“Creating books that tell all of our stories empowers all of us,” children’s author Erica Silverman says. “There’s so little out there for transgender and gender fluid children … if you don’t see yourself in a book, you feel invisible; like you don’t exist.”
That lack of representation in traditional publishing led to the creation of “Jack (Not Jackie).” It’s the second picture book in a partnership between GLAAD—the world’s largest LGBTQ media advocacy organization—and Bonnier Publishing USA, which publishes over 150 books annually. The collaboration aims to integrate and elevate positive LGBTQ representation throughout children’s literature by releasing at least four titles annually. The work will range in genres and formats for children up to the age of 14. In “Jack (Not Jackie),” author Erica Silverman crafted a story of sibling love and family acceptance.
“‘Jack (Not Jackie)’ is a heartwarming and gentle conversation starter about gender identity and gender expression, but more importantly it is a story about love between siblings and wholeheartedly accepting people for who they are,” GLAAD advises. “The story centers around a big sister, Susan, who learns to understand and appreciate that her younger sibling identifies as ‘Jack’ rather than ‘Jackie.’”
“Susan is increasingly confused by the fact that the little sister Jackie, whom she adores, is continuously trying to let his family know that he’s a boy,” Silverman adds. “When he finally speaks up and asks her to call him Jack, it puts Susan in a crisis where she has to struggle and comes to terms with it. What she ultimately realizes is that whether Jack is her sister or her brother, he’s the sibling she adores. It’s a love story.”
Silverman, who received the Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor for her early reader book “Cowgirl Kate,” has a Master of Library and Information Science. In addition to writing, she works as a librarian in California, where she lives with her wife of 10 years.
When Silverman’s editor approached her to pen “Jack (Not Jackie),” she didn’t hesitate. “It was like I heard bells ringing,” she recalls. “It resonated with me that this was something so important and something that I could do. For both the transgender community and the cisgender community, it’s important to have these stories for children. I just immediately said yes.”
She says it was then that she realized that in order for her to be an effective voice for the transgender community, it was time to research. “I knew where I stood on these issues, but I hadn’t read the psychological literature about gender identity and young children,” she says. “I did an enormous amount of research.”
Silverman relied on professionals who work with families of transgender and gender fluid children as well as personal and published accounts in film and literature to prepare. “I filled myself up with as much knowledge and understanding as I could,” she says.
The author also relied on the publisher’s partnership with GLAAD. “When they told me they were creating this partnership that would create a line of LGBTQ books, it felt like I had my community around me,” Silverman says. “I was a part of something that felt like home.
“Immediately I was able to get a sensitivity reader,” she continues. “[GLAAD Director of Transgender Media and Representation Nick Adams] went through the manuscript to catch some of the things that I wouldn’t have known or understood. He helped make it a better book.”
“Today children of all ages are finding support and understanding from parents and caregivers when they express that their gender identity or gender expression doesn’t match the sex recorded on their birth certificate,” Adams shared following the book’s publication. “The social transition portrayed in this book is simply and refreshingly a family listening to their child and following his lead as he tells them what name and pronoun he wants to use and how he wants to dress.”
Silverman’s writing process began with the elder sister character of Susan. “I was thinking about different characters and trying out different voices in my head,” she recalls, “and over time the idea of this girl who had a transgender boy sibling developed. Her voice emerged to talk about how she loved her little sister.”
Jack followed. “I imagined him coming into the world with his own feelings, his own identity, and considered how those two would clash,” Silverman continues. “I started writing scenes and Susan’s voice got stronger; she was really dictating the story and telling me what she thought and how she felt. I was seeing Jack grow from Jackie into Jack … a lot of this happened because I had already fed my imagination with all of the literature and stories of people’s real lives.”
Authors and artists rarely discuss the creative process as it unfolds, communicating through the work’s editor. This was the case with Silverman and illustrator Holly Hatam, known for her work on the No. 1 New York Times Bestseller “Dear Girl.” Silverman says seeing the first completed pages for “Jack (Not Jackie)” was thrilling. “It’s always an amazing thing to see characters who live in your head come to life,” she says.
“When I write I picture the scenes, but I don’t have the artist’s ability to envision how it would be as an illustration. It’s always much better than I can imagine; it was extraordinary to see Jack and Susan come to life.”
She says Hatam brought “such a loving, joyful lightness to the book,” something she notes isn’t an easy experience for such an emotional story. “There’s a lot of love flowing through it and there are a lot of happy scenes with the two playing,” Silverman says, “but it’s also a very emotional story as Susan struggles.
“Holly managed to really capture the intensity, the vulnerability of both of these children but with such a light touch and joyous, loving feeling,” she continues. “I think it just draws the reader in and makes it completely not threatening, just very inviting.”
Its completion was inviting for Silverman in other ways. She says that while she tends to be more political in her personal life, she’s less so in her self-described “book life.”
While her work always has messages of connecting with community and empowerment, she notes they tend to be more subtle. “This is really the first book that puts something out about who I am in my personal life,” Silverman notes, “as a part of the LGBTQ community and as a trans ally.”
Coming out can be a lifelong process, she adds. “It’s been a learning process, confronting my own fears about coming out yet again. Mostly in my life I’m out. My wife and I got married in 2008 when we were first allowed to,” she notes. “I’ve come out in stages. It certainly didn’t feel safe 40 years ago as a children’s book author to be announcing that I was a lesbian in the world.”
She stresses the importance of living authentically. “When you’re not out, when you’re not able to be fully who you are,” she advises, “what you’re absorbing is a certain amount of shame with the invisibility; the sense that if society can’t handle this there really must be something wrong.
“That’s why at the heart of this book for me it’s a story about love and acceptance,” Silverman says. “People have to work through their fears and misconceptions and come to a place of love and kindness for everyone.”
“Jack (Not Jackie)” is currently available wherever books are sold. A portion of the proceeds from the book will go to support GLAAD’s work to accelerate acceptance for LGBTQ people.