By Alaina Leary
Today we’re pleased to welcome Jodie Patterson to the WNDB blog to discuss her picture book Born Ready, illustrated by Charnelle Pinkney Barlow, out April 20, 2021!
Penelope knows that he’s a boy. (And a ninja.) The problem is getting everyone else to realize it.
In this exuberant companion to Jodie Patterson’s adult memoir, The Bold World, Patterson shares her son Penelope’s frustrations and triumphs on his journey to share himself with the world. Penelope’s experiences show children that it always makes you stronger when you are true to yourself and who you really are.
Jodie, can you tell us the inspiration behind Born Ready?
I think it’s important to share family stories of triumph and success. My family has been on a journey over the years to support my son, who is transgender. And from that experience, we’ve become wiser, more compassionate, and stronger. I wrote this book with the help of my children so that it would capture their voices and their ideas. Sometimes gender and trans experiences are made to feel complicated and scary, sad, and tragic. Our story and millions of other stories are beautiful, uplifting, and powerful. Often the books we see are about white families. Our story needs to be heard, and I hope it travels across gender, race, and socioeconomic lines! Ours is a universal story of family, acceptance, pride, and unity.
What was your writing process like? How did you collaborate with Penel on telling this story?
I had the initial idea, so I sketched it out. Then I showed it to all the kids to get their language, memories, and feelings about each scene. Then I edited Born Ready to incorporate how they recalled moments, the feelings they had, and the language that made them most comfortable. I also asked them to weigh in on the artwork. We gave extensive and very specific requests to our illustrator; sometimes it was about skin color, sometimes about hair texture and style, we even requested certain art on our walls. The kids and I were interested in making this OUR story, not just anybody’s story.
Penel, are you glad your mom wrote this book? What was it like helping her tell your story to the world?
I’m glad Mom wrote this book because it can help younger people learn about themselves and their trans identity and how they can express that part of themselves. I don’t have fear or confusion about being trans, and that’s probably because of the way my family supported me. This book can show other families how to support each other. Like the way I taught my mom to be strong and to learn to understand me. And the way my mom got my Ghanaian grandfather to use the right pronouns for me. I hope the book can teach families to be more loving. Helping my mom tell my story is exciting because I think I’m helping to change people’s views and become more accepting of transgender identities. I’d like to see a world where all identities are normal and accepted, not one more than the other. Trans people are just people.
Penel, can you tell us what it means to you that kids will be able to read Born Ready? What impact could this book have for other trans kids?
We wrote Born Ready specifically for kids. Most other books about trans people are for adults, but our book talks about how I feel and think and is focused on a kid’s perspective. It’s important to have trans kids as the star of books so other trans kids can see themselves as powerful and also so cisgender kids can be compassionate and become allies.
Jodie, you also wrote a memoir, The Bold World. How did you take concepts from The Bold World and put them into context for younger readers in Born Ready? In what ways do the two books intersect, and how are they different (besides the age range)?
The Bold World is MY story—it is about how I, a cisgender woman, learned to shift my ideas and shed my bias. It is a story about my Black family, dating back as far as my great-great-grandparents, and coming all the way up to the present. It focuses on how I learned gender and then how I relearned it. My son Penel contributed so much to my growth—he was the impetus for my change. I’m a better woman now because of my son, and I wanted to honor him for what he gave me.
In Born Ready, Penel is the star of the story. I used the most meaningful moments in Penel’s life and, by extension, my life—and then I made those moments the story. I will never forget the day Penel told me who he was deep inside and how graceful and confident he was in that moment. I will always remember how he strutted into school the first day wearing his very own tie and pants. And the time he won his first karate tournament…wow, that was a game-changer for all of us. Those memories mean so much to our family, and I wanted to share them with other children struggling to see themselves as powerful and confident.
Born Ready goes into how it can be difficult to be seen when you have several siblings and a busy family. But your family makes it a priority to see Penel and respect him when he tells you he’s a boy. Why did you want to touch on the experience of being recognized in a larger family and how families can support each other and affirm their kids?
Our family is big, loud, busy, opinionated, blended, and diverse. We speak multiple languages. Some of us are atheists, and others have a specific faith. We are southern Black, Ghanaian, white Canadian, Swiss, and Vietnamese. There’s a lot going on in our home. I believe many families can relate to having a lot on their plate. We were so busy, and going in so many different directions, that we almost overlooked someone we love dearly. We didn’t mean to, but I now understand that some things and some people are harder for us to see because of our own bias.
We can easily “see” good grades, boys who are strong, girls who are pretty, cisgender, and heteronormative kids. But we don’t easily “see” or fully understand our children who don’t fit into those categories. And when we don’t fully see our children, they feel less important. It’s hard, but families have to slow down for a moment in order to see one another. We have to pay close attention to one another.
For me, I didn’t understand what transgender meant—that gap in my information didn’t allow me to fully understand my own son. Once we learn about our children, once they tell us who they are and what they like, it’s our job to support their specific dreams, identities, and passions. Who am I to say what happiness looks like? I am here to create an environment that allows them to be themselves, to be happy as themselves, and to find success as they define it. Big families have a lot to contend with—conflicting opinions, multiple languages, different belief systems, and preferences. But we also have a built-in superpower—we see the world through many different lenses. And if we can harness that ability, we can support each other and teach a valuable lesson: the goal is not to agree. The goal is to discuss big issues and to share complicated life with decorum.
I loved the inclusion of Grandpa G discussing the use (or lack thereof) of gender pronouns in Twi. Why did you want to include this moment in the story?
Grandpa G was perhaps the last person to understand and support the concept of being transgender. He was older, conservative, traditional, and arguably sexist and homophobic. But that didn’t stop me from finding a way for our family to stay united. Instead of asking him to support transgender rights, we simply asked him to use the pronouns “he” and “him” for Penel. We asked him to shift his language. Because Grandpa G spoke several languages and had lived in many parts of the world, he understood that language was flexible. And to our delight, he agreed to shift pronouns for his grandchild. Sometimes we need to find a back door to help people to enter a tough conversation. Grandpa G and Penel spent many happy years together, sharing life, before he passed—because they found a back door through the flexibility of language.
What other books do you see Born Ready as being in conversation with?
I really like Julián Is a Mermaid because it’s uplifting. It’s the simple story of an adult supporting a child in their self-expression. I love how it shows intergenerational collaboration and a quiet, accepting love for people different than ourselves.
Are there any other books for young readers that you’d recommend, especially by trans authors?
All Boys Aren’t Blue is a great one!
Penel, do you have any favorite books you’d like to recommend? What are you reading right now?
I’m in eighth grade now, and I’m reading The Color of Water, which deals with racism. I also liked reading Dreams from My Father because it talks about how President Obama was able to overcome struggles and thrive. When I was young, I really liked Where the Wild Things Are because it was about a kid, his ideas, and how important his thoughts were. I remember President Obama read that book to me and some other kids on the lawn of the White House for Easter.
What’s one question you wish you were asked more often (and the answer)?
PENEL: I would like people to ask me about my dreams because the future is important to think about. Dreams are about what YOU want to become, not what others want you to be. I dream of playing basketball professionally, and I dream of being happy and successful.
JODIE: Ha! I wish people would ask me if they could come over and cook dinner for my big family. Sometimes that’s the hardest part for me now.
Jodie Patterson is the author of The Bold World: A Memoir of Family and Transformation and was Family Circle magazine’s Most Influential Mom in 2018. She is the mother of five children, two of whom are self-proclaimed gender nonconformists–one transgender and another genderqueer. Jodie was inspired to write Born Ready to show how an entire community can be flexible and change for those they love. Jodie raises her family in Brooklyn, New York. Visit her at georgiany.com.