When we see families portrayed in media, most of the time they’re white, cisgender, heterosexual and middle class. And while there are plenty of families like that, they do not represent all families’ experiences. For activist and author Jodie Patterson, it was important to show that there are many different kinds of families out there. So she wrote the book “Born Ready: The True Story of a Boy Named Penelope” based on her own family. The picture book shows Penelope, a five-year-old who loves skateboarding and being a ninja. But Penelope has a big secret: he’s a boy and needs his family to see him as one. With it, Patterson is broadening the scope of trans representation for kids and their families.
“I hope ‘Born Ready’ crosses boundaries. That people who have families that are not trans identified families, not Black identified, read it,” Jodie Patterson told Scary Mommy via phone.
I don’t have anyone trans in my immediate family. But I am trying to raise a child that knows there is a world larger than his immediate surroundings. We’ve been talking about the gender spectrum for several years, but it can be a challenge for him to conceptualize something he can’t see. So even though I know he understands, we use books as an example. It’s hard to find books that feature Black families. “Born Ready” shows Black kids (cis and trans) they can look to this book and see themselves. My son sees commonalities between himself and Penelope. They both love their moms, playing with their friends, and being ninjas.
In “Born Ready,” there’s a moment when Penelope needs his mom to truly understand him. So he presses his head to hers and gives her his “ninja powers” of understanding. It’s a beautifully tender moment that shows the vulnerability of both Penelope and Mama, who has to relearn everything she thought she knew about her child. “I was free falling. And the person that I could reach out to was, in fact, my child,” Patterson explained.
“I think as parents, you know, it’s an awkward place to be where you’re asking your child to give you something that you don’t have is essential. Because the perspective of a child — the wisdom of a child is quite different. And they have something that we need,” she said.
Another special moment of “Born Ready” is when Penelope tells his grandfather that he’s a boy. Grandpa G doesn’t hesitate to accept this new reality in the family. When I asked Patterson about how the moment played out in real life, she was honest. “We asked him, ‘can you change your language from using male pronouns as opposed to female pronouns? And in his language of Twi, gender pronouns aren’t used. So it was no big deal for him. It was finding this backdoor entry to a very complicated topic.” She did also add that Grandpa G did hold on to his very traditional African values, and that acceptance took time. But using language was a way they knew he could understand and adapt.
Here are some additional questions we had for Jodie Patterson. Last year, Patterson’s son asked to be called Penel instead of Penelope, so that is how he’s referred to outside of the context of the book.
Why was sharing your family’s story so important? And why in children’s book form?
Jodie Patterson: I was very careful in my memoir (‘The Bold World: A Memoir of Family and Transformation’) to write my story, my transformation, as a 50-year-old Black, cisgender woman, because I realized that what I had thought about life was not fully accurate. It was really an adult story. And so many parents read it, and so many adults read it, and then came back to me and said, “I can’t wait to read this to my kids, my students.” So I wanted to give something to parents that was appropriate for children. When I say appropriate, I don’t mean this topic of gender and identity isn’t appropriate for all ages, but packaging it in a way that was appropriate for children. The setting is really important when you’re when you’re talking about heavy topics — more polarizing topics.
And the reason why I wanted to write “Born Ready” was so that families and classrooms could share this with young eyes. Oftentimes, the adult conversation is discussing ideas that we’re interested in. But younger people have passed that, or they don’t even hold on to some of the same issues that we have as adults. So I didn’t want to put old ideas on new minds. For children to really have a positive story, a triumphant story without much of the weight that adults bring to the conversation around gender and transgender.
There was very little push back or negativity when Penelope comes to the family and says, “this is who I am.” Was that a conscious choice?
JP: The conscious decision was to show the positive side, the uplifting side, the triumphant side of this story. Because I think that the negative story of Black folks and trans folks and gender non conforming folks is always told, right? The death of certain cultures is always talked about. And so the conscious decision was to show the truth to our story, which is that it is triumphant and full of love.
How much did Penel have a hand in the creation of “Born Ready”?
JP: The story is obviously a story of my family. And all of my children have a hand in the story. I’ve been observing them, watching them, notating every move. When I had to sit down and technically write the book, I wrote it, I sketched it out, and then they helped me with words. They helped me with making sure that our skin colors and our hair textures represented each child. The language was really where they leaned in. And picking out which moments stood out the most for them. The interesting thing about this story is that it’s full family. Not just one child. It is the transitioning of an entire family.
Penel is mothering his community, raising our consciousness. He’s teaching us, his grandparents, his teachers. And so I hope we can expand the notion of what is mothering. If we were to look at more Black stories and more queer stories, we would naturally expand that because I think within the Black and queer communities, you’ve always had a very broad sense of family.
What kind of conversations do you hope “Born Ready” inspires for readers?
JP: I hope this book evokes a radical parenting movement. Because I think that we have not addressed parenting for more than a decade now. Can we be radical in our parenting? Can we be flexible around those that we love? And can we allow each other to speak the language most comfortable, shift our language? I hope that I’m a part of a movement that I’m calling radical parenting, or mothering with a capital M, where we grow our children, grow our communities and build us up. I hope that it drives this idea of radical parenting, which is to mother someone, even when it might not make sense.
More than anything else, Patterson wants “Born Ready” to make people feel less alone. “I wrote this for Black trans kids, or Black kids who are gender nonconforming. I wrote this for Black mothers who are raising trans kids. I want to say, ‘I see you, I’m standing up for you and I’m here with you.’”