It’s one thing to believe all children need to hear and see diverse stories. It’s another to be the one to tell those stories, even to kids who aren’t your own. I lead a weekly playgroup for kids 0–6 and their grownups at my small-town library. For Mothers’ Day storytime, I wanted to read Heather Has Two Mommies, a favorite in our house. But one voice in my head kept asking, “Is it worth it?”
Heather Has Two Mommies, written in 1988, is one of the first children’s books to depict same-sex parenting. Lesléa Newman was inspired to write it when a lesbian mom told her she didn’t have any books to read to her child that reflected their family.
So Newman — herself a lesbian — wrote Heather Has Two Mommies, but said, “Nobody wanted to touch the book,” not mainstream publishers, not children’s book publishers, not LGBTQ publishers. So, along with friend Tzivia Gover, she raised $4,000 and self-published the first edition, with illustrations by Diana Souza.
Heather has continuously stayed in print, and I have the 25th anniversary version, published in 2015, illustrated by Laura Cornell.
Yes, in some ways, society has progressed since the 1990s, when libraries banned the book, and a US senator read it in Congress to get votes for his amendment to cut off federal aid from any school that supported homosexuality “as a positive lifestyle alternative” or that referred a student “to an organization that affirms a homosexual lifestyle.” (In 1994, the Smith-Helms amendment passed the Senate 63–36, by the way.)
But if you were under the illusion that we as a nation are past that mentality, read James Finn’s Arthur Goes to a Same-Sex Wedding, about the Conservative outcry over a recent episode of PBS’s Arthur, where Arthur gets to attend a wedding where a rat in a tuxedo marries an aardvark in a tuxedo.
Just this month, Alabama Public Television refused to air the episode, with programming director Mike McKenzie telling CNN, “Our broadcast would take away the choice of parents who feel it is inappropriate.”
Finn includes data revealing only 0.63% of characters in Hollywood films in 2017 were LGBTQ, and children’s programming contains virtually no recurring LGBTQ characters.
With this understanding, that much of the culture still considers the mere existence of LGBTQ people and characters to be controversial, especially when communicating with young children — that they’re even framing it as taking away parents’ choice — I considered whether it was worth it to read an LGBTQ book on Mothers’ Day, or any day.
All children deserve to see stories that reflect their reality. And I believe our empathy and kindness increase when we learn about people who are different from us.
I’m in a unique position, choosing books each week to read to children who aren’t my own, and I take it very seriously. I live in a mostly-white, low-income, rural area, and without diverse books and other media, some families might go a week without seeing even a representation of a person of color.
I never feel afraid I’ll get in trouble for presenting racially diverse books, and I wish I felt as confident about showing children diversity when it comes to gender expression and sexual orientation.
I’m still a bit shaken from an experience where a family, with a child my daughter’s age, upended their toddler’s schedule to avoid us, once they found out I have a trans best friend in Seattle. The mother told me, “It might be different if this was just about us grownups, but I have a kid to protect, and I don’t want her to think it’s okay to make somebody call you by different pronouns. It’s psychotic.”
That mother wasn’t even religious. Many Christian families attend my storytimes, so I worried, if I read Heather, would there be backlash? Would any of the grownups grab their children and storm out, or yell at me, or sue me, or…? I wondered if my boss would back me up, if it came to that. I wondered if I should just put the book out as a check-out option, but not actually read it.
I realized I was giving mental space to the Alabamas of the world. I was considering self-censorship to appease voices of hate and discrimination. So I told those voices to shut up, and I prepared to read Heather Has Two Mommies to a room full of preschoolers and their grownups.
Eleven preschoolers, each on a pillow, sit eating their snacks of cucumber slices, square-shaped crackers, and cherry tomatoes. I wipe my sweaty palms on my leggings, and feel my pulse banging in my ears.
It’s time for my third and final book of the morning. Even now, with Heather in my hands, I start to doubt my decision. My daughter and I go to multiple library storytimes each week, with fantastic children’s librarians, and while we’ve seen And Tango Makes Three on display, we’ve never seen a book with clearly LGBTQ main characters read out-loud at the library.
Before having a kid, I lived in Seattle, where I don’t think anyone would flinch about reading Heather. And I know some cities host Drag Queen Story Hour. But I’m in a very different place now, where many people are allies, but many people aren’t.
Heather’s in my left hand. In my right hand, I grab a short board book.
“I’m planning to read this book,” I say, holding Heather high, “but if you think it’s too long for the kids right now, we can do a board book instead.”
This is my last-minute, sheepish way of letting the grownups complain early, rather than dealing with a scene during or after the book. This is my attempt to stop parents from claiming I took their choice away.
Thankfully, no one complains. No one leaves.
“The kids are doing great listening,” a parent calls out. “Let’s do the long one!”
The kids love the book. Heather is about to start preschool, something a lot of these kids can relate with. She has a cat and a dog and a tree house. She bakes cookies with her parents and stomps through her yard in her purple boots.
At school, she builds a block tower, drinks apple juice, and dresses up like a firefighter.
Then Heather and the kids in her class draw pictures of their families, and we see the beautiful truth: every family is different. Juan has a mommy and a daddy. Miriam has a single mom. Stacey has a daddy and a papa. Emily has a grandma and two puppies. And on and on.
“It doesn’t matter how many mommies or how many daddies your family has,” the teacher tells them. “It doesn’t matter if your family has sisters or brothers or cousins or grandmas or grandpas or uncles or aunts.
Each family is special. The most important thing about a family is that all the people in it love each other.”
I am so glad I read this book to these children. I am trying not to cry.
After the book, I teach the ASL signs for mom and dad and grandma and grandpa. Then we sing songs together. Another wonderful storytime, coming together to read and sing and eat and play.
Let us not be afraid to share diverse stories. Let us not let the Alabamas of the world determine our limits, our norms, our values.
We can build a beautiful world together, if only we can find the courage.
A few more books to check out: