‘Calvin’ children’s book gives transgender youth a superhero – The Boston Globe

What’s in a name? For Calvin — the transgender boy at the center of Vanessa and JR Ford’s new children’s book — everything.
“Calvin,” which will be released by G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers on Nov. 9, follows the titular character as he prepares for his first day of school since coming out to his family and socially transitioning to match his gender identity. This involves picking out his new name, buying new clothes, and getting a haircut — all with his family by his side.
“This book is a love letter to the support networks that a trans child can have,” said Vanessa Ford. “We just wanted the opportunity to show how radiant and beautiful trans youth are when they are supported by all around them.”
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The book was inspired by the Fords’ experience with their youngest child, Ellie, who came out to them as transgender at the age of 4 in 2015. Three years later, the couple, who live on the North Shore, sat down in Vanessa’s parents’ New Hampshire house and started typing what became “Calvin.”
“In those initial years, we were looking for books, picture books, resources, to support this journey and to have an opportunity for Ellie to see themselves in a book, and we didn’t see a lot of books out there,” said Vanessa, who noted a particular lack of books highlighting trans boys or trans children of color.
In the book, Calvin is preoccupied by what ifs: What if his family doesn’t believe him when he comes out? What if his classmates don’t use his preferred pronouns?
“The book itself really focuses on Calvin’s internal thoughts and stressors,” said JR. “We didn’t want to necessarily focus on bullying or any type of real trauma that we’ve seen trans people and trans kids go through.”
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A social transition — like pronoun and name changes — is the typical first course of action for children who express that they are transgender, according to the Trevor Project. Research has shown that transgender and non-binary children who are able to socially transition show similar levels of self-worth and depression as cisgender children, the Trevor Project reported. Moreover, the more contexts in which a transgender child’s chosen name is used, the less likely they are to show suicidal ideation or behavior.
“You’re really looking at making sure that your internal world matches how people perceive you from the outside,” Vanessa said.
This profound support shows itself throughout the pages of “Calvin.” Calvin’s dad assures him that he and his mom “love you if you are a girl, boy, neither, or both.” Calvin’s grandfather gives him a haircut, the first time the young boy feels like he sees himself in the mirror. When he arrives to his first day of school, his chosen name is plastered on his cubby.
Illustrations by Kayla Harren are full of bright, vivid pastels, showing a joyful Calvin and a diverse group of classmates.
“To see that intergenerational support and the way that our illustrator brought that to life in a way that we hadn’t even imagined is so beautiful,” Vanessa said. “She brought ‘Calvin’ to life.”
It was important, the Fords said, to craft an intentional, inclusive book. For example, the definition of transgender used in the book (”other people think you are one gender, but inside, you know you are a different one”) was meant to apply to non-binary and gender nonconforming children ― Ellie now uses they/them pronouns. Also, Calvin, like Ellie, is biracial.
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“We wanted to be purposeful about making sure that we expand upon just that trope or that monolith of what you typically see,” JR said. “Trans kids come in all different shapes and sizes.”
The Fords have been national activists for transgender rights for years, and were founding members of the Human Rights Campaign’s Parents for Transgender Equality National Council. They melded Ellie’s experiences with anecdotes from families with transgender children around the country that they’ve met through their activism to construct “Calvin.”
“The research was baked into our experience … knowledge [from] those in the community who supported us helped us know what to put in this book,” Vanessa said. “We worked with people in the community, trans elders and others, to make sure that we got this right.”
The Fords said Ellie was initially apprehensive about their parents writing a book inspired by their experience. They have since come around, and asked to be the first person to hold the book, which they took copies of into school to share with their teachers.
“They also feel really strongly that it is not a book about them,” Vanessa said. “They see themselves in the book, much like we hope that others will see themselves in the book.”
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The couple will hold a launch party at Beverly’s Copper Dog Books on Nov. 9. They then plan to refocus on advocacy efforts, namely, passing the Equality Act, which would amend the Civil Rights Act to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The release of the book coincides with Transgender Awareness Week, which is Nov. 13-19.
“This book comes at a time that hopefully will get people to see that trans kids are just like any other kid — that they are special and unique and beautiful and radiant and all those amazing things,” Vanessa said. “Just like Calvin is.”
Dana Gerber can be reached at [email protected]
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