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-Steve Floyd, chief executive officer of August House books

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- Jose Lucio, self-published author of Heave Ho!

9.13.2013

A Conversation with Eileen Kiernan-Johnson

"Roland Humphrey is a fictional version of a real boy; a boy having a happy childhood that doesn’t fit into a conventional box of what others may expect of a boy. He’s not constrained by what he wears, what colors he likes, and how he plays with other kids. Watching a beautiful child grow up, we are seeing how our Roland Humphrey is running into other people’s expectations of how he should behave.

I wrote this book for other children who meet the Roland Humphreys of the world to question the rules we seems to operate under that tell us what makes a boy a boy and a girl a girl."

-Eileen Kiernan-Johnson

A few months ago, I received a copy of Eileen Kiernan-Johnson's book Roland Humphrey is Wearing a What? published by Huntley Rahara Press. Simply put, it is the story of a boy who feels more comfortable wearing girls’ clothing than he does in boy’s clothing.

She doesn't make it any secret that it is written about her own son, so it is clearly a very personal subject for her.
Shortly after I posted my review of Roland Humphrey, a site that I follow, Mombian, put out a call for LGBT-friendly bloggers to submit links to their recent blog posts. I posted my review of Roland Humphrey. It's on their list at #93.

Afterward, though, I wondered how appropriate that was, just as I was unsure about listing Roland Humphrey in my list of Same-Sex Relationships Picture Books, along with And Tango Makes Three, and King and King.

What do you make of that categorical distinction? Is Roland Humphrey necessarily an LGBTQ book? Is that how you intended it to be read?


I did very much intend for Roland Humphrey to be read - and marketed - as an LGBTQ book. It is decidedly and proudly LGBTQ oriented and friendly. But that gets to the issue of specificity versus universality of the narrative, which is something I struggled to balance.
It is intended to speak to boys who don't conform to gender norms, whether they are - or later identify as - gay, trans, or merely "pink boys." Society seems to be just beginning to recognize that the strictures around boys' dress and play are impossibly narrow, and that the consequences for boys who stray beyond acceptable boundaries can be great. I wanted to make a little more space for all the boys who don't slavishly adhere to these strict norms to be themselves.

At the same time, however, I wanted the message to appeal more broadly, because almost every child can identify with the befuddlement of trying to master an unwritten set of "rules" that govern us all and the unkind treatment from peers that ensues when we fail to follow those rules. The book seeks to embrace its LGBTQ identity while also trying to speak to children about a larger set of shared struggles.

There is a dearth of children's picture books featuring - much less celebrating - gender nonconforming boys.

My own son adores sparkly shoes and swishy skirts and beautiful things that our culture generally assigns to girls. He looked for characters like himself in picture books, and didn't find many. While The Princess Boy and 10,000 Dresses were meaningful in his and our family's experience, we couldn't find male analogues to the celebrated tomboy. That initiated a conversation about gender norms that resulted in Roland Humphrey.

Roland Humphrey is Wearing a WHAT?

How does Roland Humphrey differ from those other books?

My Princess Boy by Cheryl Kilodavis and Suzanne DeSimone is the seminal gender nonconforming/pink boy children's picture book. Written from the perspective of a mother lovingly parenting a boy who adores tiaras and sparkly accessories, it conveys the pain that both the child and his accepting family feel when he is ridiculed for not adhering to gender norms. It gently but pointedly asks questions of the reader about how they'd treat a princess boy that they might encounter in their own experiences. Importantly, it presents the protagonist as a little boy who wears dresses very matter-of-factly. It is powerful in a very soft, approachable way.

The book was tremendously meaningful for my son, who finally saw another little boy who shared some of his affinities, but because it was written from the mother's perspective, it was difficult for him to identify fully with the narrator.

10,000 Dresses by Marcus Ewart and Rex Ray is a fabulous book about a transgender child named Bailey who dreams of a magical staircase lined with fantastical dresses. The book is delightful and imaginative and doesn't turn the spotlight on gender issues in the same explicit way that My Princess Boy and Roland Humphrey do.

Both of those books are amazingly strong anchors for kicking off children's picture book conversations about gender nonconformity. There is so much ground to be covered in kid lit, and I think that children are savvy readers, appreciative of crisp prose that challenges their burgeoning vocabularies but also fierce evaluators of narrative, pretty skilled at calling out stories that ring false or are too generic to pique interest.

I wanted to add to that conversation by raising some issues that I hadn't seen addressed about the inequities between the latitude girls have to be tomboys and the incredibly cabined approach our society has taken to how boys may express themselves. I wanted people to pause to notice that imbalance and ask why that is and why we're so slavish to the impossibly narrow parameters that somehow have come to govern who boys can be.

10,000 Dresses

I hear you, but sometimes I fear that books which are designed to have positive lessons can actually inadvertently do an injustice by heightening kid's awareness of the social structures that the book itself is trying to get them to work around.

That strikes at the heart of things I have agonized over most post-publication.

In particular, I have worried about the notion of introducing the "rules" to blissfully unaware - and wonderfully so - children, and thereby tainting in some way their experience of what it means to exist among their peers. I struggled mightily with that piece, and I’m not sure I got it right. But ultimately I concluded that there is so much information that children - and all of us, really - passively receive and digest, and I wanted to name some of it.

It became clear to me that many young children I encountered - not least of all my own - absorb these pre-received narratives about gender and clothing and color and play and the scope that is allowed for all of these things, so I decided that given the messages I was ultimately trying to send, the greater danger lay in not pointing out and laying bare these inequities.

To a degree, that piece was also directed to adult readers, who often unthinkingly reinforce these norms.

But yes, I fear hearing that a child reader who was blissfully floating along in a gender blind way was rudely shocked into some of the ugly realities of the world by reading my book.

I'm always morbidly curious about the negative feedback authors of controversial books must receive. Has Roland Humphrey managed to incite any spiteful comments? Was that something you were expecting, perhaps bracing yourself for?

I've been pleasantly surprised by the positive feedback. No doubt there are detractors, but they've been remarkably silent, so far. I wasn't sure that I'd get any feedback, positive or negative, so it wasn't something I thought much about in advance, but once I started getting some response, I did gird myself for negativity.

For whatever reason, this time the lovers have been far more vocal than the haters!

Roland Humphrey is Wearing a WHAT?

What about with other children?

I've done lots of readings at schools and bookstores, and the experiences have surprised me. I did wonder if I'd encounter kids who'd roll their eyes at the story or make snide remarks. Perhaps because I've been reading to younger kids - elementary age - that hasn't happened.

What has happened, and which floored me at first, was that the floodgates opened.

Usually there are a few shy comments about how "my brother likes pink," or "my brother likes to wear girls' swimsuits," etc.( and it has been kind of amazing to hear about how many of these little "pink boys" are out there) but usually it segues into a very broad conversation about the small and large unkindnesses children endure no matter what they wear and how they present themselves.

Kids pick up on the universality of the acceptance themes and seem to be really hungry to talk about the slings and arrows that have bruised their small hearts. It has been a tremendous honor to be trusted with some of those stories. I was expecting more narrow questions about why Roland liked girls' clothes etc., but these kids have been so savvy and have just honed in on the heart of the story and message and have been really honest in sharing how their own experiences have resembled the character's. It has been an unexpected privilege to hold those stories with the kids.

Were you a writer before you came up with the idea for doing this book?

No, I practiced law for 10 years but always appreciated good writing, whether I was trying to do it as a brief or motions writer or as a reader evaluating petitions and motions for Colorado's state supreme court, which reinforced in me a general commitment to equality and social justice.

Did you or your husband have any experiences as children that help you realte to your son now?

The context is different, but my husband had experiences which allowed him to not really care about how our son wanting to don a dress looks to others, but to focus on how things felt. He himself understands the pain of being different.

He was born with microtia, a congenital deformity where the outer ear is underdeveloped. He went through numerous surgeries to have an ear (non functional) constructed, and he arrived at his first day of kindergarten with his head swathed in bandages. Needless to say, he endured years of incredibly painful taunting. As an adult, he recognizes that he earned much of value through the ordeal, namely tremendous empathy and independence - not caring about what others think. Through a wrenching early experience, a remarkable human being was forged.

As for me, I always felt the weight of others' plights very acutely. I was a very sensitive child and took it very personally when the mean girls of my school would ridicule my clothes, which were inevitably 10 year old hand-me-downs from cousins and sisters since money was tight and we couldn't afford fancy new duds.

I noted that you choose girls as the primary antagonists in the story. Why was that?

That was motivated by what reflected my son's experience at the time I wrote the book. In the end phases of his preschool life and just before he moved into kindergarten, it was striking to note how girls uniformly called him out on whichever ways - small or large - that he didn't conform to gender norms. At the time, the boys he knew either didn't notice or didn't care or perhaps handled their disequilibrium in a way that my son didn't notice.

As I was writing the book, I wondered whether I should change one of the antagonists to be male, because I didn't want to malign all girls. Most of them, frankly, have been fabulously supportive. But as I was writing, I wasn't sure that the book would go any further than my son's nightstand, and so I wanted it to reflect what had been true of his experience at the time. With the benefit of hindsight, I would make that change if I had to do it all over again.

Roland Humphrey is Wearing a WHAT?

Your most recent blog post is bittersweet. You talk about how – due to peer pressure - your son has now decided to not dress as flamboyantly at school, and now desires to fit in. You write:

I’m trying to remind myself that perhaps a gentle awakening into the realities of the world is not an altogether bad thing, because the truth is that while the world is changing, the space that sparkly little dudes can occupy is still so very damn small, in spite of the efforts of so many of us to expand it.

What are your feelings about that as a writer? Does that take away any of the fire behind the Roland Humphrey book?

My own approach as an author isn't altered by my son's experience. At least, I don’t think it is. If anything, it strengthens my resolve to raise questions and crack apart latent assumptions since they reach children so early, and writers have some power to open minds to new ways of thinking. So for me it doesn't take away any of the fire behind Roland Humphrey, but as a writer I haven't figured out where it takes me next - my in-progress works predate the blog post. As both a writer and mother, so much is in flux at the moment.

I think that these feelings of unease and discomfort give rise to interesting questions that I hope I am able to mine for future work. Much of this takes a while to settle, in either role. I guess the question of what direction my future work will take is an open one, and hopefully it'll evolve organically and in response to what I see in the world.

Part of the Conversations with Storytellers series.

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