Hazel Edwards discusses collaboration and controversy

Hazel EdwardsOn the day that prolific Australian author, Hazel Edwards was honoured with an Order of Australia Medal for services to literature, her latest young adult novel was receiving a very different distinction at the other end of the country.

Hazel Edwards has written more than 200 books, including the hugely popular Hippopotamus picture book series, but none has provoked the reaction of f2m: the boy within. The book, co-written by Ryan Kennedy, tells the story of Skye who becomes Finn and transitions from female to male.

F2m prompted heart-felt messages of thanks from teenagers facing gender challenges of their own, but it also provoked a hostile reaction from other places.

F2m: the boy within was banned from a library in North Queensland on the day Hazel Edwards was awarded her OAM. Elsewhere, it was thrown in the bin by a teacher who described it as ‘rubbish,’ and left off library lists because of concerns over the sensitive subject matter.

But for Hazel Edwards and Ryan Edwards the story was too important to allow it to be smothered by fear. So, they have extended their project. Ftm: the boy within is now the subject of a documentary and a YouTube clip which highlight the importance of fiction in dealing with sensitive personal issues.

Hazel Edwards chats with me today, about f2m: the boy within, the documentary and diversity.

You are best known for your delightful picture books featuring a cake-eating hippo. What prompted you to write about gender transitioning?

f2mDocumentary-Image-PAGEFtm means female to male transitioning. But our title is f2m, like adolescent texting and also indicates our collaboration. Co-author Ryan is a family friend, whom I’d known since he was 11, and presenting as a girl. I knew he was transitioning from female to male, and admired his courage. A great collaboration. It would have taken me years to research what he already knew. Plus he’d kept a medical diary, and although the f2m: the boy within is fiction, NOT an autobiography, the medical sequences are accurate.

We chose YA novel format because 17-ish is time for photo ID for drivers licence and when most teens are seeking their identity. Ford Street Publishing who specialise in edgy YA, was willing to support our risky project. Brave.

It was short-listed by the internationally prestigious White Ravens best YA fiction 2011.

Can you explain a little about this collaboration?

This project has taken more work than any of my other books, and is probably the most significant.

Since Ryan is New Zealand based and I’m in Melbourne, we wrote on Skype across a year and more than 30 drafts – a few embarrassing mistypings on my part with Skye (the character) and Skype (the process).

Ryan created the book trailer, and has adapted the doco length to go up on YouTube. He also organized the NZ book launch with me present only on webcam on the wall of the Wellington Unity Bookshop.

Initially print published, the e-book is now important for easy access. And we hope it will be translated into other languages and new media.

This was a first: the subject of transitioning gender in a Young Adult novel, co-written by an actual ftm (female to male) author.

Skye transitions to Finn with the help of bemused friends and family, punk music and a Gran who understands because she had a sibling facing similar challenges. Being able to use fiction to initiate discussion has been helpful for families and for gender diversity groups, because ‘it’s the kind of novel you can give to a parent too.’

“Tick the box. M or F. Male or Female are the only options ‘ordinary’ people know about. M for Male. F for Female. You’re one or the other. But what if you’re not? Like me. As I’m finding out.”

What reaction did f2m: the boy within get?

f2mMixed. We’ve had fantastic fan mail, fan art and much gratitude from diverse families who use it as a discussion starter. The subject is controversial, but not our handling of it. Ryan has had poignant e-mails from readers reassured that they are not the only ones, and grateful older readers who wished the book had been available earlier. ‘Might have saved lives and anguish.’

Although widely and positively reviewed, it’s often left off reading lists by apprehensive librarians who fear objections from minorities. Placed on the banned shelf in a public library in north Queensland, the same day I was awarded an OAM for Literature at Government House (not connected), but approved by groups like the Safe Schools Coalition Victoria and word-of-mouth recommendations. It was also short-listed by the internationally prestigious White Ravens best YA fiction 2011. The problem is that if the book is not available, it can’t be read or found.

Were you surprised by the reaction?

No, we’d expected some negative comments. Our greatest surprise was from those who had NOT read the book, yet refused to put it into their libraries or allow others to read it. We thought the literary collaboration between a heterosexual grandmother and an ftm would reassure. It did. We did lots of radio, including ABC Life Matters, which is indexed as a podcast.

Can you tell us about the documentary on reactions to the gender-transitioning subject in f2m: the boy within

Psychologist Meredith Fuller, a co-director of Kailash Studios offered to interview both co-authors as a documentary. It took a year to get us all together to film on the one day. Director Brian Walsh who is also a psychologist, produced the documentary.

The documentary attempts to answer, via interviewing the co-authors the creativity of coping successfully with diversity. Especially when others may fear change or diversity.It has already been screened at festivals such as Shepparton’s Out in the Open, Melbourne’s Midsumma and the international 2014 AIDs conference.

How important is fiction for tackling difficult issues, especially for adolescents?

Vital. YA fiction offers an opportunity to see from the viewpoint of that character for the length of the story and beyond. If you are in circumstances like that character, it reassures you are not the only one. And in the case of transitioning gender, a subject about which there is little information for outsiders, it educates readers, via compassion. It’s hard enough finding your identity as a mainstream adolescent, but the complication of feeling you are in the wrong kind of body, is overwhelming. And if ignorant others shun you, that makes things worse.

Our book has prevented suicides. But a novel can’t just be propaganda, it must be a story in its own right. We avoided ‘sensationalising’ which is what often happens with trans gender in media. Within the novel, we have a range of family and friends, humour and punk music and even a bullying scene.

f2m: the boy withinWhat’s next for you?

Finishing my memoir: Let Hippos Eat Cake: Being a Children’s Author or Not?

Thanks for visiting, Hazel, and good luck with f2m and finishing your memoir.

Author websites:



Julie Fison writes for children and young adults. Her books include the Hazard River series for young readers, Choose Your Own Ever After, a pick-a-path series that lets the reader decide how the story goes, and Counterfeit Love for young adults.



More Punk… with Ryan Kennedy

Last post, Hazel Edwards dropped by to talk about the punk aspects of f2m: the boy within. Today, we are joined by her co-author, Ryan Kennedy, as he gives us his two cents worth on the same topic…

How We Co-Wrote Punk — Ryan’s View

The punk aspect of our story required little research on my part. I’ve always wanted to write about the punk scene, having spent four years immersed in it, and still enjoying the odd live show now and then.

For me, it was a natural choice to cast the main character as a punk; it was the best way to quickly immerse myself in the character. I found it easier to write a punk teenager than to write a non-punk, and it brought a dimension to our story that Hazel would have needed to spend a lot of time researching.

It’s not just about wearing clothes covered in patches of favourite bands and slogans – a punk teenager sees the world through a different lens, one of questioning what is taught. The ideas found in punk encouraged questioning what I was told by parents, schools and peers and allowed me to more easily abandon the life I was supposed to be leading and follow my own path. In punk, I found the freedom to explore music, my beliefs and ultimately who I was, and to experiment with gender roles and how I presented myself to the world — exploration that led to my gender transition.

To me, punk is a music scene with anarchist principles at its core. Practically, this translates into questioning what authorities teach through schools and government, pointing out where those in power abuse their power at the expense of the vulnerable and the environment, and living and promoting peace and anti-violence. Because it’s also a music scene there are punks placed all along this spectrum of political involvement, from daily activism to intellectual rather than practical involvement, to being interested in the music alone.

I see the punk side of Finn’s character as integral in his journey to understanding that he needs to transition to male, where the book begins. Of course, there are teenagers unaware of this fairly underground scene who decide to transition, but this journey for Finn was one that I could most easily relate to, and provided a setting that I thought readers would learn from and find interesting. Those familiar within the scene will appreciate the accurate depiction and musical references, and those unfamiliar will learn about something new and be less likely to judge punks on appearances and stereotypes. This was also a goal of the gender transition story.

I chose the bands referenced in the book quite carefully. All of the local band names are fictional, with the ‘Chronic Cramps’ being a reference to the Cramps, a mixed-gender punk band from the 1970s. For the real bands, I chose older artists like Bikini Kill, Iggy Pop and NOFX partly so that the book wouldn’t date because of the bands referenced, and also so that younger readers would have some great music to look up while reading the book. In this way f2m: the boy within already has its own soundtrack spanning three decades of punk. The beauty of writing books is that you don’t need permission or to pay for the rights to play an artist’s music like you would for a movie – the soundtrack plays in the reader’s mind!

Bikini Kill were the most influential (and some would say the first) Riot Grrl band, a genre of feminist punk rock from the 1990s; there is no doubt that they would make a strong impression on Finn and the Chronic Cramps. Artists who are not specifically punk are referenced as well, to show that Finn has varied musical tastes and doesn’t limit himself to one genre, something I found throughout the punk scene; freedom of thought seems to flow into freedom of musical influences.

During the period that f2m: the boy within was written, I explored new punk bands and revisited some old favourites. But not while I was writing – I find it too distracting!

George’s bit at the end

Some great music insights! Thanks, Ryan. To find out more about Ryan Kennedy and his writing, check out his website. And follow him on Twitter.

And tune in next time for a post about graphic novels.

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter.


Punk… with Hazel Edwards

Last year saw the publication of a rather extraordinary and unique YA novel, f2m: the boy within. As far as I’m aware, it’s the first YA novel to deal with female-to-male gender transitioning from the perspective of a young person (18 year old Finn) going through the process. The subject is handled with sensitivity, understanding and honesty… and it’s a great read.

Commentary on this book, understandably, tends to focus on the primary topic of transitioning gender. But there is more to the book than that. It is also deeply immersed in the punk music scene, an aspect that adds to the storytelling and to the novel’s uniqueness. I thought it was about time someone shed a little light on the punk aspects of this novel, and so I have invited the book’s co-authors, Hazel Edwards and Ryan Kennedy, to blog about it. First up, here’s Hazel…

How We Co-Wrote Punk — Hazel’s View

Participant-observation is the fancy name for doing new things so I can write realistically later. This has been my excuse for hot air ballooning, lazing with a glass of wine on a French canal barge and even checking municipal water channels (with an engineer) for returning platypus. All called work, especially for the tax man.

In my other YA novels, I go to great lengths (even Antarctica) to experience and then write accurately about a setting.

Punk music was different.

I’m aware that many authors use mood music when writing. I don’t. The only time was co-writing the satire Operatic Duck with Christine Anketell. In the community arts scene, where there’s no elephant for the Grand March from Aida, we used the duck. And played the march music to fit the chapter action while we wrote. Fun!

I’m digressing because I haven’t got much to say about punk music and the writing of f2m: the boy within.

This is where I relied heavily on my co-author Ryan, who has been a punk musician and still is.

The naming of ‘The Chronic Cramps’ (the band featured in the novel) was all Ryan. ‘Mosh’ was a new word for me.

There were three new languages I had to learn for this novel — transitioning gender, genetics and punk. The vocabulary had to be right. Especially the pronouns.

My first ‘punk’ mistake was in writing the draft synopsis. I stated that our character Finn found more difficulty transitioning gender than making it in the punk scene. Ryan told me that punk is NOT competitive. I rewrote the synopsis.

In the scenes where punk music was performed, I had an overseer role in the ‘crafting’ to make sure the scene worked, writing-wise. The detail was Ryan’s. If he had been living in Melbourne, I probably would have gone to a few punk performances, with him interpreting, but because he was in New Zealand, while we co-wrote electronically, I deferred to his expert knowledge.

This is a genuine advantage in having a co-author who is expert in a field. Of course, Ryan had the participant observation experience of transitioning gender too. I didn’t.

My role was the naïve observer-listener, who asked the pertinent questions that the ‘average’ person might wonder about.

So I asked about the sound, smell, customs, language and status (who did and didn’t do, what) in the punk world. I was interpreting across cultures. Age was also a factor. I was a generation away in age, but often that is irrelevant for an author. Creators need to be androgynous and write from any gender viewpoint. They also need to be no age, just the age of their central character in that book. So I was emotionally aged 18 for f2m: the boy within. So was my co-author Ryan.

So I don’t have any punk favourites, but I do find the names intriguing.

George’s bit at the end

Make sure to tune in next time for Ryan’s view.

From writing about an operatic duck to exploring the world of punk, Hazel has had quite a varied writing career, which, of course, includes one of Australia’s all-time favourite children’s picture books, There’s a Hippopotamus on our Roof Eating Cake. To find out more about Hazel Edwards and her writing, check out her website. And follow her on Twitter.

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter.


Goodbye 2010

2010 is almost over. For me personally, it was a bit of a mixed bag — some good stuff; some not-so-good stuff. As for writing and reading, it was a pretty damn good year. So, let me sum it up for you. Yes, that’s right — if Literary Clutter were a tv show, then this post would be the flashbacks episode. 😉

I got to do some fun school visits (check out this post on Dee White’s Kids’ Book Capers Blog), some bookstore signings (check out my Shameless Self-promotion post) and I participated in the Pigeon Letters literacy project (check out my Pigeons post). I had the honour of launching issue 2 of [untitled] and Sue Bursztynski’s new YA werewolf novel, Wolfborn. I also spent the second semester teaching a creative writing subject at the University of Melbourne (a HUGE learning experience for me). But top of the list for 2010 events was Aussiecon 4, the 68th World Science Fiction Convention (check out my Aussiecon 4 Memories post), held here in Melbourne in September.

It was a good year for books, with lots of great titles released during 2010. My top 5 for the year are as follows: (keeping in mind that there was an awful lot of great stuff I didn’t get around to reading)

  1. Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld (I’d also include Leviathan, which was published in 2009, but which I did not get around to reading until 2010)
  2. Trash by Andy Mulligan [read my review]
  3. The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger [read my review]
  4. Wolfborn by Sue Bursztynski [read my review]
  5. f2m: the boy within by Hazel Edwards and Ryan Kennedy

I started blogging in 2010 with Literary Clutter and I’ve really been enjoying the informal writing approach that it offers. My teen novel, Gamers’ Quest, continued to sell steadily. I had six school readers published. I wrote another seven school readers, as well as a six book kids’ library reference series called What’s In My Food, that will be published next year. I wrote a whole bunch of short stories, some that I’ve managed to sell, and some that are now languishing at the bottom of my crap drawer. And I’ve been working on a sequel to Gamers’ Quest. I’m very excited about this and will undoubtedly post about it in 2011. I’m on the home stretch at the moment, so my blogging will be taking the back seat for the next few weeks. Don’t expect more than one post a week until I’ve handed the novel to my publisher.

So, what sort of wonders does 2011 potentially hold? I’m REALLY, REALLY, REALLY looking forward to the publication of two books — Goliath, the third book in Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series; and Liberator, the sequel to Richard Harland’s Worldshaker. I’ve got some more school readers lined up, and hopefully another library reference series (I’m still waiting on the publisher to get back to me on this one). I’m planning on starting a new novel. And I plan on continuing to blog — assuming, of course, that the lovely people at Boomerang Books still want me to. 🙂 I’ve got some interviews lined up and I’ll also be reviewing a stack of books. And then there are the videos I’ve been promising — little author interviews that I recorded at Aussieon 4. I’m afraid I still haven’t finished editing them… so you’ll have to wait a little while longer for those. Sorry!

So folks… Happy New Year. May 2011 bring you lots of exciting new books and many hours of reading pleasure.

Catch you all next year.

PS. Follow me on Twitter… quickly, before the year ends!