Author and poet Lesléa Newman accidentally became a children’s book author.
One day in the late ’80s, while walking around in Northampton, Mass., where she lives, a friend approached the writer and said, “There are no children’s books for kids with two moms — you have to write one.”
Newman understood the gravity of the request. Yes, she was a lesbian, but she also had once been a child confused over a dearth of books showing traces of her own family’s Jewish observance and culture.
The seriousness of that situation first hit her in the children’s book section of a Northampton bookstore, when she picked up “Mrs. Moskowitz and the Sabbath Candles,” a picture book that tells the story of how a pair of Shabbat candlesticks made a strange new house feel like home.
“I took it off the shelves and started to cry in the bookstore, it was such an emotional thing for me to see that book,” Newman said. “When I was growing up, there were no Jewish children’s books, we had ‘Dick and Jane’ — and so I knew how important it was to see a family like your own reflected in a children’s book.”
And so in 1990, she published her first children’s book, “Heather Has Two Mommies,” which led to a public outcry from conservative parents who worried that the book would corrupt young children.
“If my work offends someone, I can’t really help that. As a writer, if I try to please people, then I’m not doing my job,” Newman said via telephone from her Massachusetts home a few days after she spoke at Hillel at Stanford.
“Lesléa was funny, sarcastic and she seemed to really know how to speak to this generation,” said Hillel at Stanford Rabbi Mychal Copeland, who attended Newman’s talk.
Since the publication of “Heather Has Two Mommies,” Newman has published picture books and young adult novels about a young boy whose favorite uncle has AIDS, a teenage girl struggling with bulimia, a boy grieving for a pet and a girl who wants to play with trucks.
She has also published several Jewish picture books, such as “Remember That,” about a granddaughter and her bubbe, “Matzo Ball Moon,” about a Passover seder, and “Runaway Dreidel,” a Chanukah tale set to the cadences of “The Night Before Christmas.”
Many of her books and much of her poetry has Jewish themes or Jewish characters — which at times has surprised her.
“There was a time in my life I really turned away from being Jewish,” Newman said. “But when I came out as a lesbian, I re-embraced Judaism. Growing up in New York, I feel I have a Jewish sensibility that I’m grateful to have.”
Since coming out in her 20s, the 54-year-old writer has dug deeper into her Jewish roots. Six years ago, she had an adult bat mitzvah at a Conservative synagogue. True to form, the writer delivered her d’var Torah as a poem written from the perspective of a biblical character in the Torah portion.
“Poetry came first for me, and it will always come first for me,” she said.
Nonetheless, she just published two board books for babies and toddlers, one called “Mommy, Mama and Me” and another called “Daddy, Papa and Me,” both of which focus on children with same-sex parents.
She has another Jewish children’s book slated for publication in 2011, called “A Sweet Passover,” about a young girl named Miriam who detests matzah until she learns the true story of why Jews eat it.
Newman’s appearance at Hillel at Stanford was one of many appearances she has made since she was first published in the mid-’80s.
Each time she addresses an audience — young or old, Jewish or non-Jewish, gay or straight — she feels rejuvenated.
“Writing is a very lonely process. I sit here in a room, I look at a piece of paper, and I pray something will happen so that at the end of the day, there’s something on that paper,” she said.
“When I connect with an audience in some way, I get fired up. I’m eager to get back to my desk.”