CAROL GORDON EKSTER: Leslea Newman is a well-known, award-winning #kidlit author. We are honored to have her here on Writers’ Rumpus.
Leslea, you have quite a track record with over 70 published books. Can you tell us about your journey to becoming a children’s author?
LESLEA NEWMAN: I started out as a poet—poetry was and will always be my first love—and published my first poems as a teenager in Seventeen Magazine. Then I wrote my first novel, Good Enough to Eat, and then my first book of short stories, A Letter to Harvey Milk.
Because of these publications, a woman who knew my work stopped me on the street and said, “I don’t have a book to read to my daughter that shows a family like ours. Somebody should write one.” By “a family like ours” she meant a family of two moms and their daughter, and by “somebody” she meant me. Heather Has Two Mommies was my first children’s book and after I wrote it, I realized how a book could change a child’s life and decided that I wanted to continue to create children’s literature (along with fiction and poetry for adults, which I still write). In addition to children’s books with LGBTQ+ themes, I write Jewish-themed children’s books, books about animals, and books about loss and grief. I try to infuse my books with a message to the child reader: You are a fabulous human being, just the way you are.
CGE: Your newest book, Remembering Ethan, Magination Press, 2020, illustrated by Tracy Nishimura Bishop, is a beautifully and tenderly written story about the difficult topic of losing a sibling. It includes a note to readers at the end of the book about childhood grief, written by a certified school psychologist. The illustrations are soft and comforting. This will be a wonderful resource to help families start to heal. Can you tell us how you came to write this book?
LN: Many years ago there was a list in an SCBWI bulletin compiled by librarians about books they felt were missing from their collection. One of the requests was “a book about the death of a sibling.” Years later, a friend’s daughter died and she told me the hardest thing among many hard things was having to tell her son that his sister was not coming home from the hospital. And years after that, I wrote October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard which is a teen novel-in-verse about the impact of Matthew Shepard’s murder upon the world. Through that collection I came to know the Shepard family. Judy Shepard, Matt’s mom, is the inspiration for my protagonist, Sarah, in Remembering Ethan. I am constantly inspired by the way Judy speaks out and uses her voice so that Matt will never be forgotten. And that’s what Sarah does, and teaches her parents to do, so her big brother Ethan will always be remembered.
CGE: One of your books is the famous Heather Has Two Mommies. And though it had a difficult time coming into the world, it has never gone out of print and a 25th anniversary edition, with updated text and new illustrations, was published by Candlewick Press in 2015. Can you tell us any interesting details about how this groundbreaking title came into the world?
LN: After I wrote Heather Has Two Mommies, no one would publish it. I sent it to about 50 presses. Large presses, small presses, traditional presses, independent presses, feminist presses, lesbian presses—but no one was willing to take such a risk. One day my friend Tzivia Gover, who was a lesbian mom with a one-year-old daughter at the time and I were chatting and one of us said, “Let’s do it!” We sent out fund-raising letters (this was way before Kickstarter—we actually stuffed envelopes and licked stamps!) and raised $4,000 pretty much all in $10.00 donations. We promised people that if they sent us ten dollars, we’d send them a book within a year or we’d refund their money. We kept very good records! We found an illustrator and a printer and the book originally came out in December, 1989. The book thrilled some people and horrified some people. It’s been quite a ride. I am grateful to Candlewick for reissuing the book in 2015 with brand new illustrations. I especially love Heather’s purple cowgirl boots! Heather marches on…..
CGE: You are in a pretty amazing critique group. How has that affected your writing?
LN: Oh, I adore my critique group! Ann Turner, Barbara Diamond Goldin, Corinne Demas, Ellen Wittlinger, Jane Yolen, Patricia MacLachlan and I get together every week, or at least that’s the goal. Of course not all of us are there every week, as many of us travel to give readings throughout the year and have other obligations that take us out of town or require us to stay home instead of coming to a meeting. I feel so lucky to have been invited into this group in 1999. I have learned so much from these wise women. Each member of our group brings her own special form of brilliance to the meetings. Everyone is a good listener and everyone is incredibly smart and passionate about children’s literature. I feel that I actually learned how to write a picture book by being in this group. Sometimes the feedback is hard to hear—honestly, I think all any writer ever wants to hear is “That was pure genius!”—but we care about each other enough to be honest with each other, which is a great gift. We all have each other’s best interests at heart, and feedback is always given with kindness. I have brought draft after draft after draft of the same manuscript to the group, and everyone is always excited to witness the development and improvement of the work. And of course there is great celebration when a manuscript gets accepted for publication.
CGE: Can you share some highs and lows of your long career in this difficult business of children’s publishing?
LN: I feel very lucky because I haven’t had a lot of Lows except in my own writing studio when the writing isn’t going well. Which is more often than one might think! I am not the kind of writer with a file full of ideas just waiting to be developed. When I am between projects, I struggle to come up with an idea. It’s very painful. To me, the scariest thing in the world is a blank piece of paper. It fills me with what I call “page fright.” What if I can’t come up with an idea? What if I have nothing to say? The cure for page fright is to put pen to paper (yes, I still write with a pen and notebook) and just put something—anything—down on the page. Then I can go from there. In terms of Highs, oh, there have been so many. Each book’s completion is a High. Each book’s publication is a High. Each piece of “fan mail”—especially those from children—is a High. Each award is a High. I never thought my work would be recognized in so many ways. I sobbed when I received a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. I wept when I received an American Library Association Stonewall Honor for October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard. I teared up when I received a Massachusetts Book Award for Ketzel, The Cat Who Composed.
I cried when I received the National Jewish Book Award for Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story. Tears of frustration (over the writing process) have been replaced by tears of joy to celebrate what I’ve accomplished. I am very grateful.
CGE: What is the most important advice you can offer creative new to the #kidlit business?
Read every day. Write every day. Find a critique group and listen to what they tell you. Revise, revise, revise. Join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Be a good literary citizen. By that I mean, go to events. Support other writers. Have an open generous attitude. When one of us succeeds, all of us succeeds. Let your writing take you on an amazing journey. Don’t rein it in with preconceived notions. Think expansively. Be patient. Writing takes time. Getting something published takes time. Fall in love with language so that language can fall in love with you.
CGE: What does the future hold for Leslea Newman?
LN: I wish I knew! I hope there are many more books in my future. I hope there are opportunities to meet more readers, writers, librarians, teachers, parents, and of course children and teens who are passionate about books. I hope, in my own humble way, I can continue the work of Tikkun Olam which, translated from the Hebrew means “repairing the world” and is an assignment given to every Jew at birth. It is understood that one cannot do this alone and that the world will probably not be fully repaired during one’s lifetime. Still, that does not leave one off the hook. Everyone needs to figure out how they can contribute to making the world a better place. My self-appointed task in life is to create books that make the world a better place for readers of all ages.
You can connect with Leslea here: