On 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?
Ftm 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?
Mixed. 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.
What’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.
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.