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Children's book 'Calvin' shows how a community can embrace a trans child's identity

Cover of the children's book Calvin

Calvin was always a boy — but the world did not recognize him that way.

That's the story in the new children's book Calvin. Authors JR and Vanessa Ford show how their young protagonist navigates the complicated feelings of being a transgender kid and how he comes into expressing who he really is, with illustrations from Kayla Harren.

The Fords are also parents to two children, one who is trans and inspired this book. Ellie first raised the topic shortly after their 5th birthday — the family is now six years into their journey.

"That transition really was a labor of love and a labor of learning for all of us," JR Ford says. "It really helped jump-start what we needed to do, you know, to research this whole new lexicon of terms and vocabulary as well as: What does it mean for us to continue to support Ellie in their transition?"

Though Calvin is inspired by the Fords' child, the book is not entirely a fictionalization of their personal experience.

"There are pieces of what Calvin says that Ellie said to us early on," Vanessa Ford says. "But we have a large network of families with many children who transitioned around 4 or 5 years old, and each one of these children have informed us of their own experiences, and we've grown up with them in our community of families with trans kids."

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Interview Highlights

NPR's Audie Cornish spoke with Vanessa and JR Ford for All Things Considered.

On parents using the word transgender with their children

Vanessa Ford: When we first were with our child when they were 4, there was one book out, and it used the word transgender. And we didn't use that word for quite some time in reading the book to Ellie, to our child.

In the book, Calvin's parents introduce him to the term transgender.
/ Penguin Random House
In the book, Calvin's parents introduce him to the term transgender.

We skipped over it because we didn't want to provide a word. However, when we finally used the word, Ellie's breath took out all the air in the room and they said, "That's who I am. There's a word for who I am." And so some of this is that our children may not have the language to describe how they feel or how they identify, and sometimes having that language can be incredibly empowering.

In one scene in the book, Calvin reintroduces himself to a classmate using his new name.
/ Penguin Random House
In one scene in the book, Calvin reintroduces himself to a classmate using his new name.

On the scene where Calvin reintroduces himself to a classmate as a boy

Vanessa Ford: That's actually one of the things we found on our journey — that kids are really open. They are accepting, interested and curious. It's really adults and political figures who have taken the issue of trans kids and politicized it and put all this fearmongering out there, when in our experience and the experience of many people we've talked with, kids may have a few questions like Calvin's friend did, but then it's on to recess — what are we doing next? And when kids are able to be their authentic selves, it draws in others around them.

On what they would say to parents who aren't ready to talk to their children about transgender identities

Vanessa Ford: I think right now is the time if there ever was a time. We have a political environment in which trans youth in particular are being targeted around the country. We have trans kids coming out every day in classrooms around the country. And I would just encourage them to take a risk. Your child is going to be open and eager to learn this, and it may help them be a better, empathetic friend to somebody in their class or their community. And I would say learn from our experience. We were scared. We were fearful of even using that word in the beginning when, in fact, our child found it so empowering.

JR Ford: I would also add that our kids aren't a monolith. They are unique in every single way. And for parents and adults and caretakers, give them the opportunity to be themselves. At least, being able to listen to your kids is one of the things that we always try to promote. Listen to your kids. They know what's best for them because they're living their experience every single day.

Amy Isackson and Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted this interview for the web.

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