I was very fortunate to get a chunk of time from trans humorist and author S. Bear Bergman about ze’s project for young readers, Flamingo Rampant, which got some support through Kickstarter earlier this spring. With two books due to be released on June 1, Bergman answered some questions about these trans-themed picture books for kids, and what ze read as a youngster.
EM: You’ve written for LGBT audiences for years—what brings you to books for young readers?
SBB: This particular project came about because a couple of years ago, I was contacted by the kids’ camp director for the Gender Odyssey conference, Tanner, who asked me if I thought I could come up with a children’s story or two to read the kids. They wanted them to be gender-themed, but entertaining and fun—I have the clearest memory of Tanner saying to me “some of the things in camp should be abut gender, but I don’t want it to be “Welcome to camp! Let’s sing songs about our genitals!”
I said I would give it a try. And in a couple of months, I had produced these two stories.
EM: Tell me about your project—what’s the story, who are the characters? What kinds of books are these?
SBB: THE ADVENTURES OF TULIP, BIRTHDAY WISH FAIRY follows title-character Tulip as he deals with the birthday wishes of all the nine-year-olds in North America. Somewhat reminiscent of the Disney film Prep & Landing, The Adventures of Tulip, Birthday Wish Fairy gives an inside look into what exactly happens to all those wishes, what Wish Fairies eat for lunch, and what kinds of tools they’re issued. When a wish Tulip is unfamiliar with crosses his desk, from a child known as David who wishes to live as Daniela, he seeks the wise counsel of the Wish Fairy Captain and learns some new Wish Fairy Skills (while also introducing the concept of trans-identified children in a friendly, sympathetic way). Tulip gets in a little hot water, but ultimately his compassion and thoughtfulness win the day, while serving as a model for readers.
BACKWARDS DAY, set on the planet Tenalp, introduces us to a world where there are seventeen seasons, including one where bubblegum falls from the sky for three days and a single day when everything—everything everywhere—is backwards. Andrea looks eagerly forward to Backwards Day every year, so she can turn into a boy for the day. But one year she doesn’t turn along with everyone else. She’s miserable. The very next day, however, she turns into a boy—and stays that way! He’s delighted, but his parents are distressed, and take him to the big city to consult with Backwardsologists. When they finally figure out what’s happened, the miracles of Backwards Day are fully revealed to the reader.
EM: What appeals to you most about working on picture books?
SBB: I really enjoyed working with both the illustrators, and watching things I had dreamed up come to life on the page. I’m not a very visual person—I really do live in the world of words—so as odd as it sounds I had no real concept of what any of these people or places looked like. It was fabulous and terrifying to just turn over the text and watch it all take shape. And the results are amazing.
EM: How does this fit in with your other work and your mission as a writer?
SBB: My mission. Oh, boy. I wish I had a Mission™. Mostly what I have are a lot of big ideas and a reasonable portion of ego, enough so I think other people will be interested in what I have to say. I like to talk and teach and tell stories.
Though, being serious, I do also want to make room in the landscape of culture for trans and gender-independent and gender queer people. And my husband works with a lot of gender-independent kids, and now I have an actual, awesome, kid, and so picture books—with which I am newly but thoroughly enmeshed—seemed like a way to go about it.
EM: What’s your strategy for addressing queer and trans issues in these books?
SBB: Tulip and Backwards Day are both fun stories, where something gender-y happens. I think activism can be fun, and frolicsome, and that sometimes a spoonful of sugar distracts everyone from the fact that there’s medicine happening in the first place, if Mary Poppins will forgive me.
And storytelling is a very old and very effective form of combining entertainment with values-transmission. We tell stories in part because storytelling is a lot of damn fun, but also in part because it has historically been a way to encourage behaviors we value and discourage behaviors we don’t, and to give cultural messages about belonging and validity and desires and all manner of things. We’ve more or less abandoned this important task to TV in the last generation, and they have taken the mantle on their shoulders and provided us with such faultless moral compasses as A Very Kardashian Wedding and The Real Housewives of Orange County.
None of which I like. Or even, in most ways, approve of. But I have always been incredibly hard on people who complain without trying to do anything about it, with whatever tools they have available to them. So, here I am, and I know good and well I’m paddling against the tides. I don’t care, though. There will be some families, in some places, into whose hands these books will find their way and be of value.
Rabbi Tarfon, who lived two thousand years ago, writes in the Talmud: ”It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.” That seems exactly right to me.
EM: What messages are you hoping to convey to readers, and the people who may be reading them aloud to young people?
SBB: I want to normalize trans experiences for young kids. I can hear the Traditional Values Coalition people sharpening their pikes even as I type that, but it’s true. I also don’t know how else to help protect trans people, especially my trans sisters of colour who bear the brunt of transphobic violence, but through education.
So it occurs to me that maybe this is one way to use my privilege: to write these books, and give a ton of them away, and try to remake the world a little bit so that my son’s generation will have a different, much more warm and welcoming (or at least not homicidal, that would be a nice start) attitude towards trans*-identified, genderqueer, gender-creative people.
By the way, I am committed to giving a lot of books away. If people have suggestions about libraries or schools that could use a copy, please contact the librarian there and ask them to send an email to library at flamingorampant.com requesting one. Please don’t just send an email asking to have one sent; one of my pieces of learning in this endeavor has been that unsolicited books sent to libraries sometimes get sold in the annual booksale instead of added to the collection. So, it’s a great help to me and to the kids and families who are patrons of your library if you play Library Liason first.
EM: What was on your bookshelf when you were a kid? Are you trying to emulate any of them in these projects?
SBB: Everything. I was a crazy voracious reader. But the earliest books I really remember reading weren’t picture books, so it’s hard to say. My parents tell me that my favorite books as a little little person were I’ll Teach My Dog 100 Words (which I still love and read to my son all the time), and Tikki Tikki Tembo (which is so breathtakingly racist I won’t keep it in the house). But no, I wouldn’t say these books are like either of those.
EM: What else do you want people to know about these books? And where can folks purchase them?
SBB: I want people to know that they’re fun, that they’re good stories. My guiding principle the whole way was that I wanted to create stories I could imagine a kid requesting again and again at bedtime. And based on my test audience, I think I have succeeded (at least for some kids).
Books will be for sale starting 1 June. We’ll be selling them online through Amazon’s fulfillment system (but the money comes to us, not to them, except for the shipping fees), and in lots of independent bookstores as we can arrange things with them. Please feel free to encourage your local, independent bookstore to contact Flamingo Rampant if they want us and we haven’t reached out to them yet.