Children's Book 'Calvin' Illustrates the Joy of Loving a Transgender Child and the Importance of Representation
Parents and authors Vanessa and JR Ford want you to meet their newest baby, a book called Calvin. The children's book is about a transgender boy who takes us on his journey of becoming his most authentic self. Calvin was assigned female at birth but knows he is a boy. "I'm not a girl," Calvin tells his family. "I'm a boy—a boy in my heart and in my brain." Calvin's parents, a white mother and Black father, accept Calvin for who he is and quickly affirm him by ensuring he has the clothing, haircut, and name that makes him feel his best.
The book, illustrated by Kayla Harren, was inspired by the Fords' own transgender child, Ellie, who came out six years ago when they were 5 years old. The family is clear, though, that Calvin is not Ellie nor is his story the same as theirs; rather, it's pieces of Ellie's story and one that encompasses many stories of transgender children. Calvin is also about acceptance and a family's love.
Parenting Is Hard, but Loving Our Kids Is Not
"There is a simplicity in supporting your trans kid. Parenting is complex, but this doesn't need to be the most complex thing about it," Vanessa Ford tells Parents.com.
Accepting our transgender children should come easily, but understanding and learning can take some work. Vanessa admits that having a transgender child does come with fear and sometimes confusion, but is thankful there are more and more places that offer support to both guardians and their transgender children. And it's okay to need help. When Ellie transitioned at the age of 4 in 2015, the Fords leaned on people who knew what they were going through.
"From the beginning, we have gone to other parents of transgender kids," says Vanessa.
While there were not a lot of out families known nationally at the time, parents like Debi Jackson and Jeanette Jennings were visible and advocating for their transgender children. JR and Vanessa reached out to the Human Rights Campaign to find families to connect to. Through those connections, they have built a local and online community of parents with transgender children. Those spaces are where they can go to talk about advocating at school, navigating health care systems, and vent or ask questions about everyday life.
Organizational support systems—like the Human Rights Campaign, National Center for Transgender Equality, and GLSEN—are invaluable resources, as are local and national conferences. "These [conferences] are opportunities for families and the community to come together and learn together from one another—we found those really empowering," says Vanessa.
She also mentions that conferences are great for transgender kids and their siblings because they have a chance to connect and spend time in fun day camps. Siblings of transgender children are often the biggest allies in their families, but they can still express a sense of being left out. So much of a parent's focus is often on the needs, mental health, environment of a transgender child that the cisgender sibling can feel ignored at times.
"We wanted to make sure [older son] Ronnie was given attention because he was also part of the transition," JR says. He admitted that at times Ronnie expressed frustration that he wasn't getting the attention he wanted, but the family worked together to make sure both kids had the focus they needed and deserved.
And while siblings can be very protective of their transgender siblings, the Fords are clear that it's important to know they are never responsible for their siblings. That responsibility is always on the parents or guardians. The Fords have taken that responsibility to also mean creating a positive narrative for Ellie.
Vanessa and JR tend to stay away from talking about the sadness or scary parts about sending a transgender child into an unknown world because there is so much good to talk about too. "Be proud and joyful," says Vanessa. "What a gift this child is to your family, with the courageousness they have shown."
Transgender Kids Need To See Themselves
The Ford family was deliberate when creating space between Ellie and the book's protagonist, Calvin, and received Ellie's consent regarding the book throughout the entire process.
So many transgender kids are willing activists—and are often the best activists—but they're still kids who deserve autonomy and the ability to be just kids. "Ellie is an introvert. And everything we do that involves Ellie or advocacy and telling our story, we ask them what they feel about it," says Vanessa. "We knew a book titled Ellie with Ellie's story would not go over well." Separating Ellie from Calvin was important, but so was the need for Ellie to see themself in the book.
Like Calvin, Ellie has a Black dad and white mother. The book is a much-needed example of transgender representation, but especially of transgender boys and transgender kids of color. "We wrote a book that we thought we [the community] were missing," says Vanessa.
In the early stages of planning Calvin there weren't many books that featured transgender boys or transgender kids of color. But now Vanessa says that Calvin is joining Aidan and Penelope who are transgender kids of color in the books When Aidan Became A Brother and The True Story of a Boy Named Penelope. The Fords welcome the company.
"Race is something we have lightly started to touch on as our son gets older, because as he gets older, he will get closer to the social issues we as adults run into," says JR. For Ellie, though, while Ellie knows that harm does happen to transgender people of color, Vanessa and JR say it's a tough conversation to have with them. The Fords say they have protected Ellie from the statistics surrounding violence against transgender people, particularly transgender women of color.
While it's only been recently that JR and Vanessa have started conversations about the risks of being a transgender person of color, they have built a community of transgender folks who are thriving and supported because that is closer to Ellie's experience. They also continue to show Ellie transgender leaders of color to look up to. Vanessa and JR know those hard conversations will eventually happen though, which is why the joy and support shown in Calvin is so important.
Calvin has gone from ideas and storyboards to bookshelves and is ready to be shared. When the book arrived and was finally tangible, JR said that it was a pivotal moment for Ellie. "They knew Calvin was real and they could relate to him. Ellie is very proud of Calvin."
Where there is pride and representation for many, there is also pushback. Calvin isn't on a list of banned books yet, but based on the trajectory of other books about transgender people or other LGBTQIA+ characters or themes, it might be soon. That possibility is exciting to the Fords.
"That means people are aware of it and it's getting out there," says JR. "So I say, 'Let's do it.'" Vanessa agrees.
"Bring it on," she says. "Some of the greatest books are banned books and we would be honored to be in that canon."