More than 25 years ago, Amy Jacobson was frustrated that no books existed to explain her family to her 18-month-old daughter, Sarah.
Sarah was about to move from a home-based day care to a professionally run day care in Northampton, Massachusetts, and Jacobson and her partner (now wife) Lynn Zashin knew other children would start asking questions about her family structure.
“My concern as a protective mother was that kids were going to ask her questions about her family, and she wouldn’t know what to say,” said Jacobson. “And there were no tools to help her. It became clear to me there needed to be resources.”
Spotting local writer and poet Leslea Newman walking in town one day, Jacobson approached her and asked if she knew anyone who could write a book about two mommies. Newman, now the author of more than 65 works for adults and children, had not yet written a children’s book.
Inspired by that conversation with Jacobson, Newman decided to write it herself.
That’s how “Heather Has Two Mommies” was born. Newman wrote the book in a matter of weeks, and Diana Souza did the illustrations. Newman couldn’t get a mainstream publisher, so she and friend Tzivia Gover, a desktop publisher, co-published the book in December 1989. Black and white illustrations were all they could afford.
Protests ignited after Alyson Publications picked up the book for wider publication, which caught Newman off-guard. (Alyson had previously published “Daddy’s Roommate,” a book by Michael Willhoite about a divorced dad who moves in with his male partner.)
“It was challenged and burned … and read in the Congressional Record,” she said. “It just blew my mind.”
“That’s not what I set out to do. I set out to write a book because a lesbian mom stopped me on the street and said ‘I need a book for families like ours.’ ”
A little more than 25 years later, an updated “Heather Has Two Mommies” with new color illustrations by Laura Cornell is being released by Candlewick Press on March 24. This time around, Newman hopes there are no protests or denouncements by members of Congress or local school boards banning the book in protest.
A family headed by two mothers is now common enough that Rosie O’Donnell, Sara Gilbert, Wanda Sykes and even country star Chely Wright make news when their babies’ births and adoptions make the pages of People Magazine.
Now there is a decent selection of books for lesbian, gay and other parents outside the traditional heterosexual model from which to choose, including “And Tango Makes Three,” Newman’s later “Daddy, Papa and Me,” and others. And several newer books like “10,000 Dresses” try to help children who don’t fit into society’s ideas of a traditional boy or girl.
Those books didn’t exist in 1989 when the tale of toddler Heather’s two moms, their two pets, Heather’s favorite number (two) and her first foray into day care was first published.
The book has been challenged 42 times by legislators and parents wanting to remove it from local and school library shelves, says Kristin Pekoll, assistant director for the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.
It was the third most challenged book in 1993, and the second most challenged book in 1994. “Daddy’s Roommate” was the most challenged book in both years.
Most challenges were because of homosexuality, Pekoll said. “Many times legislators and politicians get involved, and (the book) gets connected to pedophilia and sadomasochism. It gets clumped together with topics that have nothing to do with it.”
What mattered to Jacobson was that she had a tool to explain her family to her child and to other children.
“As the kids in her day care got a little older, they started to ask questions,” she said. “‘Where is the daddy? Does Sarah have a daddy?’ They just needed to know there are all kinds of families, and there was a book … they trusted telling them it was OK.”
Later, the couple adopted their daughter, Allie, who was from Guatemala, and they needed more resources to support her, said Jacobson. They still faced schools that didn’t quite understand two-mom families or nonwhite students. There were parents who wouldn’t let their children have sleepovers at their home.
“Heather was the beginning of the process of us realizing as a lesbian couple that there were going to be many battles, and we just had to do them,” said Jacobson. “‘Heather’ paved some way but there was a lot ‘Heather’ couldn’t do that we had to just do.”
They’ve seen the payoff.
Same-sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts in 2004, just before Sarah graduated from high school. Instead of a graduation party, Sarah wanted to see her parents get legally married–so that’s what they did. The couple had been together nearly 30 years at the time. (The couple has now been together nearly 40 years.)
Jacobson has had some time to reflect on the importance of that sidewalk conversation so many years ago.
“If Leslea hadn’t written ‘Heather,’ I wouldn’t have had that first tool to walk in with,” said Jacobson. “I had something in my hand, this published book. This is what you can say to kids. It was very powerful.”