Love, Pride, and Acceptance
June 30, 2020 § 1 Comment
With Pride parades canceled because of the pandemic, we have to work a little harder to see the rainbows. I didn’t want June to end before I had a chance to raise up one of my favorite recent discoveries (although it came out last year), a book so full of love that when I first got it, I couldn’t stop hugging it to my chest. It’s impossible to read this book without the biggest smile. Not just because the main character is a radiant beam of sunshine in and of himself. Not just because it has some of the most beautiful illustrations I have ever seen (Kaylani Juanita, where have you been all my life?). But because the love these parents shine down on their son is the very best—albeit most difficult—kind of love. It’s a love which sees him, not for who they expect or want him to be, but for who he actually is. It’s a love taught to them by this son—and one echoed in the way he prepares to welcome his new sibling.
It’s a tall order, but the world would be a vastly improved place if we all rose to follow the example of love in this book.
When Aidan Became a Brother (Ages 3-8), written by Kyle Lukoff and illustrated by Kaylani Juanita, is not just another book about welcoming a new sibling. True, in many ways, it’s the “new sibling” book we didn’t realize we were missing. But the book is equally pertinent whether you’re expecting a new family member or not. Aidan doesn’t simply tail his pregnant mom, fantasizing about a new playmate or worrying he’ll suddenly fall to second place. Nope, Aidan’s sets his sights on a larger question: what can he do to ensure his younger sibling feels understood and accepted right out of the gate?
Aidan’s fervent and sometimes nervous desire to become a caring big brother is intimately informed by the struggle he faced in his own first years. “When Aidan was born, everyone thought he was a girl.” The story’s opening spread—a look back into Aidan’s recent past—reveals a pink-decorated room with traditional girl fare: a canopy bed, a dollhouse, and an array of flowery dresses held up by Aidan’s doting mother. Aidan sits before a pink tea set in a pink dress, wearing a look of misery.
“But as Aidan got bigger, he hated the sound of his name. He felt like his room belonged to someone else. And he always ripped or stained his clothes accidentally-on-purpose.” The text goes on to make a critical distinction for understanding trans-identity. There are plenty of girls who don’t like dresses or have rooms full of “science experiments and bug collections.” This wasn’t Aidan. Aidan was not “just a different kind of girl.”
“He was really another kind of boy.” We see Aidan beaming in front of a mirror with a pair of scissors, surrounded by self-shorn braids.
One of my favorite lines comes on the opposite page: “It was hard to tell his parents what he knew about himself, but it was even harder not to.” Such vulnerability! Such bravery! We’re relieved to see Aidan centered in an embrace with his mother and father, although the text gives some transparency into the initial difficulty of this transition for Aidan’s parents. “It took everyone some time to adjust, and they learned a lot from other families with transgender kids like him.” I love how Aidan’s family seeks support from others, just as I love that “transgender” is introduced in the context of there being others who share this experience.
What becomes abundantly clear is that, while Aidan leads his parents in initially understanding who he is not, his parents are invaluable in helping him discover who he is. They “changed his bedroom into a place where he belonged.” They buy him new clothes, which he takes painstaking care of. And they stand by while he tries out different names until one “stuck.” Their love and support make it possible for him to explore “different ways of being a boy.” Even children who don’t relate to Aidan’s gender reversal will relish noticing every alteration of his bedroom, empathizing with the excitement and freedom of being truly seen by one’s parents.
When Aidan learns his family is expecting a second baby, he feels the weight of the responsibility even more acutely given his personal journey. “He wanted to make sure this baby would feel understood right away.” He shops with his mother for gender-neutral clothing and with his father for gender-neutral paint. As his mother’s belly expands, everywhere they go they get the question, “Are you having a boy or a girl?” Aidan worries about the effect this question will have on this unborn (listening?) baby. He is relieved when his mother answers these strangers with, “I’m having a baby.” (As someone who worked in children’s retail for a decade, I admittedly asked this question of my pregnant clients a dozen times a day. I’m grateful for children like Aidan—and his “own voices” creator Kyle Lukoff—who are calling my attention to the gender norms and expectations we attach to our children, both before and after they’re born.)
Aidan’s parents continue to demonstrate their love and acceptance for their firstborn in the creative license they give him in the months and weeks leading up to the new baby’s arrival. The father holds his son up high so he can paint cloud forms on the baby’s ceiling. With pointed toes, an arched back, and blissed-out eyes, Aidan looks positively enraptured by his father’s love and his hope for their family. “[Aidan] had always felt trapped in his bedroom before they fixed it, but his new sibling wouldn’t have to feel that way.”
Aidan also devotes time to brainstorming names for his new sibling. Recognizing how hard it had been for him to change his name—and for others to adjust to that change—he is committed to choosing a name “that could fit this new person no matter who they grew up to be.” Strewn across a colorful table are sketchbooks where Aidan paints words like “”Rain,” “River,” “Willow,” and “Sage.” In the corner is a book titled 50,000 Names for Boys and Girls, with the words “boys” and “girls” taped over to read “babies.” There are endless ways, we realize, in which transgender children have to re-make their environment to feel accepted and safe.
Aidan also does the things many soon-to-be big brothers and sisters do. He practices reading aloud to the cat. He practices changing diapers. Oh wait, Aidan was going to practice changing diapers (I mean, obviously), except that he really, really wanted to pick flowers for his mom right then. (Thank goodness, since this illustration is my FAVORITE.)
Still, Aidan is no stranger to anxiety, and his nerves sometimes keep him up at night. What if he isn’t good enough? This question is as familiar to new parents as it is to our children. Aidan confides in his mother, “I don’t want them to feel like I did when I was little, but what if I get everything wrong? What if I don’t know how to be a good big brother?”
Aidan’s mother offers reassurance by reminding him of the gifts he gives his family every single day, just by being himself.
When you were born, we didn’t know you were going to be our son. We made some mistakes, but you helped us fix them. You taught us how important it is to love someone for exactly who they are. This baby is so lucky to have you, and so are we.
Aidan takes time to go back through his own baby pictures, to reflect on the ups and downs of his early childhood, on how far he and his parents have come. Life is a bit messy, he realizes. Love is about fixing mistakes you don’t even realize you’re making.
As a parent myself, I’m as comforted as Aidan is by this notion. We set out to love our children, but our love is often imperfect in ways we often don’t even realize. If we allow our children to take the lead in showing us who they are, if we allow our own hopes and dreams and expectations for them to take a back seat, then we can model for them what real love feels like.
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Books published by Lee & Low Books. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are used, although I prefer we all shop local and support our communities when we can.