“I never expected to find characters like me…” Guest Post by Jess Walton #DiversityMonth

Photo by Fergus Randall

Photo by Fergus Randall

Jessica Walton is a picture book author, and Introducing Teddy is her first book. Jess is also a cancer survivor, amputee, queer, daughter of a trans parent, feminist and teacher. As well as picture books, Jess writes about disability, LGBTI issues, and the intersections between her disabled and queer experiences. She is a sensitivity reader for manuscripts featuring amputee and queer characters, and reviews published books with amputee characters.

@JessHealyWalton

 

“I never expected to find characters like me…”
Guest Post by Jess Walton

When I had my leg amputated, I never expected to find characters like me at the centre of books and movies, because I didn’t recognise my body as something a main character would walk around in anymore. A lack of diversity in kids’ books and movies is powerful: disabled kids like me who don’t fit the norm grow up to understand they’re not main character material, and they don’t get to be the hero. Occasionally there was a villain (peg legged pirates, anyone?), or a two-dimensional plot-device tragedy/inspiration character, but they were never believable and they didn’t represent me and my life experiences. Sometimes an amputee was there to shock or for comedic value; the first amputee I ever saw in a film was the Black Knight in Monty Python’s The Holy Grail. It is a rather wonderful scene and I love it, but it certainly wasn’t a character I could relate to. The second leg amputee I saw on screen was in Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo. That character was mentioned to me in conversations with other teenagers constantly for about a year after Deuce Bigalow came out, particularly boys: ‘Have you see the film about the male prostitute? It has an amputee in it! There’s this funny sex scene where her prosthetic leg…’ Yeah. I was 15, insecure about my disabled body, and that representation was damaging to me instead of helpful.

So films were not a place I could go to for good amputee representation. What about books, then? I read none as a child or teenager. It’s only in adulthood that I’ve had the joy of reading Otherbound by Corrine Duyvis, A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman, and Stone Key by Isobelle Carmody. All of these feature amputees, two of them main characters. None of these authors are amputees, but they’ve managed to write these characters well. I felt wonder while I read them, and also grief for the child that never got their hands on these books when they needed a mirror most. I wasn’t connected to the disabled and amputee communities at all until my twenties, so reading about people like me might have made me feel less alone in my struggles and experiences as an amputee. I might have been able to imagine futures for myself more easily and with more confidence. I needed to read about and see amputees dealing with amputation and the difficulties of wearing a prosthetic leg, amputee teens grappling with body confidence and disability pride, amputees dating and falling in love and having relationships and families, amputees working and travelling and running and dancing.

I’ve found some really good picture books with disabled characters in the last few years, though only one with a leg amputee: in The Very Wonky Donkey by Craig Smith and illustrated by Katz Cowley, a picture book my son adores, the farting, cranky donkey has a prosthetic leg. Even that feels like a victory to a representation-starved leg amputee! Every time we read it, my son says, ‘just like mummy!’ so I know that he’s taking in messages about amputee representation in the books he reads, even at 2 years old.

I think I’d keel over from shock if I ever found a novel about a queer amputee like me. Two important aspects of my identity represented on the page? Way too much to ask! I think I’d have to write the book myself to see it in my lifetime. Maybe I will write it! It’s not such a shocking idea: I’ve taken this ‘write into the gaps’ approach once before, and I’m not the only person who became an author to fill a gap. My dad had come out as a trans woman a few years before my wife was pregnant with our first child. I started collecting picture books that had families and characters that weren’t all white, straight, cisgender and able bodied, so that my family’s diversity would be represented in the books we read our child. When I couldn’t find any books for young children with transgender characters, I wrote one called Introducing Teddy (illustrated by Dougal Macpherson) and published it as a Kickstarter project; it was picked up by Bloomsbury and has since been published in more than ten countries. It turns out other people were looking for picture books with transgender characters too!

Introducing Teddy

Introducing Teddy

I wrote Introducing Teddy because I wanted my son to know right from the very beginning that my dad is an amazing woman who had the courage to be herself in a world that is not fully accepting of trans people, that YOU get to decide who you are and how you express yourself, and that true friendship and unconditional love cannot be shaken by someone’s gender identity or a change of name and pronouns. I hope that one day Introducing Teddy will be one of many picture books with trans and gender diverse characters aimed at young children. It’ll happen. It’s happening already.

Some authors (here’s looking at you, Rosoff and Shriver) talk about the push for good representation of diversity like it’s a pain in their behinds, but for those of us who have spent our whole lives waiting to be main character material, the push couldn’t come soon enough. We need representation. We deserve it. And it’s not just us that need these characters; it’s kids who do fit the norm, who need insight into how other people live so that they can be more open minded, kind hearted, inclusive members of society. If celebrated white, straight, cis, able bodied authors don’t want to write diverse characters, or don’t want to write them with sensitivity and care for the people represented in their stories, they can go on doing whatever they like. I wish they’d just stop complaining about it. The rest of us are getting on with finding and celebrating the books that are finally putting diverse characters at the centre of stories.

I’m currently working on a picture book about an amputee who learns to run. The book will be dedicated to the small child grappling with cancer and amputation and prosthetic beasties who never read a book about herself, and to all the other young amputees who need mirrors as well as windows on their bookshelves. Maybe I’ll get to them before they see Monty Python’s Holy Grail or Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigalo. We can only hope.

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Errol and his teddy, Thomas, are best friends who do everything together. Whether it’s riding a bike, playing in the tree house, having a tea party or all of the above, every day holds something fun to do together.

One sunny day, Errol finds that Thomas the Teddy is sad, and Errol can’t figure out why. Then Thomas the Teddy finally tells Errol what Teddy has been afraid to say: ‘In my heart, I’ve always known that I’m a girl teddy, not a boy teddy. I wish my name was Tilly.’ And Errol says, ‘I don’t care if you’re a girl teddy or a boy teddy! What matters is that you are my friend.’

A sweet and gentle story about being true to yourself and being a good friend, Introducing Teddy can also help children understand gender identity.

 

 

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