I was incredibly lucky to meet and chat with Lesléa Newman at TxLA 2017 (it pays to wander through exhibits when it’s mostly empty and bother the people at the Lee and Low booth). Some of you are super familiar with Lesléa’s name and work, but if you’re not, she has written a ton of amazing kids books about Jewish families and queer families, including the groundbreaking, world-changing, Heather Has Two Mommies.
When I met Lesléa, she not only complimented my shirt, she also offered to do an interview for the blog! Talk about gracious authors. Her new book, Sparkle Boy, came out yesterday, and below is our interview about the book, librarians, and writing books that are mirrors.
I got to read Sparkle Boy at the booth AND Lee and Low sent me an e-galley (I love them. Support Lee and Low, you guys). It’s about being a boy who loves to sparkle, and how that’s okay, but it’s also about being a sibling. It would be such a great read-aloud in a classroom to talk about why we think boys and girls have to dress certain ways. I’m adding it to my school library, my home library, and to some classroom shelves. And probably sending it to some lesbian moms I know who are big Lesléa Newman fans. You should also probably pick it up. And display it really prominently in your library.
It’s been warmly reviewed by SLJ, Booklist, and PW, in case you need that for your collection development policy, and by Tim Federle and Alex Gino, who know some things about challenging gender roles. Casey is a great friend for Morris Micklewhite, for families looking for a great model on how to respond to their sparkly boys.
SU: Your new book, Sparkle Boy, is about to come out/will have come out by the time this interview publishes. I read a copy at TxLA and I’m so excited to share it with kids and parents. Can you talk about what led you to write it?
Lesléa: I wrote the book in honor of all the Sparkle Boys (of all ages!) who make the world a brighter place by being their authentic selves and as well as all the Sparkle Boys who hesitate to be who they are for fear of being teased, bullied or physically harmed. As someone who has the privilege of being a published author, I feel a responsibility to use my voice to make the world a safer place. As a Jew I strongly believe in the notion of “tikkun olam” (repairing the world). I personally know—and adore—many Sparkle Boys, and I hope my book will help create a safe world in which they are free to shine.
SU: Why do you think it is important that we share books in storytime that defy stereotypical gender roles?
Lesléa: Emma Lazarus said, “Until all of us are free, none of us are free.” I believe that stereotypes hurt all of us. It’s important for kids to know, respect, appreciate, and celebrate the incredibly diverse, creative spectrum of human beings in all our glory. We need windows (books in which we see people not like ourselves) to open our hearts and minds and we need mirrors (books that reflect ourselves back to us)* so we feel validated and that we belong. SPARKLE BOY is for readers of all gender expressions. I have been surprised that the book has brought many adults to tears because of its message of celebration of someone who does not fit into the mold of gender stereotypes.
SU: You must get to meet lots of authors you admire. Is there anyone in particular who gave you butterflies the first time you met?
Lesléa: Cher! I met Cher in NYC at a Barnes and Noble store. I waited on line for six hours so that she could sign my copy of her book, THE FIRST TIME. When I finally reached the front of the line, I knelt down before her and burst into tears, then blubbered about how much she meant to me. She took it all in stride and was very gracious about it.
SU: You are Jewish and have some books that are about Jewish characters and history. Can you tell us a little about the state of representation for Jewish characters in children’s literature today?
Lesléa: When I was growing up, there were no overt Jewish characters in children’s books. I could not articulate the need for me to see a book that depicted a Jewish child eating matzo ball soup on a Friday night with her bubbe. But that need was there. I remember the first time I encountered a children’s book that I could identify as Jewish. It was called THE CARP IN THE BATH TUB. I was in my late twenties when I came upon it in a bookstore and my eyes filled with tears as I —finally!—saw a family like mine in a children’s book. Today there are so many books from board books to teen novels and everything in between that feature Jewish characters. And this is a wonderful thing.
SU: Most of us would like to believe that the world is a more tolerant place than in 1989, when you first published Heather Has Two Mommies. Are your more recent titles being challenged less often and do you think that’s a reflection of any change in our society?
Lesléa: Yes, I am happy to say that MOMMY, MAMA, AND ME; DONOVAN’S BIG DAY; DADDY, PAPA, AND ME; and THE BOY WHO CRIED FABULOUS have not encountered the same challenges as HEATHER HAS TWO MOMMIES and my earlier books for kids that feature LGBT characters. I know that some recent picture books that challenge gender stereotypes such as JACOB’S NEW DRESS have been challenged. Recently I was at the Texas Librarian Association conference to speak about SPARKLE BOY. The librarians were very excited about the book (it made some of them cry!) and couldn’t wait to shelve it in their libraries. Some librarians, especially those who served small, rural communities, told me that they loved the book but they could never place it in their library. So yes, some things have changed, but unfortunately, some things haven’t changed. Which means we all have to work harder.
SU: How have librarians helped, or hindered, getting your books into families hands? Do you think that librarians have a role to play in nurturing empathy and tolerance in our communities?
Lesléa: Librarians are my (s)heroes! When I was growing up, the librarian at my high school was my BFF. She was always giving me books to read, and providing me with a safe haven in which to read, write, and daydream. Research librarians have helped me tremendously with much of my work, including the short story, “A Letter to Harvey Milk” and the middle-grade novel, HACHIKO WAITS. Many librarians have gone to bat for my books, defending them against people in their community who say that children’s books featuring families with LGBT members have no place in the library. Every librarian I have ever met has believed passionately in freedom of expression and has been willing to take great risk to defend it. Libraries serve everyone and it is a place that needs to be open and comfortable for all. And librarians have the responsibility in ensuring that this is true. I admire them more than words can say.