By Alaina Leary
Today we’re pleased to welcome Katherine Locke and Anne Passchier to the WNDB blog to discuss their picture book What Are Your Words?, out May 25, 2021!
Follow Ari through their neighborhood as they try to find their words in this sweet, accessible introduction to gender-inclusive pronouns that is perfect for readers of all ages.
What I love about this book is that encourages everyone to share their pronouns; it doesn’t make this into an issue for just trans and nonbinary people having to correct others in their lives. Why do you think this is important to start discussing with kids at an early age?
Katherine: Pronouns are super common! Lots and lots of people use pronouns. And I think that this question is exactly why I wanted to write it the way I wrote it: demystifying pronouns and to un-other them for trans and nonbinary kids. Pronouns, like all words we use to describe ourselves, can be empowering, and I wanted to give that language to talk about pronouns to kids so they can be empowered in their own identities.
Andy: Exactly for that reason! I’d like pronouns to be viewed as not just an issue for trans and nonbinary people, but another common descriptor that people use for themselves and that makes them feel unique and empowered. I think it’s important for kids to know they have options, and to be equipped with the language they need to express themselves and support others in the exploration of their identities. Right now it can feel daunting to share your pronouns with people in everyday life, especially if they’ve never experienced anyone else do this. By encouraging everyone to share pronouns, hopefully, it can be normalized and kids can grow up not feeling intimidated by the concept.
How can a book like this help kids—trans kids, but also cis kids—figure out their identity and feel comfortable talking about who they are?
Katherine: I hope that kids come away with more language to describe themselves that’s positive and uplifting and empowering to them, regardless of their gender identity. But for those trans and nonbinary kids, I want them to know that there are a lot of different words that might fit them and that those words can change and they are still themselves. Language is not a static, still thing. It lives and breathes with us. We give language and words power. And we can own that power, from the adjectives we choose for ourselves to the pronouns we choose. I still feel a thrill when someone uses my pronouns. Those are my words. That’s so powerful. I want kids to feel that too.
Andy: I really like that this book introduces pronouns as just another set of words we use to describe ourselves, and it’s a big reason why I was excited to be hired on as the illustrator. Our pronouns don’t define us as people; we’re made up of so many other interests and characteristics. Just like these other qualities, identity and pronouns can change throughout our lives. It would be amazing if normalizing talking about pronouns could act as a ripple effect and work to destigmatize exploring your gender identity. I think it would be so beneficial for both trans and cis kids to be able to explore who they are freely and try on different words and identities until they find one they’re completely comfortable with.
This book includes a variety of pronouns, including neopronouns. Do you think introducing children to neopronouns opens up new options for them that they might otherwise not discover until later?
Katherine: I hope so! And there are even more neopronouns out there than we could fit in the book. When I was first exploring my gender identity, I discovered the poet Andrea Gibson and I always think of their poem, “Your Life,” where they wrote, “Your pronouns haven’t even been invented yet.” You’re not less valid if you can’t find the exact pronouns that feel right. Keep trying them on. Find your own. Invent your own. That’s all real.
I also adore that the book goes into other words that describe and identify us, such as mechanic, generous, and curious. How did you build that into the story? Did you know from the beginning you wanted it to be a book about identity or did you start with pronouns and add that later?
Katherine: I knew I was starting with a book about pronouns, but I spent a lot of time thinking about how I wanted to frame the story, how I wanted to talk about pronouns, and what was important to share with trans kids, nonbinary kids, cis kids, and all the adults in their lives. And that’s why I included the other words too. I think sometimes with marginalized identities, we boil people down to just a certain piece of that identity. For trans people, it’s often their pronouns, or what their pronouns used to be versus what they are now. I wanted to share that pronouns are an important part of our identities, but they’re also not the only part of our identities. Trans and nonbinary people have just as many diverse careers and adjectives and other words as cis people.
Andy, what can you tell us about your art style and your usual process for creating art? What approach did you take with this book?
Andy: I wanted everyone to be able to recognize themselves in the illustrations, but at the same time create enough diversity to realistically depict a lively neighborhood on the day of a big, summery celebration. First and foremost, I knew it had to be colorful and fun! Diversity and representation in the media we consume are so important, so it was absolutely vital I include a variety of skin tones, body types, hair, and clothing, as well as characters with a visible disability. My drawings of people are usually very stylized, so it was fun to keep the same simple childlike quality to them while adding unique characteristics to make them all distinct individuals. I really hope the end result conveys what I intended: A lively and fun community of people, who all come together to celebrate each other in all their diversity!
Andy, I also noticed you create a lot of fun surface patterns (I’m really into handmade clothes). What do you find unique about the process of creating art for a book versus other illustration projects?
Andy: Surface design was how I started my career in the art world, and patterns will always be one of my favorite things to create. After a while, however, I started to want to make work that related closer to my identity as a nonbinary person and reached people in a more narrative and meaningful way.
Drawing for children’s books is very different from creating a surface pattern collection. The timeline is a lot longer, which is extremely valuable as you get the time to be really considerate and thoughtful about how you want to depict every scene. The interaction between text and image is also very interesting, as you’re left thinking: “How can I bring these words to life in the best possible way?” “What was the author trying to convey and how can I show that to the reader?” It’s also a very intensive process, so I like the variety of being able to switch between books and surface design!
If you’re comfortable, can you share what a book like this might have meant for you as a kid? If not, what you hope it will mean to young readers now?
Katherine: This is going to sound dramatic, but maybe not in the wave of anti-trans legislation crisscrossing the nation right now. I hope this book saves lives. When I was growing up, I didn’t even know that trans was a thing, much less the idea that there are more than two genders. That didn’t exist in my world. I had no exposure to trans identities until college, no exposure to nonbinary identities until after college when I moved to a major city. I had no language for the feelings inside of me, no way to conceptualize it, other than I could only assume–because I couldn’t find it around me–that I was the wrong one. This led to so much pain, so much confusion, so much hurt, for so, so many years. I lost years, honestly, to thinking I was the one who didn’t fit into this world, that I was fundamentally wrong in how I felt. I almost lost my life to it. And I never never want any kid to feel like that.
I hope that this book gives kids of all ages new words that might fit them, and new words that might make it easier for them to accept and help others around them who need those words and their acceptance. And I really hope that this book helps adults who, like me, didn’t grow up with this language and need to learn it now to build a better world for their children and the children around them.
Andy: It would have meant the world to me. Growing up, I had never even heard the word transgender, I didn’t know non-binary identities existed, and I had no idea I had other options besides just continuing to live life feeling slightly uncomfortable. Katherine and I are very similar in that I also first learned about nonbinary identities after I went to college, and it took me so long to come out to myself and realize that there was nothing fundamentally wrong with me, but more so with how the rest of the world perceived me.
Just like Katherine said, I hope this book and my work, in general, can make it easier for kids and adults to find the language and resources they need to accept themselves and to feel validated in their emotions and experiences. Everyone deserves to love themselves, and I hope I can help even just one person realize that they belong in this world, that there’s nothing wrong about them, or hand a person some tools to better support a loved one and create a better world for future generations.
If you could assemble your dream panel for this book, what would it be about? What other authors might you invite to be on it?
Katherine: Oh gosh, what a great question! I think it’d be neat to do something cross-category, talking about trans and nonbinary children’s literature, and how we’re building literature from birth to adulthood now, and how our books all interact and speak to each other, and how each ‘older’ category builds on what’s being created in the age category immediately preceding it. A panel with Kyle Lukoff, Akwaeke Emezi, Aiden Thomas, A.J. Sass, Kacen Callender, and Charlie Jane Anders? I think that’d be neat. (Also I just kind of want to watch those six people on a panel together. I’ll just listen.)
Andy: I’d love for this book to be read and discussed by some of the people I admire on social media, who spread positivity and are unapologetic in their identity and gender expression. Jeffrey Marsh, Alok V Menon, and Jacob Tobia are all activists who have written books about their own experiences and continue to work to advance people’s understanding of trans and nonbinary identities. Their presence on the Internet was vital to me when I started to come out as nonbinary, and they really helped me discover my own identity. I’d love to hear them talk about the importance of pronouns and who their role models were when they were young.
What other books do you see What Are Your Words? as being in conversation with? Are there any MG or YA books that you feel would be a good companion to this?
Katherine: Is it cheating to pick my own book? This fall, an anthology I co-edited and contributed to, This is Our Rainbow: 16 Stories of Him, Her, Them and Us comes out, and it’s all middle-grade stories by queer authors about queer characters. I was working on these books at the same time, so for me, they feel very inherently tied together.
Andy: I’m going to cheat too and pick a book I worked on recently! Penguin x RISE is publishing a series of books called First Conversations, and I illustrated the title about gender! It’s called Being You, and it’ll be officially published in July 2021. It’s a great little board book that introduces the concepts of gender, pronouns, and gender roles, as well as heavier topics like prejudice and activism. It’s beautifully catered to a younger audience, and I think it will be a great resource for parents and caretakers to have meaningful conversations with their kids.
Do you have any recommendations for forthcoming or published kidlit?
Katherine: Ooh yes I do! For middle grade: Ana on the Edge by A.J. Sass, which is already out so you can grab that and fall in love, just as I did. Ana’s discovery of her identity is wonderful, and I especially love the familial discussions in this book. Forthcoming in young adult: Cool for the Summer by Dahlia Adler, out in May, feels like the Demi Lovato story come to life, or the queer view of “Betty” by Taylor Swift, about a girl who is finally dating the boy she thinks she wants to date, but the girl she had a summer fling with transfers to her school and well, things get complicated.
Andy: I really enjoy graphic novels and Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe is one of my favorites. It’s a lovely autobiographical piece, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to read a sincere and beautifully drawn collection of experiences aimed at teenagers. It’s also a format I really aspire to work in myself one day, so who knows!
What’s one question you wish you were asked more often (and the answer)?
Katherine: I really loved that panel question! I don’t have another question I wish I was asked, but thank you for checking!
Andy: I can’t think of anything either! This was a lovely list of questions, and I’m really excited for this book to be promoted this way. I’ve been following WNDB for a really long time, so it’s an honor to be a part of the archives now!
Katherine Locke’s words are they and them! Katherine lives and writes in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with their very demanding cats and overflowing bookshelves. They also wrote Bedtime for Superheroes, and books for older readers including The Girl with the Red Balloon and The Spy with the Red Ballon. They edited and contributed to It’s a Whole Spiel: Love, Latkes and Other Jewish Stories and the forthcoming This is Our Rainbow: 16 Stories of Her, Him, Them, Us. They can be found online at KatherineLockeBooks.com.
Anne (Andy) Passchier is a non-binary illustrator from the Netherlands, currently working in the USA. Anne lives with their cats, loves to travel, draw, and enjoys all things spooky and Halloween.