INTERVIEW: Lesléa Newman

lesleainterview
See my interview in this month’s Story Monsters Ink Magazine!

I had the amazing opportunity to interview Lesléa Newman, author of Heather Has Two Mommies and her latest title Sparkle Boy. Come on, you remember Heather Has Two Mommies – it was the second most controversial topic of the 90’s. Falls in right there with the O.J. car chase fiasco.

Her latest book, Sparkle Boy, is a story about choosing what makes you happy, sticking with it, and being loved for it. We watch the main character interact with his family over his decisions to wear sparkly clothes and accessories. Each character illustrates another layer of acceptance that diversity needs to wipe away to allow its shine to come through. The main character’s older sister, is an example of any kid (or adult) struggling with what it means to let go of a stereotype. But once  gone, acceptance makes way for something much bigger. Love.

Can you tell me a bit about your new book Sparkle Boy as a stream of consciousness? 

I am the type of author who takes a long time to get an idea, but once I have an idea and it “takes” inside me, I write pretty quickly. That’s because I get obsessed. Once I have a solid first draft, I pester the book endlessly until I feel that I’ve gotten it right. Usually this takes at least 20 drafts. Then the book is shown, first to my beloved spouse who is an excellent reader, then to the brilliant women of my writing group. And finally I send the book to my agent and we discuss where to send it. SPARKLE BOY took three years from idea to publication, which is actually pretty fast. I’ve had picture books take up to seven years to journey from idea to publication. I have a sign over my desk that says, “The reward of patience is patience” (and underneath I’ve scribbled, “But who wants to wait that long?”)

I read in your May 11th LA Times interview that Heather Has Two Mommies was in the top 10 most challenged books of the 90’s!  With gender identity being such a hot topic, are you feeling any stir around Sparkle Boy taking the same path from controversial to collectable? 

It’s too soon to tell, since the book is just coming out now. But I sure hope it becomes a classic! I think of SPARKLE BOY as Heather’s little brother. (though believe it or not, if Heather was real, she’d be about 30 years old now, maybe even with a child of her own!).

How are your responses so far from Sparkling families? They must be pretty relieved that the work is out there and available!

I recently heard from a family of two dads and a daughter. The book made one of the dads cry—in fact, I have been surprised to see many grown ups tear up while reading the book—and the little girl has asked to have the book read at bedtime for five nights in a row! Almost everyone I’ve shown the book to has told me, “I know a sparkle boy who is going to love this book.” It’s definitely a book whose time has come.

I wanted to write a book in which the adults in the family are open-minded and accepting, as Casey’s parents and Abeulita are. And I wanted to show that sometimes, it takes a while for a family member to come around, as in the case of Jessie, Casey’s older sister, who has somewhere along the way picked up the (incorrect) message that shimmery, glittery, sparkly things are only for girls. By the end of the book, Jessie is Casey’s biggest advocate. Love conquers all!

With Sparkle Boy being a very visual character, I imagine the choice of illustrator had to be very important. Can you say a few words about working with illustrator Maria Mola?

My editor and the art director worked with the illustrator, and I have to say they did an amazing job. I absolutely love the illustrations. The sparkles on the book jacket were my idea, and I have to say they add just the right touch!

As an incredibly accomplished author, I’m sure you’ve had a rollercoaster of ups and downs working in the field. Do you give your school groups any words of wisdom personal to your experiences?

Ah, words of wisdom: read, read, read. Write every day. Be kind to other writers. Believe in yourself. Never give up. I think that just about covers it.

…And any words for the wonderful Sparkle Boys out there and the people who love them?

Be yourself. (Everyone else is taken). Keep shining. The world is a brighter place because you are in it.

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This book is a great way to put value on acceptance, tolerance, diversity and family, but it also opens a dialog with children about what ideas they have already come to accept as truth. My own daughter had a real problem with Sparkle Boy at first. It opened the door to a discussion I didn’t even know needed to happen. She had already begun drawing very real lines in the sand about gender, and my inner Mama Bear wasn’t digging that at all. We had a wonderful discussion about what girls and boys were expected to be vs. what the could be. I’m thrilled to have had the moment accidentally thrust upon me before her judgements cemented over time.

Sparkle Boy is a difficult subject made into a feel-good moment, and perfectly timed with current events and the struggle for our ever changing society to find common ground. As a primer for young minds to grasp the ideas of difference and inclusion, Sparkle Boy is pure gold.

SPARKLE BOY FC hi res
Get Sparkle Boy here!

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Lesléa Newman is the author of seventy books for readers of all ages. She has received many literary accolades, including poetry fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts and the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, and has served as Poet Laureate of Northampton, Massachusetts, from 2008 to 2010. In addition to creating her own books, Newman teaches writing for children and young adults at Spalding University’s low-residency MFA in Writing program. She wrote this book to celebrate all the “sparkle boys” she knows. Newman lives in western Massachusetts, with her spouse, Mary Vazquez. www.lesleakids.com

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Julianne Black has written and illustrated several books,  including Sleep Sweet the multi-award winning Augmented Reality picture book.  She is an internationally recognized graphic artist, fine artist and author. She can be reached at www.julianneblack.com

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