Harvard Educational Review
  1. Summer 1996 Issue »

    Too Far Away to Touch

    By Leslea Newman
    New York: Clarion Books, 1995. 32 pp. $14.95.

    On Wednesday, March 29, 1995, I had the pleasure of interviewing "The Most Dangerous Living Writer in America" — Leslea Newman — for The Empty Closet, the gay and lesbian newspaper in Rochester, New York.1 The "most dangerous" charge stems from an unwarranted assumption that Newman writes controversial children's books with a specific "homosexual agenda" in mind. Senator Jesse Helms and Pat Robertson of the Religious Right have called Newman's books about children of gay and lesbian parents an "abomination."2 It is true that in 1993, two of her children's books, Heather Has Two Mommies and Gloria Goes to Gay Pride, were at the center of the highly controversial "Rainbow Curriculum" proposed for New York City's schools. Newman, however, did not intend that her books be seen this way. During our interview, she stated, "I did not set out to write controversial children's books; I wrote children's books which have become controversial. I am not an activist. I am just a little writer."

    She is indeed much more than a little writer. With over seventeen fiction, nonfiction, and poetry titles to her credit, Newman is a consummate writer, continuously at work on her craft. As the coeditor of Gerbil: Queer Culture Magazine, I have followed Newman's career for quite some time. When she appeared in Rochester to promote her new children's book, Too Far Away to Touch, I immediately asked for an interview.

    Unlike Heather Has Two Mommies, Gloria Goes to Gay Pride, and Belinda's Bouquet, Newman's recent offering, Too Far Away to Touch, is not published by Alyson Wonderland. Clarion, a much larger and more significant publishing house, has taken the book and illustrated it with outstanding watercolors by Catherine Stock. As in all of Newman's children's books, the protagonist, Zoe, is a young, bright, inquisitive girl. However, Too Far Away to Touch marks a departure for Newman. The story is not about a relationship between a girl and adult women, like the three other books mentioned; rather, this book examines the relationship between Zoe and her HIV-positive Uncle Leonard.

    Zoe loves her Uncle Leonard because he's so much fun. Uncle Leonard is full of surprises; when he glues stars to the ceiling in Zoe's bedroom, Zoe is delighted. He has a great sense of humor and is never too busy to take his niece on adventures to museums or parks. At the outset of the narrative, Uncle Leonard decides to take Zoe to the planetarium. There Zoe sees hundreds of stars, which prompt her to ask Uncle Leonard how far away they are. He replies, "Too far away to touch but close enough to see." Zoe eventually learns that this observation may also be applied to the way one handles the death of a loved one. When confronted with the realization that Uncle Leonard will not live much longer, Zoe finds comfort in the image of him she knows will endure when she closes her eyes.

    Uncle Leonard is undaunted by AIDS. When Zoe sees Uncle Leonard coughing and taking his medicine, he explains that all of this is a part of "being sick." When she sees evident hair loss beneath his beret, she realizes that the AIDS Uncle Leonard speaks of may be fatal. "Are you getting better?" Zoe asks. "No . . . I'm about the same," Uncle Leonard replies.

    Despite his progressing illness, at the end of the book, Uncle Leonard takes Zoe on an adventure to the ocean to look at the stars at night. Their seaside adventure gives them a chance to discuss Uncle Leonard's sickness in more detail. Zoe asks why people refer to the stars as the heavens; Uncle Leonard is unsure. He is also unable to guarantee that when he dies he will go to the heavens. But Leonard assures Zoe that when he dies he may be too far away to touch but will definitely be close enough to see. Thus the metaphor of the book is established; Uncle Leonard will die, but he will always remain etched in Zoe's memory, where she will see his "sad smile."

    An extraordinary feature of this book is that Uncle Leonard remains alive at the end of the story. Rather than concluding on a morbid note with a funeral or actual loss, Newman's decision to end the book before Uncle Leonard's death points to hope. Newman herself is particularly pleased with the ending, and admits that "this is something I rarely see in children's books that address death."

    The metaphysical dialogue between Zoe and Uncle Leonard regarding heaven and the afterlife marks a significant departure from other children's books. Newman does not choose to portray heaven as a refuge when we die. In fact, Newman's documentation of Uncle Leonard's uncertainty about heaven is potentially more controversial than the book's gay-AIDS subject matter. Too Far Away to Touch could have boasted a conveniently happy ending if Uncle Leonard had been able to assure Zoe that he would see her in the afterlife. But to do so, Uncle Leonard would have had to give Zoe false security in something he is unable to guarantee. Instead, rather than lying to the child, Uncle Leonard answers Zoe's responses the best way he knows how: with loving honesty. One might accuse Uncle Leonard of lacking significant faith in God, but this charge misses the point. He is not unfaithful, only uncertain. It seems quite understandable that a dying man may question his fate with curiosity.

    Too Far Away to Touch
    is a remarkable book. The story's smooth flowing narrative voice is propelled by expertly worded dialogue. The story has a muted sense of humor, something entirely absent in Newman's other children's books. Zoe's rapport with Uncle Leonard is evident in the way the two are able to laugh with each other. At the outset of the story, Zoe intends to play a little joke on Uncle Leonard. She waits for him to remove his beret so that she can put two marbles in his hair. She plans to pull them out saying, "Uncle Leonard, you're losing your marbles." The plan is squashed when Zoe sees Uncle Leonard's hair loss due to AIDS. The joke may have been stunted by the reality of his illness, but humor is nonetheless unmistakably present in their relationship.

    Too Far Away to Touch is recommended for all children ages four to nine, although the book will be of particular use to children who are coping with a dying loved one. The fact that AIDS is only mentioned once, and in a general way, suggests that Uncle Leonard's sickness might be read as a proxy for other potentially fatal illnesses, such as cancer and diabetes. Given the book's expert handling of death, let alone its responsible treatment of the AIDS virus, all elementary school and public libraries should make it available for young boys and girls.

    TONY LEUZZI
    Independent Scholar
    Coeditor of GERBIL: QUEER CULTURE MAGAZINE
    Notes

    1 Tony Leuzzi, "Heather's Mommy Talks About Her Craft: An Interview with Leslea Newman," The Empty Closet, May 1995, pp. 8–9.

    2 Both of these quotes are Newman's own words in her untitled multimedia presentation at Damon City Center Campus, March 29, 1995.
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    Summer 1996 Issue

    Abstracts

    Introduction
    By Vitka Eisen and Irene Hall
    Youth Voices
    Stone Butch Celebration
    A Transgender-Inspired Revolution in Academia
    By Wendy Ormiston
    Negotiating Legacies
    Audre Lorde, W. E. B. DuBois, Marlon Riggs, and Me
    By Townsand Price-Spratlen
    A Gay-Themed Lesson in an Ethnic Literature Curriculum
    Tenth Graders' Responses to "Dear Anita"
    By Steven Z. Athanases
    What Difference Does It Make? The Story of a Lesbian Teacher
    By Carla Washburne Rensenbrink
    Toward a Most Thorough Understanding of the World
    Sexual Orientation and Early Childhood Education
    By Virginia Casper, Harriet K. Cuffaro, Steven Schultz, Jonathan G. Silin, and Elaine Wickens
    Race and Sexual Orientation
    The (Im)possibility of These Intersections in Educational Policy
    By Kathryn Snider
    How We Find Ourselves
    Identity Development and Two Spirit People
    By Alex Wilson
    Manly Men and Womanly Women
    Deviance, Gender Role Polarization, and the Shift in Women's School Employment, 1900-1976
    By Jackie M. Blount
    Researching Dissident Subjectivities
    Queering the Grounds of Theory and Practice
    By Kenn Gardner Honeychurch
    Cornel West on Heterosexism and Transformation
    An Interview
    HER Board

    Book Notes

    Open Lives, Safe Schools
    Edited by Donovan R. Walling

    Uncommon Heroes
    Edited by Phillip Sherman and Samuel Bernstein

    Free Your Mind
    By Ellen Bass and Kate Kaufman.

    Becoming Visible
    Edited by Kevin Jennings

    Death By Denial
    By Gary Remafedi

    Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?
    By Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott.

    One Teacher in Ten
    By Kevin Jennings

    The Gay Teen
    Edited by Gerald Unks

    Tilting the Tower
    Edited by Linda Garber

    School's Out
    by Dan Woog

    The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader
    Edited by Henry Abelove, Michele Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin

    Joining the Tribe
    By Linnea Due

    How Would You Feel If Your Dad Was Gay?
    By Ann Heron and Meredith Maran; illustrated by Kris Kovick.

    Helping Gay and Lesbian Youth
    Edited by Teresa DeCrescenzo

    Call 1-800-513-0763 to order this issue.