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

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Calvin was always a boy, but the world did not recognize him that way. That's the story in the new children's book. It's called "Calvin." And in it, authors J.R. and Vanessa Ford show how young Calvin navigates the complicated feelings of being a transgender kid and how he comes into expressing who he really is. The Fords are also parents to two children, Ronnie and Ellie, who is trans and inspired this book.

J R FORD: We are in a six-year journey into Ellie's transition, and so it really encompassed us early on, right after their fifth birthday because that was the time when they announced to both of us who they were. And so that transition really was a labor of love and a labor of learning for all of us. It really helped jumpstart 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? And it's a social transition right now because it really focused on their external appearance as well as who they felt they were inside.

CORNISH: So, Vanessa, tell me then about Calvin - who's the child in this book - and how does their journey, so to speak, begin?

VANESSA FORD: For Calvin, there are pieces of Ellie's story. Choosing a name from a loved item that they have is something that Calvin does and also that Ellie did. There are pieces of what Calvin says that Ellie said to us early on. 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.

CORNISH: I'd love for you, Vanessa, to read a page from the book. And this is a page where Calvin first tells his parents, I'm not a girl. Calvin says, I'm a boy - a boy in my heart and in my brain. Can you just read the the reaction, basically what the parents say in response?

V FORD: Absolutely. We see Calvin with Calvin's family, sitting in his room. And his father says, (reading) we love you if you're a girl boy, neither or both. We love you whoever you are, my dad said. Later, Dad told me the word for how I felt was transgender. Being transgender means other people think you are one gender, but inside you know you're a different one.

CORNISH: That's a moment that struck me because I think for people who, you know, have real kind of problems with the transgender community, one of the things they talk about is the idea of indoctrinating kids - that you're putting ideas in their head. And I wanted to ask you about the language here because you have the parent telling the child, this is the word for what you feel.

V 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. And...

CORNISH: Did you just skip over it?

V FORD: 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 said, that's who I am. There's a word for who I am. And so some of this is 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.

CORNISH: J.R., later, the book talks about the trepidations that Calvin was feeling going back to school. And there were a lot of questions there. How did you come up with the questions? Was this something you got from professionals, from kids? What are the kind of fears kids can have?

J R FORD: So we did a lot of research. Between Vanessa and I, we actually got a lot of input from families, from friends, from trans elders about how we should try to tackle some of these challenges that a young trans kid would personally embark upon. And we wanted to strip out all the external trauma and challenges that, you know, a trans kid would potentially face. You know, we wanted to look internally from a young kid's standpoint - what are some of those internal thoughts and obstacles that they would face, the what-ifs? I think every kid could identify with the what-ifs.

CORNISH: And the what-ifs here, though, are how would everyone treat me? What if my friends wouldn't call me he? What if? What if?

J R FORD: Right. And that's a really salient point in the book.

CORNISH: Right. There's this page where Calvin encounters a kid on the first day of school and says, you know my name? And the friend says, yep, your dad told my mom you're a boy now. And that's pretty much it. They go off to play.

V FORD: Yeah. And that's actually one of the things we found on our journey - that kids are really open. They are accepting and interested and curious. It's really adults and political figures who have taken the issue of trans kids and politicized and put all this fear mongering 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.

CORNISH: What's your response to the parents who say, not my kid - I'm not ready to have this conversation. I mean, you yourselves talked about reading a book and skipping over the word transgender, right?

V 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.

J R FORD: I would also add that, you know, 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.

CORNISH: We started this conversation talking about Ronnie and Ellie, your kids - right? - and Ellie, who is transgender. What do they think of this book?

V FORD: Ellie has gone through a little bit of a roller coaster over the last three years that it's taken for this book - being very excited about it, being very nervous about it, and now again being very excited about it. And I think what's exciting is they see themselves reflected, but it is not Ellie's story. It is an amalgamation of pieces of Ellie's story, along with the stories of real trans kids that we know nationally. But Ronnie and Ellie are both very excited, I think a little bit nervous. This has been a labor of love, and it's coming out into the world. It's like we're having a third child (laughter).

J R FORD: Yes. Yes, absolutely.

V FORD: Calvin is our third child.

CORNISH: I want to thank you. Vanessa Ford and J.R. Ford, thank you so much for sharing your family's story as well as this kids' book.

J R FORD: Thank you, Audie.

V FORD: Thank you so much for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MEAN LADY SONG, "BOP BOP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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