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Arts & Culture

These kids' authors are telling the stories of trans youth. Book bans won't stop them

It was just two weeks ago that DeShanna Neal found out that My Rainbow, a book she wrote with their daughter Trinity and published in 2020, was being targeted for a ban.

The book tells the story of designing and creating the perfect rainbow wig for a young Trinity, who transitioned when she was 4. It was one of 850 books that Texas lawmaker Matt Krause targeted in October 2021 — unbeknownst to Neal until recently.

Bans on books about race and LGBTQ+ identities are common. Last year, stories about Black American history and diversity were among the most banned or protested books in schools and libraries, according to the American Library Association. And in 2020, eight of the 10 most challenged books covered the LGBTQ+ community.

As Republican lawmakers continue to push forward with efforts to curb the rights of queer and trans youth and limit discussion in schools, authors who've written about gender expansive and trans identities say that type of storytelling is crucial.

Books about trans identities need space in the classroom, said Cheryl Greene, the Welcoming Schools Director for the Human Rights Campaign.

"Trans and nonbinary kids and LGBTQ+ families exist," she said. "And you know, not talking about them doesn't make them go away. It just sends the message that they're not accepted."

Teachers and educators are tasked with ensuring that all families and students are valued and feel like they belong, Greene said. That's something that books can do, she added.

A rainbow wig for Trinity

DeShanna Neal remembers staying up late into the night making a wig for a young Trinity. Trinity's brother helped picked out the colors, but it was up to Neal — who had never before made a wig — to put it all together.

Neal tells NPR that Trinity felt her gender expression wasn't valid because her hair was too short. But Trinity, who is autistic, hated the feeling of hair on the back of her neck. Neal also didn't want to give Trinity straight hair because she is Black, they added.

"It was like, 'How do I make these all come together?' " Neal remembers asking. "Because every part of her, every intersection of her — and I teach all my kids this — every part of us is why we are a masterpiece."

Neal says she still has the picture of a young Trinity, who is now 18, smiling and putting on the wig for the first time. Many remembered Trinity as "the girl with the rainbow hair," Neal said.

But the young author doesn't let the attention get to her head, Neal said of her daughter. When the activist duo is tagged in something, Trinity is excited, but then she goes back to playing Roblox, Neal said.

Meanwhile, Trinity's younger sister, Hyperion, has shared the book with her classmates.

"Nothing's cooler than saying, 'Yeah, my big sister is an author,' " Neal said of Hyperion. " 'Don't mind me, my big sister met Obama.' "

Young characters that reflect humanity

When Ellie was growing up, their mom, Vanessa Ford, recalls a lack of books that captured her own child's experience. Many of the book characters didn't look like Ellie, Ford said.

For Ellie, I am Jazz by Jazz Jennings was a formative work. The story follows the author's own experience as a trans child.

"But as Ellie mentioned, 'Jazz was not brown like me,' " Ford told NPR.

Ford and her husband set out to find books that represented Ellie, who is biracial. When the duo started writing Calvin in 2018, which follows a young trans boy's coming out story, Ford said they couldn't find any books with transgender characters of color.

But over the years, the selection has expanded with the addition of books like My Rainbow and Kyle Lukoff's When Aidan Became A Brother.

In Calvin, the Fords tell the story of a young trans boy, loosely based on the experiences of their own child, Ellie. In the book, Calvin tells his parents that he is a boy "in his heart, in his brain," Ford says.

"We love you if you are a girl, boy, neither, or both," Calvin's dad says. "We love you whoever you are."

After coming out, Calvin is met with nothing but support and acceptance. His friend calls him by his name, and in one scene, his grandparents give him a haircut. Nobody bullies Calvin and no one questions his identity, Ford says.

"It sends a message that trans kids can thrive and be happy and wonderful in their environments when those around them support and affirm who they are," Ford told NPR.

Including Calvin in classrooms was important for Ford, who was a teacher in D.C. public schools for 15 years. She said they've done virtual school and library visits all over the country, from Oregon to Pennsylvania to Texas.

"We want this being utilized in classrooms as a mirror to kids who need to see themselves, and a window for other kids who need to understand what it means to be gender diverse or transgender," Ford said.

A story about "unconditional love"

Growing up, Maryann Jacob Macias loved ballet. But she didn't like the itchy, polyester outfit that came with it. She was much more partial to the T-shirt and leggings, which was known as the boys' costume.

A young Jacob Macias later dropped ballet altogether, because she felt she couldn't do it in a way that was "comfortable for me," she told NPR. But in her book, Téo's Tutu, she tells a story where a young Téo thrives in his tutu. It's a story about "unconditional love," she added.

In the book, she introduces Téo who is growing up in an Indian and Colombian family, mirroring her own family. Téo loves dancing at home with his family, whether Cumbia or Bhangra, she said. And naturally, Téo is very excited for his first ballet class.

"When it comes time to decide which outfit to wear in the recital, whether it's the sparkly tutu or the shimmering silver pants and T-shirt," Jacob Macias said, "he wonders if the audience will love him back."

Téo's story tells readers that "you're magnificent and you deserve to show up as your best self," Jacob Macias said.

It also might help some readers feel seen. Jacob Macias recalls reading books when she was younger where she couldn't see herself.

"I remember not having books where I felt represented as a little brown girl," Jacob Macias told NPR. "It was always my dream to write those books and I feel very fortunate that I'm able to do that now."

Queer and trans communities are not monolithic

In less than two weeks, Kyle Lukoff's latest book Different Kinds of Fruit is set for release. The book tells the story of Annabelle, who is just starting sixth grade. Annabelle, who's realizing that she might not like boys the way some other girls do, befriends Bailey, the new kid.

Annabelle thinks they're pretty cool, and she is drawn to their smile. She later learns that her father and Bailey might have something in common.

Annabelle's father later reveals to her that he is trans, and he had given birth to her. But his local trans community wasn't supportive of his choice, Lukoff told NPR.

The novel follows Annabelle's emotional journey as she learns more about her parents and her own identity.

Lukoff hopes the novel shows that queer and trans communities are diverse. Queer and trans people don't always agree with each other, whether on politics or in the ways folks talk about their identities, he said.

"I would love for people to come away from this book and realize that there's no one correct way to interact with trans people because we often have different needs and experiences," he said. "And also, that that's okay."

A conversation starter for the youngest readers

Behind Tyler Feder's Bodies are Cool was an immense spreadsheet. It was filled with all of the qualities of bodies that she wanted to document in the colorful book. The book, she says, carries a bit of a "Where's Waldo" energy.

In Bodies are Cool, tons of people — maybe more than 100, Feder says — are shown with different gender presentations, hair types, skin colors, body sizes and shapes, she told NPR.

Even those who can't read yet can engage with the book just by looking at the pages, and asking their parents questions if they have any.

The book includes folks with top-surgery scars in different stages of healing. Feder hopes the book shows that "it's normal to be trans or visibly queer or very fat or with a really noticeable disability."

Across all of the pages, joy is universal. Feder depicts colorful crowds of people who love each other, are friendly and are just having fun, she tells NPR.

"If [kids] just start out thinking that everyone's fine how they are, they'll grow up and not want to discriminate," she said.

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