‘Calvin’ children’s book gives transgender youth a superhero

“This book is a love letter to the support networks a trans child can have,” says Vanessa Ford. “We just wanted the opportunity to show how radiant and beautiful trans youth are when they’re supported by everyone around them.”

The book is inspired by the Fords’ experience with their youngest child, Ellie, who came out to them as transgender in 2015 at the age of 4. Three years later, the couple, who live on the North Shore, moved in with Vanessa’s parents. ‘ house in New Hampshire and started typing what became ‘Calvin’.

“In those early years we were looking for books, picture books, resources to support this journey and to give Ellie a chance to see herself in a book, and we didn’t see many books out there,” said Vanessa, who is a noted a particular lack of books highlighting trans boys or trans children of color.

In the book, Calvin is preoccupied with what if: What if his family doesn’t believe him when he comes out? What if his classmates don’t use his favorite pronouns?

“The book itself really focuses on Calvin’s internal thoughts and stressors,” said JR. “We didn’t necessarily want to focus on bullying or any other real trauma that we’ve seen trans people and trans children go through.”

A social transition — such as changing pronouns and names — is the typical first course of action for children expressing themselves as transgender, according to the Trevor Project. Research has shown that transgender and non-binary children who are capable of social change exhibit similar levels of self-esteem and depression as cisgender children, the Trevor Project reported. In addition, the more contexts in which a transgender child’s chosen name is used, the less likely they are to exhibit suicidal thoughts or behaviors.

“You’re really trying to make your internal world match how people perceive you from the outside,” Vanessa said.

This profound support is reflected in the pages of ‘Calvin’. Calvin’s father assures him that he and his mother “love you if you’re a girl, a boy, neither or both.” Calvin’s grandfather cuts him, the first time the boy feels like he’s looking at himself in the mirror. When he arrives on his first day of school, his chosen name is plastered on his booth.

The Ford family (from left: JR, Ellie, Ronnie and Vanessa) with a copy of "Calvin" For the first time.
The Ford family (from left: JR, Ellie, Ronnie and Vanessa) holding a copy of “Calvin” for the first time.Thanks to Vanessa Ford

Illustrations by Kayla Harren are full of bright, vibrant pastels, depicting a cheerful Calvin and a diverse group of classmates.

“To see that intergenerational support and the way our illustrator has brought that to life in a way we never even imagined is so beautiful,” said Vanessa. “She brought ‘Calvin’ to life.”

It was important, the Fords said, to create an intentional, inclusive book. The definition of transgender used in the book (“other people think you’re one gender, but inside you know you’re a different gender”) was meant to apply to non-binary and non-conforming children . Ellie now uses she/them pronouns. Also, like Ellie, Calvin is biracial.

“We wanted to be targeted to make sure we’re just expanding that trope or monolith of what you typically see,” JR said. “Trans children come in all different shapes and sizes.”

The Fords have been national activists for transgender rights for many years and were the founding members of the Human Rights Campaign’s National Council of Parents for Transgender Equality. They fused Ellie’s experiences with anecdotes from families of transgender children across the country whom they met through their activism to build “Calvin.”

“The research is ingrained in our experience…knowledge [from] those in the community who supported us helped us know what to put in this book,” said Vanessa. “We worked with people in the community, trans parents and others, to make sure we did this right.”

The Fords said that at first Ellie was afraid that their parents would write a book inspired by their experience. They have since stopped by and asked to be the first person to hold the book, copies of which they took to school to share with their teachers.

“They also feel very strongly that it’s not a book about them,” said Vanessa. “They see themselves in the book, just as we hope others will see themselves in the book.”

The couple will be hosting a launch party at Beverly’s Copper Dog Books on November 9. After that, they plan to refocus on advocacy, passing the Equality Act, which would amend the Civil Rights Act to address discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The book’s release will coincide with Transgender Awareness Week, November 13-19.

“This book comes at a time when hopefully people will see that trans kids are just like any other kid — that they’re special and unique and beautiful and radiant and all those great things,” Vanessa said. “Just like Calvin is.”

Dana Gerber can be reached via [email protected]

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