By Lesléa Newman, Writing for Children & Young Adult Faculty member
[Originally posted in The Nerdy Book Club by CBETHM on 11/12/2019. Reprinted here with permission from The Nerdy Book Club.]
I have been invited to hundreds of schools as a visiting author over the last several decades. And there are hundreds (thousands!) of schools who haven’t invited me. But I have never been uninvited to a school. Until now.
Here’s what happened: My publisher set up several days worth of school visits at a few yeshivas (Jewish day schools) in Brooklyn, the city of my birth. I was excited to discuss with students my newest picture book, Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story. Based on my own family history, the book tells how nine-year-old Gittel travels from Europe to America alone in the early 1900s to escape pogroms and have a better life. It is a story infused with Jewish culture (Gittel’s mother gives Gittel her treasured Shabbos candlesticks to bring to the new world) and Jewish values (Gittel’s mother tells her, “This is God’s plan. God will take care of you.”) I imagined that the students might have their own family immigration stories to share, and I was eager to hear them.
A few days before the visit, my publicist reminded me that I needed to dress modestly, making sure to cover my elbows and knees. I am familiar with the Orthodox community, so I had already packed accordingly. Then a few days later, my publicist told me that the schools had a question: Was I planning to discuss my Jewish children’s books only?
A warning bell sounded in my head. I assured my publicist that yes, my plan was to talk about my Jewish-themed books only, and not mention any of my other books, including Heather Has Two Mommies and Sparkle Boy, because #1, those titles were not relevant to the subject at hand, and #2, I suspected that was the real question behind the question I was being asked.
And that was that. Or so I thought.
On the Friday before the Monday of my first school visit, I was told there was “trouble with the building” and my appearance was cancelled. An hour later, the second school cancelled because all at once a field trip had been scheduled for the day of my visit. It was hard for me to buy either of these excuses. At first I shrugged it off. “Their loss,” said my agent, and I agreed. But then I got angry. And though I knew I shouldn’t take it personally, my feelings were terribly hurt. These were my people. And they were canceling my visit even though I had agreed not to bring up my LGBTQ-themed children’s books. So I could only conclude that the mere presence of a Jewish lesbian at their school was unacceptable to them.
I have been in the writing business for forty years. I have a pretty thick skin. Despite my success, I have had books rejected by publishers and received some terrible reviews. And as the author of Heather Has Two Mommies, I’ve been treated less than kindly many times. But to be told in 2019, the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, that I am not fit to be around children, particularly stung.
It is especially ironic because my planned presentation included a short film I made with the real Gittel’s daughter, my ninety-one-year-old Aunt Phyllis. In the film, I ask her about being the child of immigrants. “What is the most important lesson your parents taught you?” I ask.
Aunt Phyllis replies, “The lesson my parents taught me is to be tolerant and accepting of people. They don’t have to be like you. They can be different. That doesn’t make them bad. That’s something I learned from my parents and something I believe to this day.”
I am sorry that the children in Brooklyn won’t hear these words. I am especially sorry for the children who have LGBTQ family members or will grow up to be part of the LGBTQ community (note to yeshivas: as the bumper sticker says, We Are Everywhere). And I am particularly disturbed—and frankly a bit frightened—by this turn of events because in these times of escalating anti-Semitism, it is crucial that the Jewish community stick together.
This experience reminded me of another school visit I went on years ago. I traveled to a public school in Rhode Island to discuss Hachiko Waits, my historical novel about Japan’s faithful Akita who waited ten years hoping for his master’s return. Upon arrival, I was hauled into the principal’s office (I could hear my mother’s voice in my head, “What did you do now?”). I was told in no uncertain terms that I was to discuss Hachiko Waits only. I knew what was really being asked of me and I considered leaving, but I had traveled far, needed the money, and did not want to disappoint the children who had already greeted me in the hallway with great excitement (that’s the worst part of these situations; it’s the children who lose out). I promised the principal nothing except that I would not say anything inappropriate. He glared at me while thinking this over. Finally he decided to let me speak but informed me that he would be attending all my presentations. “Fine,” I said. “Suit yourself.”
The day passed quickly with no mishaps. And then at the end of my last presentation, I invited the students to ask questions. A girl’s hand shot up and without waiting to be called upon she said, “You wrote Heather Has Two Mommies! It’s my favorite book! I have two mommies, too!” And before I could say a word, she ran to the front of the room, and gave me a big hug.
I looked over to catch the principal’s eye but he was already gone.
Lesléa Newman is the author of 75 books for readers of all ages, including Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story (National Jewish Book Award winner) and Ketzel, The Cat Who Composed (Association of Jewish Libraries Sydney Taylor Award). Her newest picture book, Welcoming Elijah: A Passover Tale With A Tail, has just been published..