“I wanted to communicate that friendship, or in my case the relationship between a parent and their child, should not be changed or damaged because a person reveals more to us about who they are. Love is based on something deeper and stronger than a person’s gender identity, name or clothing.”
Introducing Teddy is a new Australian picture book about friendship, bravery and acceptance that also helps younger readers think about gender identity – you can read more about it here. We spoke to author Jessica Walton about how the book came to be, the process of writing and working with the illustrator, Dougal Macpherson, and why it’s important to create stories for all kinds of kids.
BRK: Originally you crowd-funded for this book, and doubled your target – clearly there’s a lot of love out there around the world for Introducing Teddy. Why do you think people have connected so strongly?
JW: I think this book appeals to a diverse audience, not just LGBTI readers. For those who are trans this may be the first time they’ve read a picture book for young children with a trans character, but we’re also hearing from people who want diversity represented in the books they read to their kids too. This book will hopefully help families to start positive, simple conversations about gender identity in a kid-friendly way.
We’re having a conversation worldwide about what it means to be trans and whether people are going to react with fear or love, so perhaps Introducing Teddy came along at the right time. Reading books like this with young children will help them when they do eventually encounter things like transphobia. They’ll already have read a book about a trans character and her friends with the message that love is the best response.
We’ve been very lucky to go from a Kickstarter project to publishing with Bloomsbury. They are incredibly excited about Introducing Teddy, and I can’t stress enough how much of a difference it makes to diverse authors with diverse books to have the support and enthusiasm of a publisher behind them.
I hope that Introducing Teddy will eventually be one of many picture books for young kids with transgender and gender diverse characters, and that kids will know right from the very beginning that there is nothing wrong with being yourself, and that there is everything right with being open minded, kind, and accepting of our friends and family.
In June 2015 when I wrote a post on Facebook asking ‘Does anyone know any good illustrators?’ There were a lot of suggestions from friends and family, but one stood out. My brother suggested Dougal MacPherson. He’d seen him live illustrate tech conferences, where he’d turn a speaker’s complex concepts into charming, simple illustrations that helped people at the conference to understand and engage. I was impressed by that, but I was completely blown away by the illustrations he had on his Instagram account (15mindrawings), where he documents the adventures of his small children.
I did have the words for Introducing Teddy ready before searching for an illustrator, but I continued to edit and adjust the words as Dougal worked on the illustrations, and vice versa. We both influenced one another throughout, we met up and communicated regularly, and it was a very fun, collaborative, friendly way to create a picture book.
BRK: You’ve said the inspiration for the book came from wanting to help explain your dad’s transition to your young son. Can you speak more about why this book is so close to your heart, and so necessary?
Tina came out as transgender a few years before my son was born, and it’s been great to get to know her better. I wanted to read my children books that reflect the diversity in my family, but I struggled to find picture books for young children with transgender characters. I think it’s important to have books for kids with a wide range of diverse families in them. If kids have bookshelves full of the same kind of family over and over again, they’ll get the message that that family is the normal one, and anything else is ‘other’. I decided to write the book I needed for my family. The reason this is close to my heart is that I love my dad dearly and I’m so proud of her for having the courage to come out later in life and be herself after years of keeping it in. I want my kids to be proud of her too. I also want them to know that they never have to hold in who they are; they need to know that in our family, love is unconditional.
The first pages of Introducing Teddy that I wrote were the first few and the last few: they show Errol and Tilly the Teddy doing the exact same activities, before and after Tilly has told her friends about her gender identity. This is probably the most important aspect of the whole book. They’re closely linked to the words Errol says to Tilly: ‘I will always be your friend’ and ‘I don’t care if you’re a girl teddy or a boy teddy. What matters is that you are my friend.’ I wanted to communicate that friendship, or in my case the relationship between a parent and their child, should not be changed or damaged because a person reveals more to us about who they are. Love is based on something deeper and stronger than a person’s gender identity, name or clothing. The little group of friends in Introducing Teddy love and accept one another unconditionally.
I read one review that thought this book was too idealistic, but we’re talking about young children and that’s how they really are, in my experience! They haven’t absorbed any messages about fearing or hating those who are different, so they’re more accepting of diversity. Ultimately, they just want to get on with playing together. They are really the best example of humanity’s potential for kindness and friendship. If you keep this in mind while writing a picture book about a ‘tough’ topic, you can’t go wrong.
My son was really into books about teddy bears when I wrote the first draft, particularly a gorgeous picture book called Teddy Took the Train by Nicki Greenberg. As I was originally just writing Introducing Teddy for Errol, I thought a teddy for a main character would engage him.
I liked the idea that nearly all of us assign even the most gender-neutral looking teddies a gender and a name as kids, without being able to ask them. What if they could tell us that we’d got it wrong? We assign gender to children right from the moment we get that scan, but they have the right to tell us that we’ve got it wrong, too.
When Dougal drew Tilly for the first time, I felt so emotional. She was such a lovely, expressive, endearing teddy. She’s not typical looking either, which I love. Once I could see her there, alive on the page and going through a pretty tough time, I just wanted to give her a big hug. I hope the kids reading it do too.
A friend made up a real soft toy version of Tilly for me, which I keep with me when I’m writing. Errol and Ava are named after my son and my niece; I hope to get another two Tilly’s made up for them, because I love the idea that even in real life, Errol, Ava and Tilly are friends.
BRK: Not only does the book introduce children to ideas about gender identity, it also reinforces themes of understanding and acceptance: tell us more about writing the friendship between Errol, Ava and Tilly.
They all ‘get’ one another and look out for one another. When Tilly is sad, Errol notices, and wants to know why. Once he does, he is able to be reassuring and kind. Ava affirms and celebrates Tilly’s new name, and encourages her to wear whatever makes her happy. Tilly fears that she might lose her friends, and is able to face and overcome that fear so she can be herself. Once I wrote this little group of firm friends, I liked them all very much. I hope my kids have friends like these.
I didn’t want to write two dimensional characters that are just there to respond to the big emotional moment in this story. I wanted fully formed, interesting kids that I’d be happy to write more adventures about. Errol and Tilly the Teddy like gardening, bike riding, tea parties and tree houses. I see them as quite a sweet, quiet pair of friends who are happy to potter in the garden or sit quietly together in the tree house talking about their favourite books while they munch on sandwiches. Ava is the girl I wanted to read about when I was little She doesn’t like bows but she does like dresses with pockets; she’s a confident, imaginative little girl who invents and builds things like walkie talkies and robots, and takes polaroid photos. The thing I like most about her is that she’s a fast, loud, free spirited child. Ava’s the one who brings a bit of noise and fun to the friendship group, I think.
BRK: What were the picture books you loved growing up, and which do you most enjoy reading to your son?
Wow, I love this question. Prepare yourself, it’s a long list, and this is the abridged version. [Click here to see Jessica’s Book List!]
BRK: Do you have plans for more books?
I do. I want to write more books with diverse characters. I’m working on a few different ideas. One work in progress has an amputee main character and another has a non-binary main character. I’d like to write more adventures for Errol, Tilly, Ava and Robot too.
(All images are thanks to Jessica Walton, Dougal Macpherson and Bloomsbury Australia)