Joyful Song: A Naming Story—An Interview with Lesléa Newman

May 24, 2024

How did Joyful Song come to be?

Joyful song was inspired by a real-life occurrence at my own synagogue when a family of two moms and their brand-new baby girl were invited up on the bima to welcome the baby into our community. When I saw that, I teared up. I got really weepy because I’m old enough to remember when women were not allowed up on the bima and here were not only women on the bima, but a proud lesbian family up there being welcomed by the woman rabbi at our Conservative synagogue. It was a thrilling moment not only for the family but, unbeknownst to them, to me. That’s where the seed of the story got planted.


The book is gorgeous! Can you tell us more about the illustrations?

Yes! The book is extremely beautiful and I love how it reflects such a diverse community. The two moms are an interracial couple. We have a female rabbi. We have neighbors from many different backgrounds. Susan Gal did an amazing job.

My favorite illustration comes at the big moment when Zachary and his sister are up on the Bima with their two moms and the rabbi. And he is announcing the name of his sister to the community. That’s his job. He’s been practicing all week. And he’s holding his sister and she’s reaching up. And touching his face and they’re looking into each other’s eyes with an incredible connection. And just such an obvious love for each other. You just know that this is his little sister and he’s got her back and he’ll have her back forever. And that she will just be an adoring member of her big brother’s fan club for her whole life.


You’ve written a lot of books! Tell us about the threads that are woven through your writing. And what about it has changed over time.

I see the world through the lens of being a Jew and of being a lesbian. Those are my two primary identities. Maya Angelou said, “I write out of the black experience about the human experience.” I write out of the Jewish lesbian experience about the human experience and what I’m trying to do with all my books is, from that place, infuse the world with positivity, with love, and with the notion that every child has a place. 

In terms of what has changed, my community has changed drastically from the 1980s, when Heather Has Two Mommies was published, to where we are now in 2024. My awareness has also broadened. I have now written books like Sparkle Boy that show a little boy who likes to wear a sparkly skirt and paint his nails like his sister, and The Fairest in the Land, which is about best friends, Annabelle and Benjamin, who both want to be the princess during dress up time. I have tried to become more welcoming to different aspects of my community and the wonderful people I see around me.


It’s Pride month! What does Pride mean to you?

Well, Pride means everything to me. Many, many years ago when I was first going to Pride Marches, things were very different. Teachers in my town wore paper bags over their heads because they knew if they were recognized they would be fired. There was a minister who dragged a coffin out onto Main Street, yelling that we were all going to hell. The marches were so political. I see more celebration these days at the marches, which is wonderful. We’ve come very far with marriage equality and all the representation you see in the media. But given the huge backlash, particularly against the trans community, we still have far to go. And with the book bans, of course. But for me, when people say to shut up, I just speak louder.  


You can purchase Joyful Song here, along with many other titles by Lesléa Newman.