‘Becoming Who We Are’: Editor Hazel Newlevant On Depicting Positive Trans Experiences For The Middle-Grade Crowd

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This month, June, is Pride. A large part of Pride beyond parades and parties is celebrating the positive experiences of LGBTQIA+ individuals of any age. But what about the Middle-Grade crowd, who might be struggling with issues of identity just as they’re also growing up? Enter Becoming Who We Are, a new anthology from A Wave Blue World, edited by Sammy Lisel and Hazel Newlevant.

Based on true stories of trans individuals who came out and flourished, the book mildly fictionalizes interviews with their subjects to show kids that it’s okay to be who you are.

“Sammy wanted to show her kids, and all readers, a range of hopeful possibilities for adulthood as a transgender person,” Newlevant told Comic Book Club over email. “Showing people’s triumphs was very intentional… Trans people disproportionately deal with all kinds of hardships. That’s the underlying reason these stories are needed.”

To find out more about how the book came together, read on.

Comic Book Club: This seems like a difficult project to tackle because not only are you retelling real-life experiences, you’re filtering them through writers and artists, anthology-style… Where did you start? And how did you wrangle all of this together?

Hazel Newlevant: Sammy Lisel contacted me because she’d interviewed some really interesting and inspiring people, who happen to be trans, and wanted help turning their stories into comics for kids! I thought it was a great idea, and it really needed to be an anthology. That way, the book showcases more of the amazing trans cartoonist working today, as well as having a diversity of story subjects! As artists, we all have our own experiences to draw on, so an anthology can bring more diversity to the page. I had some experience pairing up storytellers and cartoonists from editing Comics for Choice. I drew the comic about Brooke Guinan, the first openly-trans firefighter in the FDNY, which really drove home the responsibility of drawing another person’s life! We asked for lots of reference photos and clarifying details, and checked in with the interviewees throughout the comics-making process to make sure they felt well-represented.

Following up on that, I’m always curious to hear the philosophy on the flow of an anthology. How did you place the stories in the order you did?

Sam Long’s story is first because something about it is so inviting, and readers might recognize Cynthia Yuan Cheng’s art from their work on the Baby-Sitters Club graphic novel series. We put Rebekah Bruesehoff’s story at the end because she’s the closest in age to hypothetical middle-grade readers, and her young activism could inspire them! In between, I’m not sure how Sammy picked the story order, but something about it feels right.

Though there are a lot of hardships facing the folks in this book, the outcomes are overwhelmingly positive. I think I know the answer to this one but I’ll ask anyway: why go this route? Why was this important?

Sammy wanted to show her kids, and all readers, a range of hopeful possibilities for adulthood as a transgender person. Showing people’s triumphs was very intentional. To some degree, the positive outcomes are determined by the stories being based on interviews, and with people who Sammy found because of their public profile. An anthology about inspiring trans historical figures would have a lot of sad endings. Marsha P. Johnson was found in the Hudson River at age 46. Lou Sullivan died of AIDS-related complications at 39. Trans people disproportionately deal with all kinds of hardships. That’s the underlying reason these stories are needed.

When you were putting together these stories, were you surprised by common touch-points, if at all?

Almost all the stories include people being shamed for their gender variance, and feeling relief when they could express themselves. But it’s no surprise that those are common trans experiences!

On the opposite end of the spectrum, all of these stories do have very different focuses, even when the arcs parallel each other. Given you’re dealing with real subjects, how did you make sure the stories felt fresh and different?

Sammy made sure the stories weren’t all focused on people’s gender journeys. Everyone discovered different passions and had their own challenges. She tried to find interviewees with different backgrounds and careers, and each artist draws their story in a unique way! Including both stories with supportive families and stories with trans-antagonistic families was very important to us. There will be readers who relate to both experiences, and we want to be realistic about the challenges of coming out.

Broader question, but books like this aimed at the YA or the Middle-Grade age group tend to get attacked by conservative media and parents groups. Are you concerned about this at all? Are you preparing for backlash in any way?

Stories starring trans people, that show being trans as a beautiful thing, can be for readers of all ages. Of course, this may not go over well with those who want to stigmatize trans people or prevent kids from learning about gender diversity. With Comics for Choice, I was expecting a backlash, but the book found its audience without catching too much hate, so I certainly hope that’ll be the case again!

Similarly, how important was it to get this book out now, given it’s an election year and gender-affirming care is quickly becoming a talking point?

Sammy and I started working on this book in 2021, and every year the legal climate has gotten worse.[1] Last year, six hundred anti-trans bills were introduced across the U.S., and 83 of them passed. A lot of them target trans youth in K-12 schools and gender-affirming care for minors. It’s a scary environment. We hope that reading the stories of thriving, trans adults will help young queer people feel good about themselves and visualize hopeful futures. And it’s always a good time to enjoy trans art and stories!

It seems like there are more than enough stories like this to power a sequel as well… Is that anything you’d consider? Or is it “please let me get this book out first”?

There are so many more amazing people who could be interviewed, and artists who would be awesome to work with! If Becoming Who We Are sells a ton of copies, then you might see more books like it!

[1]     https://translegislation.com/

Becoming Who We Are is in bookstores everywhere from A Wave Blue World. Check out a few additional pages from the book, below:

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