point that chil­dren need to see them­selves in books; that’s the mir­ror. But they also need to see win­dows into the expe­ri­ences of oth­er groups dif­fer­ent from their own. One ques­tion I have is, how exact a reflec­tion does the mir­ror need to be in order for chil­dren to iden­ti­fy with char­ac­ters in books?

LN: I heard from a lit­tle girl who wrote me a thank-you let­ter for writ­ing Heather Has Two Mom­mies. She said, I know that you wrote it just for me.” I hap­pened to know that this child, whom I had met, was African-Amer­i­can. Heather is white, but Tasha was con­vinced that I wrote the book just for her. So, chil­dren cross gen­der lines and racial lines to put them­selves right in the books. Kids want to see them­selves in books so they will go the extra mile in order to do so. As a writer, I work extra hard to make that happen.

ES: The sec­ond part of my ques­tion con­cerns the win­dows. In order to see through a win­dow, you have to be will­ing to walk up to someone’s house and look into that win­dow. Are non-Jew­ish care­givers and edu­ca­tors as moti­vat­ed as they might be to look into Jew­ish win­dows, to give chil­dren that oppor­tu­ni­ty to under­stand us?

LN: That is a tough ques­tion. I have to say, some peo­ple will even have an issue with my talk­ing about Jews as a minor­i­ty group. I have talked to oth­er Jew­ish children’s book authors who don’t think that the diver­si­ty in children’s book move­ment feels the same way about Jew­ish children’s books as they do about books from oth­er com­mu­ni­ties. Maybe the excep­tion is around the hol­i­days. By the hol­i­days, I mean Passover and Hanukkah, of course. I don’t think there are many peo­ple out there look­ing for a book about Sim­chat Torah.

I don’t want to define my iden­ti­ty around per­se­cu­tion, but it’s a real fac­tor in our his­to­ry. There is a time and place to work with­in one’s own group, and a time and place to reach out and work in coalition.

ES: Espe­cial­ly giv­en the cli­mate of our coun­try right now, are you opti­mistic about how we as Jews, with­out dimin­ish­ing the par­tic­u­lar expe­ri­ences of oth­er groups, might be part of the con­ver­sa­tion? Or should we focus more on reach­ing our own community?

LN: I think the answer is both. Look­ing at our five thou­sand year plus his­to­ry, we have always been con­sid­ered dif­fer­ent. I don’t want to define my iden­ti­ty around per­se­cu­tion, but it’s a real fac­tor in our his­to­ry. There is a time and place to work with­in one’s own group, and a time and place to reach out and work in coali­tion. Because until all of us are free, none of us are. It’s espe­cial­ly impor­tant to have dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tions with an open heart and an open mind. I have a book com­ing out next year called Wel­com­ing Eli­jah: A Passover Tale with a Tail. It takes place dur­ing the seder, and there is a line about wel­com­ing friends to the seder. Orig­i­nal­ly, there was an illus­tra­tion of a boy with a mom and dad stand­ing in the door­way. I asked my edi­tor, Why is that the default?” I would just like the child to open the door. That way, a child with a mom and a dad, or a child with two moms or two dads, or a child from a sin­gle-par­ent house­hold, or a child liv­ing with grand­par­ents, can still see them­selves. Because you don’t know who’s inside.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.