Picture book offers a vision of trans inclusion and support

“Calvin,” by JR and Vanessa Ford

“Calvin” is a gentle first-person picture book about a transgender boy who transitions with the love of his family and community. Vanessa Ford, who co-authored the book with her husband JR, said in an interview that the book “shows the necessity of having a community around trans youth, that when one child transitions, others transition alongside that child, and that it takes a community to ensure that they are safe and protected.”

Vanessa, an educator, and JR, who works in information technology, live in the Boston area with their two children, one of whom is trans. Longtime advocates for trans youth, they first conceived of the book in 2018 when they heard other parents discussing the lack of stories about trans boys. They also knew there were few books about trans children of color. JR is Black, Vanessa is White, and their children are biracial; their new book reflects these identities. While a few other books filling these gaps have been published since the Fords began theirs, Vanessa stressed that multiple perspectives are important, and she is excited “Calvin” (published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons) will now be joining existing titles.

When they first started writing the book, they knew that as cisgender adults they would need additional input. “We talked with a lot of families,” she said, and they asked trans kids of picture-book age to give them feedback to ensure that “they are able to see themselves in the book.”

In fact, she revealed, “There’s a real Calvin in the world and he’s very excited for this book.” Vanessa knows his mom and loved the name “Calvin” for the protagonist. The book is not the real Calvin’s exact story, however, but rather “an amalgamation of a lot of trans kids’ stories” including his. There are nods to several of them in the book. The fictional Calvin has a stuffed lion, for example, because “One of the little trans boys we know loves lions,” she explained.

Parts of their own family story are there, too. She noted, “When Calvin says, ‘I’m not a girl, I’m a boy in my heart and in my brain,’ our child actually had said to us at four, ‘I’m not a boy, I’m a girl in my heart and in my brain.’ We wanted to bring to life this insightful self-awareness that kids can have.”

In the story, written in accessible, spare prose (with adorable illustrations by Kayla Harren), Calvin initially wonders how his family will react when he tells them he is a boy. His parents, brother, and grandparents offer nothing but love and support, however, as they buy him boys’ clothing, give him a boys’ haircut, and use his new name. Calvin then worries about what will happen at school, but feels “safe and happy” when on the first day, the principal calls him “Calvin.” A friend does, too, and we learn that Calvin’s dad has spoken with her parents in advance. Calvin then finds the name “Calvin” already on his classroom cubby, lunch chart, and desk—“Everywhere it should be.” He introduces himself to the whole class and spells his name with pride.

It was important that the book be “devoid of bullying,” instead showing “what support from all aspects in life could mean for a child,” Vanessa said. This reflects the support that the Fords and their family have felt, particularly from their trans child’s teachers, to whom the book is dedicated. Vanessa admitted, though, that they’ve been “very lucky” in this. Even so, she said their child has also experienced bullying and internal struggles, and she and her husband have not always handled things perfectly, either.

JR and Vanessa Ford.

The book is thus partially based on their family’s experience and partially on an “idealized vision.” While they have been asked if this approach could be “a disservice to kids who were struggling,” Vanessa said they decided “to show what it could look like when everybody rallies around, and that it is possible.” She says that if a school is unsupportive, a parent might even bring in “Calvin” and say, “This is the way it should be.”

Her hope is that the book will offer some children an image of themselves, while for others, it will help them build empathy and give them a reference point for when someone in their class, church, or community is transgender. She also hopes it will help parents, grandparents, teachers, and other adults realize “how their actions can impact a trans kid and kids in their community.”

At the same time, she reflected, “We anticipate some pushback,” given the current negative attitudes in some places towards books about race and LGBTQ issues. “I hope that people will go to bat for ‘Calvin’ and the Calvins in their classrooms,” she added, “because ultimately when we’re removing these books, we’re removing images from students who need to see themselves.” If there are challenges to the book, she said, people should reach out to her and JR via jrandvanessaford.com and they will try to use their connections to provide support.

They are also eager to do readings in schools or to collaborate with libraries, she said, and they “are always open to connecting with other families experiencing this journey and making sure they have the support that they need.”

The support shown in the book is unfortunately “not possible right now in every place in the country because this issue has been so politicized,” she said, “but we hope ‘Calvin’ will bring some love and light and possibility to those places as well.”

Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (mombian.com), a GLAAD Media Award-winning blog and resource directory, with a searchable database of 800+ LGBTQ family books, media, and more.

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