In June of 2018, Vanessa Ford and her husband JR were sitting on the porch of Vanessa’s childhood home in New Hampshire when they decided to do something bold. That “something” was to write a picture book.
Eight hours later, the couple (who never even considered writing a book prior to that) were holding the first draft of their book, initially titled “I Love Who I Am”, based on a picture their youngest child had drawn two years prior to their 2018 “writing palooza” on the porch.
On the night of that child’s 4th birthday in March 2015, they looked their mother straight in the eye (still wearing their favorite Elsa gown from the day’s birthday festivities) and proudly declared, “Mom, I’m not a boy. I’m a girl. In my heart and in my brain.”
Amongst the many things the Fords did to support their child, they read all of the picture books they could find with gender non-confirming characters. Although the selection of books was growing, they felt there was still a narrative missing. They found, at the time, that there were no stories of transgender boys or transgender kids of color. “So let’s write it,” they agreed. While they didn’t have a transgender boy, their own child’s transition guided their work, along with the stories of many others they knew and interviewed. Those four little words set them off on a journey which came to fruition in fall of 2021 when their beautifully written and illustrated picture book Calvin was released into the world.
Recently, I had the honor of interviewing Vanessa Ford virtually, and I’m beyond excited to share not only her family’s incredible story, but also their writing-to-publishing adventure.
Keri: Please tell me how you (and JR) got from “So, let’s write it!” in 2018 to award-winning picture book authors in 2021.
Vanessa Ford (laughs): It started with “Ok, we’ve got a draft, now what?” My networking brain kicked into gear. I started following agents, publishers, other authors, PB Chat, MG Chat, Writing Contests, AM Query, (just to name a few!) on Twitter. I took some classes at Grub Street in Boston. I went on query tracker and tried to find agents who were looking for LGBTQ+ children’s books. I wasn’t in a critique group (KD gasps, VF pauses) but I sent drafts to a lot of people, including trans-adults, and parents with trans-kids. We had many pre-readers and received a lot of feedback. It took about 6 months to transform that first draft into a manuscript fit to query agents. A writer friend recommended we reach out to Aevitas Creative and soon we found ourselves across the table from Rick Richter, who brought And Tango Makes Three to the market in 2005. In January of 2019, Ricther and Aevitas Agent Maggie Cooper took us on.
The manuscript needed a lot of work! JR and I were not authors. We spent about three to four months, back and forth, getting the manuscript ready to submit to publishing houses. The manuscript ended up going to auction with three publishing houses. I know our path to publishing was pretty short and smooth compared to how it normally goes. I really think it was a matter of the right story, at the right time, and the fact that we have a platform. Here is a link to our website: https://www.jrandvanessaford.com/calvin
KD interjects (as she’s known to do): Your website is incredible, it includes so many valuable resources for LBGTQ+ families and individuals. I’m so impressed and inspired that you’ve shared your experience through a variety of outlets, including every major U.S. newspaper, television interviews, and documentaries.
VF: Thank you! Our email is also on the website, we read and answer it regularly. We love to hear from people.
KD: So, let’s go back to the part where your very first picture book manuscript went to auction (sigh). How did you choose a publisher?
VF: We chose Putnam, an imprint of Penguin Random House, namely because we wanted as much reach as possible for Calvin, and they are a big publisher. We loved working with editor Stacey Barney (who is now Associate Publisher at Nancy Paulsen.) The editing process took months and got down to specific words, punctuation, and getting rid of illustrator notes.
KD: Illo notes! Perfect segue! What was your experience working with iIlustrator Kayla Harren?
VF: One of the first things the Penguin team did was give us a list of illustrators they thought could bring Calvin to life. It was really, really hard to decide. There was just something about Kayla’s work that we just they loved. There was this cuteness, like realism with some sweetness. The characters seemed to come off the page. We had some “must haves” for the illustrations: African American boy, bi-racial family, between 5 and 8 years old, in a city, grandparents are the dad’s grandparents (African-American), name tags on the teachers had to say “Mr. T” and “Miss C.” because those were Ellie’s teachers. We also wanted Calvin to wear interesting clothes, for any gender.
KD: You mentioned having to get rid of illustrator notes. As part of a kid-lit critique group, we are always discussing illustrator notes, whether there are too many? Too few? As writers, we have to tell the story but also leave room for the illustrator’s creative genius.
VF: Yeah, exactly. In the first draft, not knowing any better, we gave illustrator notes for every thing on every page, and the final draft that went to the publisher and then on to the illustrator, hardly had any notes at all. The hardest part was getting rid of them (illo notes) and making sure the story still made sense. But, when I saw Kayla’s sketches it all made came together. One of our favorite parts of the story is when Calvin’s Grandfather gives him a haircut and Calvin’s Grandmother holds up the mirror for Calvin. We had originally envisioned a barber shop, it never occurred to us that it could happen anywhere else. But Kayla imagined Calvin’s haircut as a part of that evening at home and brought the idea to us. We thought it was perfect.
KD: Any other masterpieces in the works?
VF: Yes! Hopefully! I’m working on a full-length book for teachers on supporting trans kids in schools (Jossey-Bass 2024) and another book for children, although it’s still in conceptualization phase! The initial feedback we got from the editor and publisher on that project was that the story had “too much meat on it” to be a children’s book and asked us to “graphic novelize it”. Which is something we’re currently trying to figure out.
KD: (After a shameless plug to join the Andover Critique Group)…What does Ellie think about their parents writing Calvin?
VF: When we first started writing the book, Ellie was totally on board. Then they had some hesitation, as it’s very public. But it was purposefully not a biography, we just wanted to use our experience as parents of a transgender child to inform the book. Once we got the illustrations in and read it, Ellie wanted everyone to read it. They asked to be the first person to hold the actual book. I don’t know that they understand the gravity of the book, but Ellie is very, very proud of Calvin.
“My 13-year-old son is all about basketball, but he does think it’s pretty cool that Calvin has been translated into three languages and is about to be translated into a fourth!”
KD: What do you wish people knew about trans-gender children?
VF: I wish parents, and teachers and the whole world knew that trans-gender children are so uniquely in tune with who they are, that they have so much to offer the world. They just need safe spaces to thrive.
KD: That gave me goosebumps!
PS: Vanessa, you mentioned to me a couple of times during our interview, that you still have trouble considering yourself a “real author” (which is crazy-pants, of course you are!). You attribute your success with Calvin to having a platform and the right story. Sure, that helped. But I don’t think you’re giving yourself (or your husband) enough credit. Together, you wrote a powerful, affirming, award-winning story. You put yourselves out there. And because of that, there are kids all over the world who will finally see themselves in a book.
Thank you for sharing your story with the Writer’s Rumpus audience.