F2M: the boy within – The book that scared libraries

Hazel Edwards and Ryan Kennedy

In mid-2010, I reviewed a fabulous book by Hazel Edwards and Ryan Kennedy called F2M: the boy within. It’s a warm, moving coming of age story about transgendered Skye who is becoming his true self, Finn. Co-author Ryan himself transitioned from female to male in his 20s. He brought that experience and courage to the collaboration with his long-time friend and respected children’s author, Hazel Edwards. Together they have produced a work that is both an excellent story and an important insight into what life for transgendered people and their family and friends. F2M: the boy within is also about friendship, punk rock, secrets and truth.

Bloggers wrote about it, and psychologists and gender counsellors have picked it up. In talking about the reaction to the book, Edwards and Kennedy noted “We assumed that YA librarians would welcome the fictional opportunity to encourage ‘distanced’ discussion of gender, including gay issues although our Skye-Finn was not gay. Suicide occurs in trans communities, and maybe we could save a few lives by reducing ignorance and fear of the unknown. Suicides also occur in gay communities, due to family, religious and social pressures. Maybe our book could prevent ignorance contributing to further deaths.”

Unfortunately, regardless of how sensitively, intelligently and well written it is, it seems that libraries are frightened of F2M: the boy within. Ford Street Publishing was willing to bring this book to the world, but school and public libraries, spooked by the spectre of controversy, have shunned it.  The risk of backlash from conservative groups has kept the book from shelves that would otherwise normally carry Hazel Edwards’ books. Literary awards have likewise overlooked it, in spite of  Edwards’ long association and regular appearance on such lists.

Recently, I spoke to Hazel about the book and its reception.

Narrelle Harris: Hazel, you and Ryan have known each other for a long time. What made you decide to do this project together?

Hazel Edwards: I knew Ryan as a family friend from about age 9 and had kept in touch across his adolescence and early twenties. I enjoy his mind and sense of humour.  He is around the age of my adult children. I’d also done some gender research in connection with a medical project about children and was aware that transitioning  was a controversial subject about which little had been written in fiction. Even the appropriate  vocabulary ( or pronoun) was a challenge.

Since Ryan is NZ- based, I hadn’t seen him since his ftm transition, but he came to Melbourne for a computer conference in connection with his work. He looked so much happier. Simultaneously we decided to co-write, via Skype and e-mail , a YA novel utilising his experience, but it was not to be autobiographical.

f2m The Boy Within

Ryan had experienced what it would have taken me years to research. As a published author, I was able to place our book proposal with Ford Street Publishing and gain a contract before we started the intensive year-long writing and about 30 drafts. I knew Ryan was a hard worker. But he was also far more IT skilled than me. It has been an equal collaboration. We were aware that ours might be the first  ftm YA novel internationally co-written by an ftm, but we also wanted to write ‘a good read’  of a ‘coming of age’ story. Thus, I had to learn punk music, another area in which Ryan is far more skilled.

Fiction provides the opportunity to discuss issues, at a distance, removed from the individual. Family can be given a book like F2M: the boy within as a ‘gentle’ introduction  and an informed  way of  handling prejudices

Narrelle: F2M: the boy within has received excellent reviews, but it has also met with reluctance from libraries and schools. How do you feel about how the book has been received?

Hazel: We knew the subject would threaten, especially libraries and schools who fear even one parental complaint. Often it is the anticipatory anxiety about potential complaints that cripples possible exposure to a ‘mainstream’ story where the subject is controversial, but not our handling of it. We have no ‘bad’ language. But we do have the opportunity to learn a new vocabulary and diplomacy about how gender issues might be phrased. Not just whether you say ‘He’ or ‘She’.

I have been shocked by the ‘ignoring’ by groups whom I would previously have  expected to be open minded. Some of the reactions have been aggressively negative, and they haven’t even read the book.

I now realise how courageous Ryan has been in co-writing.

Fan art by Rooster Tails

Narrelle: Given the difficulties you’ve encountered getting the book to its readership, do you have any regrets?

Hazel: No.  If we’ve saved one life, it’s been worthwhile. And if we’ve enabled readers to view from our 18 year old character’s perspective for the length of the novel and beyond, it’s been worthwhile.

We knew that some readers would expect F2M: the boy within to be like my picture books for young children like the cake-eating hippo series. It isn’t. But I have also co-written a psyche text on Difficult Personalities , including sociopaths, and written of scientific material from an Antarctic expedition.  An author can write in multiple fields. What matters is how well they write.

I also have growing admiration for some of the volunteer gender counsellors I’ve met. My regret is that I haven’t known about some of these issues earlier.

Narrelle: What is the best response you’ve had to F2M: the boy within so far? The worst?

Hazel: Ryan has received poignant e-mails about how significant this book has been to individuals and how they wished it had been available earlier. I’ve had much favourable contact from parents of gay children (even though our character is not gay) who are grateful for the opportunity to open family discussion via the novel. Being listed for the 2011 White Ravens, top 250  children’s and YA books internationally. Word of mouth recommendations  are slow but genuine and significant. Being recommended via the Safe Schools Coalition was helpful.

My worst experience was at a literary festival  where a student from a Catholic school reported that his teacher had put ‘that disgusting’ book and the brochure  in the bin, in front of all the students. Being ignored or ‘left off’ lists where my works would normally be included, thus depriving readers of the opportunity to even know the book existed.

Narrelle: Since both public and school libraries have been reluctant to risk controversy by getting it in, what do you think the best way if for people to get hold of it? Would it help if people specifically asked their library for it?

Hazel: Yes to all of the above. And our websites have material and links which are useful for Book Discussion Groups. One soccer parents book discussion group read and recommended it.

I still think this is the most important of all my 200 books, and hope it gets a fair reading in the future. It is not just bibliotherapy about gender, it’s a novel novel. At times, Ryan has had to make difficult decisions about refusing some kinds of highly paid magazine interviews which wished to concentrate on his private life rather than the book. That takes courage too.  Working with such a courageous man as co-author has been the other bonus of this novel.

**

If you think anyone can benefit from F2M: the boy within, whether they are a transgendered person, their family or friends, or just people you think would enjoy a coming of age story with a difference, you can get F2M: the boy within via the following links.

Ask your library to order it in for you or recommend it to your book group.

You can download a study guide here or from Hazel Edwards’ website.

Read more:

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Posted on October 31, 2011, in e-books, Interviews, writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 26 Comments.

  1. Great interview. Public access to books with content not readily available is important so that we can be exposed to many views and the opportunities to learn in areas that we generally have no access to.
    Providing opportunities for the community to read widely should be fundamental to a public libraries charter. Without books on controversial topics, we become limited in our knowledge and thinking on subjects. Learning and understanding the differences that make up “human beings” increases our capabiities for kindness and tolerances of others. I sincerely hope there is a change of heart and attitude towards stocking f2m in our public libraries.

  2. I found this book in my local library and thought it was a fabulous read. I can remember a few students from my teaching days who definitely could’ve benefited from a book like this. Perhaps it might have provided a little insight to them during some very difficult and turbulent years.

    Incidentally, the teacher who threw the book in the bin in front of a whole class did a far better job of publicising it than he ever could’ve by ignoring it or talking about it. Knowing teenagers, they would’ve hunted it down outside of school, if only for the curiosity factor.

    Fear and ignorance do funny things to people.

    Good on all concerned for challenging the status quo

  3. I’ve worked in a Melbourne public library for 20 years, with many years in the collections area, and I’ve never known a book to not to be purchased for the collection on the grounds of it being controversial. In my experience public librarians tend to welcome and court the opportunity of a controversial selection. I can understand the problem with school libraries, but Australia public libraries tend to want to push the envelope. I see that the library I work for has a copy of the book. I know that if anyone complains about that they’ll get a thank you, now go away response, as we defend the right to read a diverse range of material.

    I think it’s great that books like this exist and are in libraries. Well done.

    • That’s great to hear about Australian libraries. Do you think the problem with it not getting purchased may be related more to budgets?

      I searched Trove to see how many libraries had the book and it’s listed as being at 57 libraries. (http://trove.nla.gov.au/work/36444919?q=F2m&c=book).

      If people are interested in supporting the book, I recommend you see if your local library is on this list and, if not, submit a request for your library to get it. 🙂 I’m please to see my local, the Melbourne City Library, already has it on the shelves.

  4. I can’t believe that we’re still undergoing censorship by any libraries. The theme of this book is highly important Back in my teaching days, many students could’ve benefited from a book like this. Perhaps it might have provided a little insight to them during some very difficult and turbulent years.

    That teacher who threw the book in the bin in front of a whole class did a far better job of publicising it than he ever could’ve by ignoring it or talking about it. it’s back to that old saying, any pr is better than none/

    • You’re the second person to say the binning of the book may lead to students looking it up especially. I hope that’s true. Maybe it will become an underground hit at schools. 🙂

      When I was a teenager, there was a book about a young woman losing her virginity to her first boyfriend and then eventually breaking up with him. I don’t remember what it was called, but the girls all passed it around and it was hardly ever in the library for longer than a day. Perhaps they all learned valuable lessons about their bodies, sex and when/how they wanted to lose their virginity or maybe they just enjoyed reading about sex from a girl’s point of view. It certainly was a popular book…

  5. As an ex-teacher, author – I believe it is beneficial to society to publish books that represent minority groups such as trans-gendered people. It helps the kids who are confused/lonely because they feel different and educates the public about the diverse range of people we have in our society. It is ignorance that fuels prejudice. A teacher/librarian calling it ‘disgusting’ is only showing how fearful she is and her ignorance. I say congratulations to Hazel and Ryan for writing about a subject some of us don’t know much about.

    • That teacher’s response is very sad, I agree. I also think it’s an important book for everyone to read. After all, one of the purposes of fiction and reading is getting a chance to find out what life is like for other people.

  6. Thanks for reminding me that I had F2M half finished in my to-read piles…I’d stopped reading at some stage and it became buried. I’ve just found it again and will finish it this time – and take it north, with the study notes to give to Ayla.
    I can’t believe I forgot to finish the book.

  7. I too am impressed with the courage Ryan and Hazel have shown in writing and publicising the book F2M. With so many teenage suicides (7 in Melbourne just over the Cup weekend, I’m told) I wonder how many would be helped by open, dispassionate, and EDUCATED discussion of gender identity issues. Of course at this time of year exam pressures and parental expectations are probably upper most in teenage minds, but an underlying disconnect of transgender isolation must make this particular month harrowing for some.
    I’m going to see if my kid’s school libraries have it yet!
    And thanks Narrelle for bringing this to our attention.

    • Thanks for coming to comment, Lyndel. The suicide figures are shocking. A friend of my niece’s, who had been in a band with her at a music academy, took his own life a short while ago. We need to create more open environments where troubled people can ask questions and seek support without fear of rejection, bullying or worse.

  8. I’ll request a copy from Eastern Regional Libraries forthwith, so they’ll get a copy in. It’s an important book on a difficult subject, and I think it should be available in all secondary school libraries. Of course schools would probably be too scared. It just takes one ignorant parent to complain to the media, and the school has to go on the defensive. In Victoria at the moment, with a conservative government, a school would be unlikely to get official backing in the event of a controversy. However, like the interest that would be sparked by a teacher chucking the book in the bin, public discussion on transgender issues would provide a shaft of sunlight on a clouded issue..

  9. It’s wonderful to know that F2M is still under discussion. Many wonderful stories disappear from our shelves in a matter of months. However, those with strong, contemporary issues that hit a chord – whether harmonious or not – are the ones that remain indefinitely. The fight to get onto library shelves is worth it. F2M will be relevant for many years to come, both for people struggling with their gender identity and for anyone interested in others.

    • Absolutely, and I’m keen to keep spreading the word about this one. Readers: feel free to put links into Facebook, Twitter and any online forums you are part of. THe more people who hear about F2M (and better yet, read it) the better for everyone. 🙂

  10. I’m heartened that this blog interview on ‘f2m:the boy within’ has generated so many positive responses. Glad also that libraries are beginning to say they will introduce this book to readers. Would love to have it included by 2012 book discussion groups such as the CAE since there are many notes etc available from the author website.

    • It’s terrific, isn’t it? I know at least one person has bought the e-version of the book, so that’s one more person reached. let’s hope the momentum builds.

  11. I’ve had several responses through my website from young trans readers commenting that the book has helped them get started on the transition path, and also that they couldn’t find other material like this in the library. In early stages of my transition I pounced upon anything that reflected who I was, so I’ve been thrilled to be able to put something out there that would have helped me immensely and I know has helped others.

    There will always be strong reactions from people who think we ‘encourage’ people to transition or live a lifestyle they choose not to understand. All we really do is give people access to doors that some would prefer to remain hidden – then it’s up to the individual to open them.

    • It’s a delight to meet you virtually, Ryan, and congratulations on co-writing such an excellent book. I find this whole idea of ‘encouraging’ actions that are not in a person’s nature to be odd, to tell the truth. I’ve read books about all kinds of people without necessarily wanting to *be* those people. Books that encourage you to find out who you are and to be true to that, however, are another matter. As you say, they reveal doors that people might not have known existed, and people can choose whether to open them or, indeed, walk through them.

      Thanks for coming by to comment. If you’re ever in Melbourne, let me take you out for a drink! 🙂

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  1. Pingback: Narrelle’s Xmas list for the Nice and the Naughty « Mortal words

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