Jessica Walton is an English teacher and picture book author, and Introducing Teddy is her first book. Jess’ parent Tina came out as a trans woman about five years ago. A few years later, when her wife was pregnant with their first child, Jess started looking for picture books that reflected the diversity of her family. She couldn’t find any picture books for young children with trans and gender diverse characters, so she wrote one herself. Jess also writes about disability, LGBTI issues, and the intersections between her disabled and queer experiences. She lives in Melbourne, Australia with her wife and two children.
Introducing Teddy: A gentle story about gender and friendship
Teddy knows in her heart that she is a girl, not a boy.
Will her friends understand?
Will they call her Tilly instead of Thomas?
Introducing Teddy introduces the youngest readers to understanding gender identity and transition in an accessible and heart-warming story about being true to yourself and being a good friend.
What motivated you to write a book(s) that is specifically inclusive of LGBTQ families/ issues?
I wanted inclusive, diverse books for our kids because there’s a lot of diversity just within my own little family. I’m bisexual and disabled, my wife is gay and my dad is a trans woman. When my wife was pregnant with our first child, we started looking for picture books that represented and reflected that diversity in our family and the community more broadly. We found picture books with gay and lesbian characters and disabled characters, but very few with transgender characters. The ones we did find were aimed at older children. We wanted something simple, sweet and positive that I could read to my toddler. I decided I’d try writing one. I thought about what Errol would enjoy reading (teddy bears! Kids named after my son and niece!). I thought carefully about how I could honor my dad’s courage in coming out, and model the acceptance and love that LGBTQ people deserve from their friends and families in the story. I wrote this book for my son and my dad, and if they’d ended up being the only ones reading it, I’d have been happy.
Thankfully I found an incredibly talented illustrator, Dougal MacPherson, and the rest is history. The book keeps surprising me: first, it did well on Kickstarter, then it got published by Bloomsbury, and next it will be translated into nine different languages! The exciting thing about all of this is that it’s not just LGBTQ families buying this book. A lot of parents know that reading books to their children with the same family over and over again sends the message that that one type family is the default or the norm, so they’re now actively seeking a more diverse collection of books for their children. That gives me a lot of hope for the future.
What do you personally feel makes a family?
Sometimes family is something you’re born into, other times it’s something you create or build. Ideally, it’s based on unconditional love and a real commitment to one another. It requires time spent together, making memories and forming strong bonds that can withstand hardship. I think of my family as a group of people who truly get me. They really do know the real me, flaws and all, and they love me.
What does “equality” look like to you?
Equality and social justice must go hand in hand. An equal society is one where historical injustices and inequalities are acknowledged, where currently marginalized and disadvantaged voices are empowered & listened to, where institutional and cultural bias and structural inequalities are examined and addressed, where inclusivity and diversity are celebrated, and where everyone feels free to be themselves and love who they love as long as they’re not harming others.
Whose books do you admire and why?
I’ve just been to a Roald Dahl retrospective tonight, so he’s on my mind. His books were a big influence on me as a child, especially Matilda. I loved reading about the triumph of the underdog, an intelligent, spirited little girl, interested in learning and books and hampered in those pursuits by mean parents and a terrifying educator. All of Dahl’s books are fun, irreverent and better read aloud. Dahl was a wordsmith but he was also someone who got children. There are some great books with rainbow families that I’m loving right now: Zak’s Safari by Christy Tyner, illustrated by Ciaee; Just the way we are by Jessica Shirvington, illustrated by Claire Robertson; Mummy and Mumma get Married by Roz Hopkins and Natalie Winter, illustrated by Cara King; and Stella Brings the Family: A tale of two dads on Mother’s Day by Miriam Baker Schiffer, illustrated by Holly Clifton-Brown.
What’s coming up next for you?
I’m working on a few picture book ideas. I’d like to write more adventures for Tilly and her friends, but I’m also keen to write a story about an amputee like me!