Humanist EDge: We Can All Be Super Princesses

Super Princess Saves the Night is a children’s book teaching the value of embracing our differences and loving people for who they are. The story features a trans/gender non-conforming child, her supportive parents, her big dog, and a variety of magical household items. All proceeds from the recently published book benefit the Trans Women of Color Collective (TWOCC), a global initiative that works to uplift the narratives, lived experiences, and leadership of trans and gender non-conforming people of color. I recently had the opportunity to interview author Shauna Gordon-McKeon and TWOCC Executive Director Lourdes Ashley Hunter and jumped at the chance to learn more about the book and TWOCC (pronounced “tee-wok”).

Emily Newman: Thank you both for talking about this wonderful book and the organization its proceeds support. How did this project get started? What inspired you to make this book?

Shauna Gordon-McKeon: I have some close friends with kids—their oldest child is about eight years old—and I was paying attention as the kids started getting into reading children’s books and interacting with the world in the way that toddlers and little kids do. I was honestly surprised at just how gendered everything was, even though my friends were doing their best to let the kids express themselves however they wanted to, the world around them was just insistent on putting them into these boxes. And there weren’t a lot of children’s books around to counteract that. So I thought, well, I could do a little bit to change that and create a space that’s more welcoming and reflective of the real world by writing a book.

I started writing the story in December 2014. I originally submitted it to publishing companies and got a bunch of nice form rejection letters. Then I decided to go the self-publishing route and I found Elena Popova to illustrate.

EN: I’d love to know how you developed your protagonist, Sam, known through various sections of the story by their alter-ego, Super Princess.

SG-M: I was interested in this idea of the princess because it’s all over children’s literature and culture in general. I wanted to represent the idea that everyone can inhabit this princess character; everyone gets a chance to be a princess. I had this mental image of a kid dressed up in the kind of princess costume they would make if they didn’t have access to a full store-bought costume. I liked the idea of combining the superhero archetype and princess archetype to form your identity. Once I had Super Princess figured out, I thought about the story and what is Sam like when not being Super Princess and what her family is like.

EN: In the book, you refer to Super Princess as “she,” but never use a pronoun for Sam. How would you identify Sam’s gender?

SG-M: I purposefully left it open, in part because Sam is at an age when kids explore their identity. Some kids have a really strong sense of who they are and others just want to try out different things. I wanted to write it in such a way that the maximum number of kids could see themselves in Sam. So I figured not using a pronoun would make it easier for people who use all different kids of pronouns to identify. I often use “she” or “they” but I think there’s fluidity.

EN: I also want to hear about working with illustrator Elena Popova to bring Sam to life. How were those initial discussions on what you envisioned?

SG-M: Elena is a fantastic illustrator. I would describe what I was imagining, she would sketch it out, we’d go back and forth making sure the content of the scene was what we wanted, and then she’d disappear and return with a beautiful, breathtaking illustration. There’s a sense of magic to some of the scenes and I had a picture in my head that I was nervous I wouldn’t be able to get down on paper. Elena managed to capture that magic and honestly I just want to hang up all her work on my walls.

EN: How did the relationship with TWOCC develop? Were they in your mind while working on the book or did that come later?

SG-M: That relationship is relatively recent, it was definitely after I finished the book. As I was making it, I was thinking that the book on its own would have meaning for those who read it but it’s just one book. If I partnered with an organization, then whatever money the book made would also contribute to creating a more welcoming, diverse world where people are supported in being themselves. Because I’m a cis-gender person, I didn’t want to be the one deciding where the resources went so I looked for an organization to partner with that had more expertise on the matter. That’s how I ended up with TWOCC.

Lourdes Ashley Hunter: When Shauna approached me with the book, I was excited and my colleagues and I were thinking, “what if this book were around when we were kids”? This is not just a book for transgender kids to see themselves reflected. This is not just a book for parents of trans children to see themselves and how they can support their kids. This book is for kids who are not trans to see kids who are trans and non-binary exploring their identity without the pressure of conforming to gender binaries.

The book proceeds are going to work to develop a writing camp or clinic for young trans and non-binary folks to express themselves and tell their stories through art with a social justice lens. What’s also impactful is that Sam is a black or brown child and we never see those stories. I think one of the first things I noticed was Sam’s skin color and I immediately saw myself reflected. This book is even going to impact older trans people to share with their families and show that this is how we create a world where folks are affirmed, celebrated, and uplifted. It has the potential to reduce suicide among trans people, end bullying in schools, and enable kids to question and explore who they are.

TWOCC was created in 2013 after brutal murder of Islan Nettles, a twenty-one-year old black trans woman. Our community came together to create spaces for healing from trauma and find ways to navigate sanctioned violence and oppression and to create economic sustainability in a country where it’s legal in twenty-nine states to discriminate against transgender people accessing jobs, healthcare, housing, and education. We wanted to be able to provide opportunities for young trans people to see themselves reflected and have a voice to share their experiences.

EN: While the book is for children, there is also a strong message to the parents to actively show their support and love. Can you speak to how you developed Sam’s parents?

SG-M: There are three times in a row where something unusual happens that scares Ajax [the dog] but Super Princess responds with empathy to try to understand what’s going on, who these things are, and what they want. She is able to turn a somewhat scary situation into a happy celebratory event by approaching it with an open heart. Like first they have a bubble bath, then a dance party, and a reading party. And I wanted to mirror that with Sam and their parents where Sam’s a little nervous about introducing Super Princess and their parents approach it with a loving heart to understand who Sam is and what Sam wants to be. They end up in this happy place in the park [spoiler alert: all dressed as Super Princess]. Sam has this empathetic and loving nature so it makes sense they’d be raised by empathetic and loving parents. I definitely wanted the parents’ love and acceptance to be a part of the story because the love that you have in your family is so important to your happiness and flourishing.

LAH: What we see in trans communities and particularly in research around socio-economic development of trans kids into adulthood is the importance of familial and social support. All children need to have that support as they grow up to have more successful lives, more fruitful, fulfilling lives. And it’s so important that we remember to support trans kids and provide resources for parents and educators. What would our world look like if we taught our children to imagine, be bold, and move away from the gendered ways of learning? As Shauna mentioned, as she looked at children’s books, gender roles are socially constructed and they are instilled in us even before we’re born. It’s important that this book is showing the support of families because that’s a message we haven’t seen in discussion around gender identity and this move towards non-binary, gender nonconforming, and trans identities.

EN: What is next for the book? Do you have plans for events or getting the book into libraries and schools? How can people interested in obtaining or sharing the book do so?

SG-M: The book’s website has link to purchase the book or message us directly. We recommend people contact their local libraries, school libraries, community centers, etc. and see if they have a budget for requesting books and ask that they request the book. Or if people want to do donations they can reach out to us directly and potentially we can help them donate within their budget.

LAH: TWOCC has been working on a promotion strategy to get books into LGBTQ centers, day care centers, and children’s units in hospitals across the country. Many of our donors already work in these industries so we’re tapping them to push opportunities for the book to become visible and shared. We already do lots of book events with local artists and grassroots activities so we’re going to have the book available at our different events. Not only is the book beautifully written but also the illustrations are on point and the message is amazing.