S. Bear Bergman: Allowing All Children to See Themselves

“There is in fact a market, not just among families where there is a trans kid, but within families where it’s part of the family culture that we use books as a window into parts of the world that we might not otherwise experience or encounter.”

This week author S. Bear Bergman rocked the Internet with the launch of hir kickstarter campaign for Flamingo Rampant!, a new press focused on the creation of gender independent children’s books!  The first two titles  are The Adventures of Tulip, Birthday Wish Fairy and Backwards Day.

The kickstarter campaign has been immensely successful, fully funding ($10,000 ) within three days.  Lambda sat down with Bear to talk about the books, hir decision to create hir own press, and what the money which continues to flow in above the initial ask will allow them to create.

Can you tell us a little bit about what The Adventures of Tulip, Birthday Wish Fairy  and Backwards Day  are about?

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. This book will be illustrated in a mixed-media style by Toronto-based artist Suzy Malik.

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. Katie Diamond of Portland, ME will be illustrating this book in a charming, modern cartoon style.

What was the goal behind these titles for you as an author?

They are intended to be fun interesting children’s books with good stories that feature trans identified characters. I have had this ongoing internal struggle about how there are fun interesting children’s books and there are children’s books that deal with issues of being trans or gender independent. All the ones in the second category are lovely tender books which explain in kid appropriate language what it means to be trans, or how gender works, or why people think your mommy might also be your daddy, but they with only a couple exceptions they aren’t really stories.  I have a toddler and as I’ve started to get how toddlers work, or at least how my toddler works, I’ve started spending a lot more time than I used to with people less than 3 feet tall and one of the things that’s really clear to me is that they totally respond to information that is contained in interesting narratives. Flamingo Rampant! will be creating books have a lot going on and are also legitimately stories that feature trans identified kids.

 “Gender Independent” is a term that might be new to folks, can you talk a little bit about what the term means to you?

It’s a little difficult to label young children as trans identified, because sometimes they are more shark or train identified than they are anything. One of the things about trans identity is that it requires a sense of one’s own identity and ability to identify as something, whatever that looks like. Little kids are just too little for that. Sometimes, there are kids who are a little older and take on that label, or their families feel comfortable with it and have taken it on, on their behalf, but I think what is actually more true for a lot of younger kids is that we don’t really know about their identity. We only know about their behavior, and what we know about their behavior is that it does not conform to ideas about gender roles in children. These are kids who used to more frequently being referred to as “gender nonconforming” but that has a pejorative tone to it that I don’t love. It’s like “you’re doing it wrong.”  I hear more and more people referring to these young kids as gender independent and it feels right to me. There feels more room in that for the actual kid, as opposed to how this kid or any kid “should” be. It feels positive and something for which you could praise a child for.

You’ve had a lot of success as a queer author through traditional small/LGBTQ publishers with your past books, what was different this time that made you decide to publish yourself?

I sent these books out to a bunch of publishers I’ve worked with to say “I’ve written these, are you interested?” They all wrote back and said basically the same thing, “these look fantastic, and I don’t think we will be able to sell enough of them to justify publishing.”

It was very clear that everyone had many warm lovely things to say about the work, which I certainly appreciate, but there was a real sense that they didn’t feel like enough people would want these books. One publisher said to me “how many trans 9-year-olds could there possibly be?” She meant it, I think, as if to say “when you have written some new, different, non-scary, trans children’s books please get back in touch and we would be very happy to take a look.”

It was very clear that these publishers intended to encourage me, but that the idea of being able to sell enough children’s books that were based on a trans character was just not something they felt confident about. I heard it a bunch of times. I heard it from some people that I really believe believed what they were saying and that they would have 100% gone for it if they felt like they could support the project. It was a little surprising because a lot of my work is very much about themes of gender and yet those books sell.

What was it like for you to write children’s books?

I wrote these books nearly two years ago – I had been contacted by the Gender Spectrum Family Conference. They had asked me to write  a couple of stories that I could come read for their children’s camp. They wanted them about gender, but not all gender all the time. Honestly,

I didn’t really feel an enormous amount of confidence that I would be able to write a children’s book, let alone two, but it didn’t seem like the time to mention it so I said yes, and I gave it a try. It was winter, the conference was in the summer, so I thought, I can figure this out. And I did! To no one’s surprise more than mine. I totally figured it out and the stories came out great.

The kids I play tested the stories with, a little group of volunteer young people and their parents, were super nice and helpful and lovely. I finished versions of these children’s books, and I couldn’t get them published. I’d never had the experience of having something I wanted to get published and couldn’t! Left at that point, and not able to figure out any other way to make the project move forward. J (Bear’s husband J. Wallace) and I talked about it and he really encouraged me and said “you should just do it, people will support this project.” When I was initially talking through this whole kickstarter business I really felt like “what if no one wants lovely tender trans themed children’s books?”  It was my big fear, which in retrospect, it was a little ridiculous.

 Speaking of that community response, how are you feeling about how strongly people have responded?

It’s overwhelming in a really good way. I’m super excited by it and also gobsmaked. I had no expectation that this was how it would work out. I had originally set the funding level at 8k because I wasn’t sure we would reach 10k and then at the last minute I raised it because it was really clear that 8k was not under any circumstances be enough money for us to make this work out.  So, with substantial trepidation I raised it to 10k which is the amount of money actually needed.

One of the things that’s been fantastic, has been all of the email and messages that I’ve been getting as the word of this project spreads across the inter-webs.  I’ve gotten messages from people saying “this is amazing! I’m preordering copies of these books for all my nieces and nephews.” I got a really heartbreaking lovely email this morning from someone who wrote to say that they are a straight couple and one of them is trans and they are struggling hugely with how to make some room in their kids’ world for the idea of trans identified people. They aren’t particularly associated with queer community or with trans community. Their life is pretty straight, they are in their religious community and all these other things. They wrote this lovely email saying “we’re so excited to hear about this project and we really want to be able to back it at a high number level and it will be a stretch financially for us, but it’s so important that these books exist.”

At this point it’s pretty obvious that the kickstarter is going to go over the $10,000 that you asked for.  What will money raised over that amount be going towards?

I’m working to figure out what a sustainability model looks like in a variety of directions. Before I started the fundraising I got a lot of quotes. One of the early decisions was to have the books printed in North America- I’m not going to write lovely “all children should reach their full potential” storybooks and have them printed in another country by children earning 13 cents a day.

We have a lot of really great options on the table including printing more copies of these two books, printing larger and/or hardcover editions of these books, turn the books into apps and video stories for kids learning to read, or publish other titles.

Supporting the kickstarter isn’t a donation. It’s supporting Flamingo Rampant! by pre-ordering books and/or backing this project at more premium levels. “Donation” makes it sounds like someone is throwing money in a box that I will use to buy ramen noodles while writing children’s books. That’s not what we’re doing here at all. The illustrations are underway, the books are written. Were capitalizing on the printing so that we can afford to publish these books without going into gigantic personal debt. That’s an important distinction that I want to make sure people understand.

Seeing how successful the kickstarter has been so far, how are you feeling about all the struggles you had trying to get a publisher to pick up the books?

I have a lot of trust of the intentions of the publishers who looked at this project. I feel like they legitimately looked at the project and said it would be too hard to sell, not out of transphobia but just as a business decision.  There is more interest in this kind of work than anyone was prepared for, and  I feel very satisfied to know that my instinct about this was right.

There is in fact a market, not just among families where there is a trans kid, but within families where it’s part of the family culture that we use books as a window into parts of the world that we might not otherwise experience or encounter.  As a parent I can say we use books like that all the time, to normalize things or support certain kinds of ideas.

When will the books be released?

Both The Adventures of Tulip, Birthday Wish Fairy and Backwards Day will be released at the same time. We will have the first books in hands in June to have them available in time for Pride.