By Tara Cavanaugh
“Donovan’s Big Day” looks like any other children’s book, with bright splashy colors and big, coated pages.
And there’s nothing particularly unusual about the journey that Donovan takes as he prepares to be the ring bearer at a wedding, until at the very end – when he delivers the rings to his two joyous moms.
There’s no lecturing about lesbians, no discomfort by Donovan’s family, just a simple story about a happy wedding day. Which is exactly how author Lesléa Newman wanted it.
In her long literary career, Newman has written poems, novels, children’s books and erotica – and in nearly all of those works, she features lesbians and gays. Among her best-known stories are “Heather Has Two Mommies,” a controversial children’s book published in 1989, and “A Letter to Harvey Milk,” a short story that has been adapted for film and theater.
The award-winning author is celebrating her latest children’s book, “Donovan’s Big Day,” which was just released on April 26. Newman chatted with BTL about the new book, gay marriage and why all families are worth celebrating.
“Donovan’s Big Day” is one of several books you’ve written for kids and adults about gay families. Why is this a topic you keep coming back to?
It’s my community. It’s very close to my heart. I am legally married, though I don’t have children. I’ve been to many, many lesbian weddings. And a few weddings of gay men. It just seems very important for me that children who have families with two moms and two dads have a book that is purely celebratory. They deserve that. Why shouldn’t they have that?
A lot of conservatives like to say that talking to children about same-sex marriage is “indoctrinating” them. But your book doesn’t lecture or push a viewpoint; in fact, it mentions Donovan’s two moms only at the end, and the story could just as easily have been about a man and a woman getting married.
It’s a book that celebrates the marriage of these two women. It celebrates Donovan’s participation. It celebrates their friends and family who are pictured through the book as being very joyful. So I suppose if it’s giving a message, the message is love conquers all.
This book treats Donovan’s moms’ relationship as very ordinary and very loving, just like any other relationship, and I think that’s the most powerful message we can give to kids. I know (the book “Heather Has Two Mommies”) was different. First of all, it was published in 1989, and that was a long time ago. It’s much more of a “problem” book because there’s a problem when Heather finds out that she doesn’t have a Daddy like a lot of the other kids in her class, and I didn’t want to do that again. There are some other books with a “problem” – there’s somebody who doesn’t approve, there’s somebody who thinks Heather’s family is wrong. And I just felt like, Enough already. Why not have a book that is just very matter of fact? That takes for granted that this is a wonderful thing and just celebrates the marriage of Donovan’s moms.
Do you think this book being focused on the celebration – instead of the problem – is a sign of the times?
It’s a sign of my times. (Laughs) A lot of lesbian moms have said to me that Heather was very useful, but they would love a book where a kid just happens to have two moms and they take a walk in the park. Where a kid happens to have two moms and they go play baseball. Where it’s just an ordinary day. So I kind of went that way instead.
Are any parts of Donovan’s story inspired by your own wedding?
There’s a picture of the wedding on the back of the book. It’s my author photo. The wedding took place in 1989. And I would have to say it was probably the happiest day of my life. My face hurt from smiling by the end of the day. So I wanted to write a book that contained that much joy.
And I would probably say the second most joyful day of my life, or pretty close to it, is the day that marriage became legal in the state of Massachusetts. I was at City Hall in Northampton that day watching couple after couple go in for their marriage licenses and come out heralded with rice and birdseed and great applause. Again: I wanted to really capture that joy in a book for children.
Donovan focuses a lot on what he is NOT supposed to do on the wedding day, like spill his juice or wrinkle his clothes. Why did you focus on that theme?
Donovan knows how important this is and he really, really, wants to do a good job. So he’s very careful to do what he’s told and not mess up out of his love for his moms and I wanted to show that. It’s really an adult day. And he’s a kid, and he has to sit still, and be in his dress-up clothes and not get them dirty and yeah, it’s hard.
But I think there’s a payoff at the end of the book because he contributes so much to their joy.
You don’t have any kids of your own, so how do you write so well from the perspective of a child?
The research it requires is to have been a child, so I can somehow tap back into what that feels like. Many well-known children’s book writers do not have children, for example Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak, Beatrix Potter. So somehow, maybe without having children, we remain children in some way.
Do you like to read other children’s books?
I love to read children’s books.
“Heather Has Two Mommies” was one of the most challenged books in the 1990s (according to the American Library Association), and fell off the top 100 list in 2009. What does it say that a simple children’s book stayed on that list for so long?
It seems that people are very fearful of a book like “Heather Has Two Mommies” because they’re afraid that if child is exposed to that book, their child will grow up lesbian or gay – and that would be such a horrible thing. As I was growing up I was an avid reader, I read thousands and thousands of books, all of which, I would say, assumed heterosexuality in the characters, even if they were animals. And none of those books ever changed my sexuality. So I don’t think a book is that powerful. People want to protect their children from things that they don’t believe in, which I understand. But I think that it’s really time for the world to embrace diversity. There are all kinds of families in the world. There are always going to be all kinds of families in the world. And why not celebrate that?