Birds, Bees, and Unicorns: An Interview with Cory Silverberg

Birds, Bees, and Unicorns: An Interview with Cory Silverberg

For any parents of trans youth who are interested in hearing Cory answer questions specific to our children, please send me an email and I will share dates and times. Anyone attending may maintain their anonymity and submit questions to Cory in advance of the call.

About a year ago, I wrote an essay for Cosmo about struggling through the sex talk with my transgender son. I think, considering the circumstances and my knowledge at that time, I did the best job I could. It's not easy having to explain the birds and bees. And the unicorns! Fortunately, Cory Silverberg, a sexuality educator, author and trainer read my essay and reached out to offer me any help and advice that he could. He managed to explain sexuality without excluding any one of the beautiful and diverse people in our world. That's hard to do!

My son and I read his first book, What Makes a Baby, nearly a dozen times. He loved the part when the sperm and the egg would tell their stories to each other. He couldn't wait to get his hands on Sex is a Funny Word. The second egg-and-sperm-meet-share-stories-copybook offers a safe and positive way of addressing sex, our bodies, touch, and respect, without talking down to children or talking over their heads. As a matter of fact, I learned a TON by reading Cory's book.

His books aren't only for trans youth, of course. But they provide kids like my son characters that they can relate to. So I asked if he would be willing to answer a few questions for my readers, to introduce his work and why its so important.

Q: Why did you decide to write a book series for children about sex? Aren’t there already books out there that do that? What makes yours unique?

There are some books. Not enough, but some.  But I wanted books that would have worked for me when I was a kid.  I grew up in the 70s and while I wasn’t called it back then, I was gender non-conforming.  Back then everyone thought I was gay.  Trans people and gender diversity wasn’t on anyone’s radar in the community I was raised in.

So even though I had access to the books that were out there, I never found myself in any of them and subsequently I sort of backed out of being social altogether.

As a queer adult, one with lots of trans and queer families as part of my community, I wanted to make a book that I would feel comfortable reading with the kids in my life.

All the other books for kids that are out there are both gender normative and heteronormative.  Our books aren’t either. They don’t center one, normative experience, and tell kids, “this is how it’s going to look for you.”  Instead they share information about lots of different possibilities, and then open up the conversation for kids and their parents/grandparents/caregivers to have.

Q: Have you received any push-back over the material in either of the books, from schools, libraries, organizations? How have you handled it, if so?

Remarkably the answer is no.  We used crowdfunding to self publisher our first book, What Makes a Baby, and during the Kickstarter campaign some folks from Glenn Beck’s organization and from some other anti-choice group posted about the project, describing it as something intended to destroy the fabric of marriage (what is that fabric?  Is it rayon?)

But since then I honestly haven’t been aware of any push back. If you go on Amazon and read the reviews there are individuals who think its awful to be writing for gender diverse and trans youth, but (obviously) I don’t care what they think, and I wouldn’t describe that as organized push back.

Q: You’ve written two books in the series so far, What Makes a Baby and Sex is a Funny Word. How did you decide that What Makes a Baby was a book that children needed?

Originally I wrote it for a trans family that I’m very close with.  The dad is trans and the mom isn’t and they had a 4-year-old at the time and were about to have their second child. Their 4-year-old had questions and there wasn’t a book out there that included his family.  All the books about how babies are what-makes-a-baby-cover-1made talk about a mom (with eggs) and a dad (with sperm) and paint this pretty, and unrealistic, picture of what makes a baby.  I wanted my 4-year-old friend to see himself and his family in a book that would also let his parents do the important sex education they wanted to do with him, which was to talk about how babies are made.

I knew it was needed, but didn’t have any idea how badly.  When we launched our crowdfunding project we wanted to raise $9,500 in 30 days.  We raised that much in the first 24 hours and by the end of the month had raised over $65,000.

What Makes a Baby was needed not only by families with trans and gender diverse people in them, but by single parent families, families that had adopted, and of course all the straight families that are also getting help to make a baby.

Q: Now about Sex is a Funny Word… how did you come up with the name? What inspired the topic?

siafw-cover-finalThe title is the place I start any conversation with kids about sex or gender.  Sex IS a funny word.  For adolescents it’s often funny in a tittering, embarrassed way.  But for everyone it’s funny haha and funny strange.  And, most importantly, it’s just a word.  We tend to think of sex as some natural scientific phenomenon.  Sex is word that we have decided describes many things.  But what those things are is what matters most, not what we call them.  By starting with language I’m giving kids at an early age, the tools for critical thinking that they need to navigate a world that is inhospitable to so many of them.

The topics we cover in Sex Is a Funny Word were chosen to fill another need.  Currently all the books for kids about sexuality go from reproduction directly to puberty.  But there are so many experiences our pre-pubertal kids have, especially around gender, that are missing.  It doesn’t make sense to talk to kids about gender only after puberty. And you can talk with a 8 year old about touch and consent without making it about sexual activity.  We felt like there was a book missing just in terms of content, let alone being trans inclusive.  So that’s where we started with the second book.

Q: In the book, you have four main characters, can you share those four characters’ backgrounds? How did you develop those characters and why do you feel kids relate to them so well?

I’m not sure how much into their backgrounds you want me to go!  I feel like the characters are part of my life and there’s a lot we haven’t heard about them yet.

But briefly, Mimi was adopted by two dads from China.  She is a fierce femme (for a 9-year-old), and she's the first in the group to have a crush, which becomes the subject of a later chapter in the book.

Cooper lives with his mom, step-dad, several dogs and cats and more siblings than he'd like.  He's the kid who was always treated as if he knew things and as a result he's a sweet know-it-all who actually misses a lot.siafw-boysgirlsall-of-us

Omar was born here but his parents are both from Pakistan.  He is precocious and somewhat socially avoidant.  He's very literal and loves to learn.

Zai is being raised by a single mom (with lots of other family helping out).  Zai doesn't use any words to identity their gender, neither does Zai's mom, but Zai is definitely non-binary at this point.

I think kids relate to the characters because they are so different and each a little weird.  Also, I love talking to and playing with 7-10 year olds, so I have their voices floating in my head much of the time.  So I hope the characters feel real.

Q: My son particularly loved the section on bottoms, he has a real obsession with all things related to that area, like I’m sure most 8 year olds do. Have you found that any particular section in the book is more a favorite of kids or parents than any others?

The bottoms page is most kids favorite!  Parents have told me that they look at that page with their kids and talk about whose bum looks like who in the family (or other people they know).  Of course this is done with a lot of giggling and laughter, which I love.  Talking about this stuff can be so difficult but it's also really silly.  Our bodies ARE weird and funny.

bottomsKids seem to gravitate to certain characters and pictures.  So I know a lot of kids who love the chapter about the word sexy, because of the illustrations.  That chapter is also one parents thank me for because it's one of those modern sex education problems.  Our kids are using the word sexy like we never did, and knowing how to navigate it without simply shutting down the conversation is hard.  So those 4 pages are pretty helpful.

Q: Are the books available in schools and libraries? How have schools and libraries responded to having them? And if they aren’t, how can we help in making that happen?

Because our most recent book, Sex Is a Funny Word, was named a Stonewall Honor Book by the American Library Association it’s now in libraries across the US and Canada. I know the books are in a lot of school libraries in Canada, and I know some private schools in New York that have them, but I don't know if they have made their way into public school libraries.

I get lots of positive feedback from librarians.  I haven't heard of it being pulled from any libraries yet, but I also think librarians are good at being strategic.

If you have a school age kid I think it's great to talk to the school librarian and ask about what books they have that represent (and hopefully celebrate) gender diversity.  Our books are just two of a handful that are now available with more coming soon.  Your school librarian may not know about them so the place to start is with a recommended readling list.  And, of course, if you have the money to do so, you can offer to donate a few books, which makes it harder for them to say no!

Q: I’ve heard it from a good source that there is a third book coming out in the series. Think you can share a little about that?

Yes!  We're working on it now.  It will be for puberty age kids. So it will cover puberty, it will also cover reproduction in more detail than we did in our first book, and it will help parents talk about some of the hardest things to talk about with pre-teens, for example pornography.  This is another modern sex education issue. If your kid spends any time alone online then it's time to talk to them, in age appropriate ways, about pornography.  Because they will see it.  And it's much better for them to know something about it before they do.

Q: Why should parents of trans or gender diverse kids read these books?

I'm biased, of course, but I think for starters reading these books helps us as grown-ups think through our own issues, and prepares us to answer the really hard questions are kids pose to us.  When you grown up knowing you are different, and that difference is about gender, it is easy to feel like nothing fits.  We aren't at the point where trans culture is richly extending into children's reading and viewing material, and that means that our kids aren't seeing themselves.  And that sense of being invisible is painful.  It also makes it harder to figure out who you are and imagine your future (not impossible, just harder).

So the first advice I give to parents of trans or gender diverse kids is to immerse themselves for a while in trans culture.  Watch movies, read a few books, go online and look at art or comics. For me trans culture means culture being produced by trans people, not just culture about trans people.

Having said that, our books might not be the right fit for everyone, which is why we need more than just these two books.  I have no doubt that ten years from now we'll have a half dozen books, each taking their own perspective.

c-silverberg-cropCory Silverberg is a sexuality educator, author, and trainer. He received his Masters of Education from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and trains across North America on sexuality, gender, access and inclusion. He is currently writing a series of three trans inclusive books for children about sexuality for Seven Stories Press.  The second, Sex Is a Funny Word was released in 2015 and was named a Stonewall Honor Book by the American Library Association

 

 Don't miss either of my Listen to Your Mother Videos: Best Laid Plans and Welcome to My Holland.

Interested in learning more about my son? Read Portrait of a Transgender Child.  You can read my latest post here: Our new wedding canvas is a tribute to my trans son

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Photos courtesy of Cory Silverberg

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