Jess Walton’s book Introducing Teddy teaches kids about transgender issues

First time author Jess Walton crowdfunded her children's book about a transgender teddy, written for her son because she has a transgender dad. Jess with her dad, Tina Healy and son, Errol. Picture: Andy Brownbill.

SHE’s the world’s first transgender teddy bear and she’s about to achieve worldwide domination. If only life was as beautifully simple and unprejudiced as a children’s book.

Thomas-now-Tilly the teddy’s journey began five years ago when Jess Walton’s father came out to her as transgender in a parked car in Fairfield.

Introducing Teddy is being published by Bloomsbury. Picture: Andy Brownbill

Three years later, after having a child of her own, the ex-teacher was searching desperately for kids books which showed a positive message about gender diversity but could find nothing. So she wrote her own: a Teddy called Thomas knows in his heart he’s a girl who wants to be called Tilly, and her friends accept her that way. Self-published last year as a “passion project”, Introducing Teddy will be published globally through Bloomsbury next week after making worldwide waves.

“It’s been a real whirlwind, sometimes I cant really believe that it’s all happened,” said the Pakenham mum who is expecting another baby soon with her wife.

“I didn’t even consider approaching mainstream publishers when I first wrote the book, it was just something I wanted for my own family. I knew there might be other families like mine who might be interested which is why I put it up on Kickstarter.”

Walton was so nervous she wouldn’t meet her crowd-funding goal to pay her illustrator Dougal MacPherson that she set the goal as low as possible, the campaign as long as possible, and considered taking out a loan if it failed.

She started publicising the campaign on social media with LGBTI communities around the world and orders started trickling in. Then on a whim she messaged her favourite author through Facebook, UK eccentric Neil Gaiman.

“I thought there’s no way it’s going to work, but I took a punt. And he tweeted about it. I wasn’t very active on my twitter account… I didn’t even see it. A friend screenshotted the twitter message and sent it to me at work, it was one of the best moments of my life – the third best after getting married and having a kid. I just lost it.”

First came the international media attention, then the flood of orders – within six days they had reached their Kickstarter goal and doubled it by the end of the campaign at $20,000 – then an email from a New York agent asking if she would consider mainstream publishing?

“We just thought it was a hoax and looked up the name of the agency and went to their website and went ‘oh my god this is real’. I spoke to a few people we knew in the book industry and they said ‘sign right now’.

Walton’s dad Tina – “I do call her Dad. I’ve got two mothers: Mum and Dad. I think of ‘dad’ as a term of endearment with lots of history instead of a gendered word for parent” – cried “happy tears” when she’d read the first draft.

“The beautiful thing about it is she showed such a clear empathy and understanding of transgender people and it was just put so simply and beautifully for kids,” she said.

“I think that’s part of the lovely reaction she’s had for it, she really understands me and she accepts me and I’m included in her broader family. I knew that anyway but seeing it there in book form…..”

In Introducing Teddy, being trans isn’t something “weird and wacky and way out”, it’s just a “possibility”, she said.

“Life can go on, you keep having friends and family and you get on with your life, it’s OK. This is what books do, they mainstream it.”

Long before the “mainstreaming” of trans through pop culture – Caitlin Jenner and TV series Transparent – before the word ‘trans’ even existed, Tina was four when she began identifying as female but “you pick up signs and signals very soon that if you want to be loved, you need to bury it”.

“You very quickly pick up there’s certain things you can’t say, you can’t do, certain things you can’t play with, and I buried it. I think very young you learn to feel shame and guilt, you have low self esteem and a sense of low self worth. I think after a little while as a child you start to learn to hate yourself, hate that part of you.”

When Tina married her wife Tess, with whom she had four children, Tess knew that her husband identified as female, but they thought “something’s wrong with me and l’ll beat it”.

“Of course every time it raises its head you realise it puts stress on the marriage, and you learn to push it down.

“So I think it got to the point: my dad had passed away, the kids were all adults, they had their own lives and there was so much pressure building for 50 years, I thought I just cant go on living like this, I cant do it and I thought now’s the time. Either that… it’s a life choice, I want to keep living and I think in the end I chose life.”

Jess Walton believes the overwhelming response to and success of her book is firstly because of the gap in the market for children’s books about gender diversity.

“Educators have contacted us wanting to use this in a classroom setting, also transgender parents transitioning later in life who have young children want to use this to start a conversation. Also for trans people who’ve never had the experience of reading a picture book with themselves represented.”

The other reason for its success is timing – “there’s a conversation happening all around the world, and this book is just one tiny part of that”.

“I think we’ve moved from the point where some people might have been afraid of what’s different to being interested and having compassion and curiosity.

“We’ve started seeing it in the mainstream, in the media and pop culture, on TV and films and books, but we haven’t grappled with what as a society we’ve been doing to trans and gender diverse people, what needs to change politically. I’m hoping with the awareness coming with these conversations, those issues will come to the fore.”

By Melbourne Leader | May 30, 2016 |Source: heraldsun.com.au  | Title: "Jess Walton’s book Introducing Teddy teaches kids about transgender issues"

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