By Michele Landsberg
Updated January 29, 1993 at 05:00 AM EST

On one side, outraged parents call them the ”ABC’s of sodomy.” On the other, the chancellor of the New York City school system calls the charges ”a malicious campaign to distort.” At the center of this swirl of anger are three picture books for first-graders with stories about gay and lesbian families: Daddy’s Roommate, Heather Has Two Mommies, and Gloria Goes to Gay Pride.

These books are on an optional reading list in New York City’s recently adopted Children of the Rainbow curriculum, intended to teach six-year-olds respect for minorities. The resulting controversy has made headlines around the U.S. and inspired a national debate on the curriculum’s philosophy. These texts, however, are already in bookstores nationwide, and carried by such chains as Brentano’s and B. Dalton. So, although some parents may feel that homosexuality is an issue best left out of school texts, unsure or curious parents can now assess the books for themselves.

All three, published by Alyson Publications, are narrative primers for 2- to 8-year-olds. And, surprisingly, they are all fairly traditional in their approach to their special subject matter. Daddy’s Roommate, written and illustrated by Michael Willhoite, comes with vividly colored illustrations and a simple text that a child could read alone. No political strife intrudes on this cheerful story told by a small boy who easily accepts the love and stability offered by Dad and Dad’s roommate. ”My Mommy and Daddy got a divorce last year. Daddy and his roommate Frank live together. When weekends come, we do all sorts of things together,” including visits to the zoo and ball games. Dad and Frank are forthrightly shown sharing the housework, fighting and making up, watching TV, and sleeping (just sleeping) in the same bed. The bright, cartoonish pictures have the mainstream-America feel of an Archie comic.

In fact, that’s what these books — and the surrounding furor — are really all about: The books’ clear goal is to show homosexual relationships as a real-world complement to the mom-and-dad model. Unfortunately, Daddy’s Roommate suffers from the same failing as the old Dick-and-Jane books: It’s so relentlessly blithe that it could almost be called Dick and Dick. As if divorce or re-coupling — especially when gay partners are involved — were ever so untroubled.

The other two books are more realistic-and vivid-in dealing with the concerns of children with gay or lesbian parents. Heather Has Two Mommies, by Leslea Newman, with naturalistic black-and-white drawings by Diana Souza, introduces 3-year-old Heather, who lives in a little house with a big apple tree, a dog, a cat, Mama Jane, and Mama Kate. Heather, we learn, was created by artificial insemination. (”The doctor put some sperm into Jane’s vagina.”) At play group, Heather is upset to learn that she is missing something — a daddy. A sensitive teacher consoles her by encouraging the children to draw pictures of their own families. Not surprisingly, the drawings reflect America’s diversity: There are ”blended” families with step-dads, siblings with disabilities, single moms. ”Each family is special. The most important thing about a family is that all the people in it love each other,” teacher Molly says.

Gloria Goes to Gay Pride, also by Newman and illustrated by Russell Crocker, is equally multilayered. Gloria is seen celebrating Valentine’s Day, marching in a Gay Pride parade with her two mothers, and being reassured that hostile spectators who want gays to ”go away” can’t hurt her. Both these uncondescending books seem ideal for reading aloud to children who face the pain and perplexity of difference. In a tender tone, child-size worries are calmly acknowledged and gently answered.

By any measure, these books are competent and humane — they can comfort a worried youngster or help any child understand that not all families in today’s world are built the same way. At the same time, they neither aim for nor achieve the transporting power of fiction to change a child’s inner life. No child is going to love them with a passion. So no adult need approach them with fear and loathing. Daddy’s Roommate: C+ Heather Has Two Mommies: A Gloria Goes to Gay Pride: A