Perhaps you caught sight of Polkadot, Talcott Broadhead's forthcoming gender non-binary children's book series, when the project reached its Kickstarter goal in April. Bitch is so excited to have Broadhead participate in our upcoming Beyond Judy Blume community forum in Portland on November 8th, dedicated to exploring identity and sexuality in YA lit (more info on our events page). If you aren't able to attend the forum, you're still in luck, because we asked Broadhead a few questions for the blog. In this Q&A, Broadhead talks about how Polkadot will differ from other children's books in which gender identity is central to the story, why celebrating trans* and non-binary identities in children's lit is so important, and dishes on their favorite children's and YA books.
Talcott and Talcott's younger child. Photo by Hukee the Amazing.
Can you start by talking about the work you do providing therapeutic services to transgender/gender non-conforming youth and their families? I imagine your work greatly influenced your decision to create the Polkadot books, right?
Sure. I serve trans* youth, and their families in my private practice in Olympia, Washington. The need for such services from a non-pathologizing and trans-affirmative social worker is great, so I often work with people throughout the country. I provide advocacy, therapy, consultation, and education. My work isn't only with individuals, but also with the systems and institutions that serve trans* folks…..which is every system! We are everywhere.
The trans* kids who come to me come seeking support and affirmation and often, trauma-informed care—they know who they are, there is little confusion about who their authentic self is. Rather, the "issues" stem from how systems (family/world) interact with their identity: how these systems misperceive them, mistreat them, misrepresent or fail to represent them altogether. These systems misunderstand, pathologize, exoticize, sexualize and abuse them. Because gender is "policed" by families, peers, schools, communities, institutions and so on, those who identify as transgender, or exhibit gender identities that don't fit neatly within the binary male/female model or within the expectation that our gender identity will match the gender we are assigned at birth, are often disenfranchised and targeted by bullying and violence. Both the daily micro-aggressions and frequent overt violence can amount to trauma that disrupts a child's cherished beliefs about their world and their self. Imagine moving through the world being told constantly that you are wrong about who you are, or "sick" because of who you are… and much much worse things. Children lack the same access to resources and decision-making freedom that adults have, and these traumatic experiences and messages can cause a major disruption to their self-confidence and even to their ideas about the value of living.
So much of my work is also focused on educating the systems, providers, and institutions in having empathy, compassion, and understanding that trans* identities are also normal and should be liberated. This is the predominant message that I wish to convey via the Polkadot series: trans* and non-binary identities are normal AND while the books celebrate this, the stories do not overlook the very real ways that transphobia manifests throughout the life of our main character—because this is real and makes sense to portray sensitively.
As you mention in the Kickstarter video for the Polkadot series, children start to identify as a gender between the ages of 3 and 4. It's also an age where they tend to be very interested in books. Have you found books that you've been able to recommend to families you've worked with?
Part of the impetus for the series was that I wasn't able to find books that I could recommend. There are more and more being published, which is great, but many of those published tend to represent trans* as only being the experience of movement from one binary-gender to another binary-gender OR as the experience of being "trapped" in the wrong body. While these may be true feelings for some trans* people they are not accurate for all trans* people. I wanted to confront this a little bit by representing some of the other ways that people experience gender identity. I also want to confront gender classifications: medical, social, and cultural. I want to explore the gendering of bodies and challenge that as well. I wish to disrupt some of the myths about being trans*, for instance: Not all trans* people seek to confirm their gender through medical changes, AND there is no one manner to affirm trans* identity. No one can tell you that you are or are not trans* or that you need to do certain things to be considered trans*. I want my kids to grow up with stories that tell the truth about lots of different ways of being and don't just paint those truths as "exceptional" or "other," but as normal and good and also hard sometimes and all the other ways that being a human can manifest.
When can we expect to see Polkadot on bookstore shelves?
Ooh, good question! The demand and interest in the Polkadot books far exceeded my expectations. It has been so inspiring to see how excited people are. This has also encouraged me to change my distribution format from my original intention to self-publish, to actually seeking a publishing house to publish and distribute the book. The first book is complete and I really hope to see it available this winter—however I am still looking for the right publisher. I am interested in publishing companies that are committed to social justice, anti-oppression, and sustainability. So I hope I can fulfill that wish list and have the book out ASAP!
What is your favorite children's book? What about your favorite YA book?
I always have loved A Bargain for Francis by Russel Hoban. I also like this book called The Big Orange Splot by Daniel Pinkwater. YA...oh, that's hard. When I was young I really enjoyed historical fiction. I recall Johnny Tremain by Esther Hoskins Forbes being one of my favorite books ever, as well as Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor. I never found a series as a young adult that I could really click with, but as an adult I read the Harry Potter series and I really enjoyed that.
Thanks to Talcott for talking to us! You can find out more about Talcott Broadhead and their work by visiting their website.
Will you be in Portland on Thursday, November 8th? Join Talcott Broadhead and other authors, educators, and youth who will be speaking on a panel for our Beyond Judy Blume community forum at Portland State University's Smith Memorial Student Union. Find out more about this forum and additional Beyond Judy Blume programming on our events page.
This program was made possible in part by a grant from Oregon Humanities (OH), a statewide nonprofit organization and an independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which funds OH's grant program. Any views, findings, and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Oregon Humanities or the National Endowment for the Humanities.