Thursday, 13 April 2017

Trevor’s diverse library for kids

The popular children’s song by Raffi, called “Like Me And You” is supposed to be about how we’re all alike. For years it has irritated me to no end. My family loves Raffi, particularly his song, “Baby Beluga”, but Raffi doesn’t love us. He shows no sign of ever having considered a family like ours. “Like Me And You” names children from countries around the world, saying “Each one is much like another / The child of a mother and a father”.

When my son was about two years old and we listened to the song for the first time, we paused after that lyric to explain that Raffi forgot our family. And then we proceeded to sing loudly on each repetition, “The child of a DADA and a PAPA”.

It’s important for children who belong to marginalized or underrepresented communities to have access to books and other media with characters that are like them and their families. I’m a transgender guy in a gay relationship, and I want my kids to read books that include two-mom or two-dad families, or characters who express their gender as non-binary or trans.

I also desperately want my kids’ friends who come from typical mom-and-dad families to see families like mine reflected in the literature they read. Kids notice everything. All our kids will notice if every single book they read is about a family with a mom and a dad, and they will naturally extrapolate that families like mine, which are not in the books, are lesser than, not worth featuring.

The same goes for race, ethnicity, culture, and (dis)ability. Kids notice skin colour, whether parents like it or not. If all the good guys on TV are white, and the bad guys are Black, kids will absorb that and it will become part of their worldview.  I need my able-bodied, neurotypical white kids with blue eyes and blond hair to access books that feature main characters including those in wheelchairs, or who are nonverbal, who are indigenous and people of colour. This is one of my most important parenting jobs in my journey to raise decent, anti-racist (simply non-racist is not good enough) human beings.

Today I’m writing in celebration of my little collection of diverse children’s books, magazines, and music. I have built it thoughtfully over the last few years. It is by no means exhaustive but I do feel that each work on this list is valuable in its own right as a piece of literature and art, as well as including and centering marginalized voices. Sometimes it can be hard to tell from a glance online whether a “diverse” book is truly as diverse as it claims, or even if the story, writing, and illustrations are decent. I hope that sharing some of the legwork I’ve done will be helpful to others.

Do you have favourite diverse kids’ books not on this list? Please mention them in the comments!


All the books on this list have indigenous authors. (Yes, white people are still publishing books about indigenous people written by white people. Beware of those.)

Sometimes I Feel Like a Fox by Danielle Daniel

Ages 2 and up

This book is dedicated “to the thousands of Métis and Aboriginal children who grew up never knowing their totem animal.” Each page spread depicts a different totem animal in the Anishinaabe tradition and describes the animal’s character.

My toddler, like many her age, loves animals. “Fox Book”, as she calls it, was her first true favourite book. My 6-year-old gets a lot out of the rich, descriptive vocabulary, including words like, “confident”, “purposeful”, “delicate,” and “intuitive.”

My Heart Fills With Happiness by Monique Gray Smith, illustrations by Julie Flett

Singing, drumming, baking bannock, and holding hands are among the beautiful (and easy to sound out!) activities that “fill my heart with happiness.” My toddler loves it and my six-year-old is capable of reading it to her. Win/win. Illustrations show kids who indigenous children will notice look like themselves.

Indigenous Dwellings of Canada: A Colouring Book published by Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre

This booklet states it may be copied for educational, non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given to the publisher, so you can order a copy and share with friends. Each page spread depicts a different indigenous dwelling and includes a written explanation of the dwelling’s features. We’ve read it and looked at it at length with our six-year-old because there is so much to explore, but he hasn’t coloured in it yet.

The Raven and the Loon by Rachel and Sean Qitsualik-Tinsley, illustrated by Kim Smith

An Inuit story told by Inuit story-tellers. A toddler can begin to grasp the narrative through the bright pictures and direct emotional language, but there’s plenty going on to keep my six-year-old interested.

The Thundermaker written and illustrated by Alan Syliboy

Most amazing illustrations ever! The artist lives in Millbrook First Nation in Nova Scotia, and draws inspiration from the Mi’kmaw petroglyph tradition as well as mixed-media work. In this story, Little Thunder learns about the importance of making thunder for his people, and makes some dramatic mistakes along the way. The simple sentences are packed with action, like throwing around thunderbolts, holes that open up to swallow monsters, and animals and objects that change form.

The Rainbow Serpent by Dick Roughsey

I picked up this book at an airport in Australia. It was the only book in the store about an aboriginal story that wasn’t written by some white guy descended from colonizers. Despite being published by an imprint of HarperCollins, it has a few obvious typos. Nevertheless, my six-year-old and I LOVE this book. It tells an exciting story, in Aboriginal tradition of Australia, about how the land was formed into the hills and mountains of today, and how some people turned into different species of animals. The narrative explains that since animal species originated from humans, we must always protect them; these animals came from us and are our relatives. This offers a way of understanding the human relationship to the environment that contrasts sharply with assumptions inherent in capitalist, Christian-dominated society.

Missing Nimama by Melanie Florence, Illustrated by Francois Thisdale

Parents need to pre-read this one before deciding if it is appropriate for their kid. The story is about a child whose mother is missing, like far too many missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada. The narrative shifts perspective subtly between the child, the missing mother, and the grandmother in a way that will probably be confusing for most kids under age eight or so. I hand this book (and a tissue) to most adults who come to visit us. It’s a hard, sad read that we absolutely must read to bring awareness to the crisis of missing and murdered aboriginal women. This book reminds us that these women have families – they are daughters, sisters, and mothers who are deeply missed.

When the Rain Sings: Poems by Young Native Americans edited by Lee Francis

The poems in this collection, published in 1999, were written by Native kids ages 7 to 17. These young poets tackle a wide range of topics from sunshine, sunset, and raindrops to missing family members, changing or lost culture, and police. A photograph accompanies each poem (examples include a traditional cradleboard, a camp scene from 1890, and dancers in 2006). One direct and brutally honest poem by a 17-year-old begins with, “My name belongs to a dead white woman. How it got down to me?” The poet goes on to describe the meaning of her aboriginal name, Spotted Feather.


Daddy, Papa and Me, by Leslea Newman, Illustrated by Carol Thompson

Daddy, Papa, and Me are a Caucasian, two-dad family that have a busy day full of activities. By the end of it, Daddy and Papa are exhausted. This board book has decent rhymes and is suitable for babies, toddlers or kids learning to read and sound out simple words.

And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, Illustrated by Henry Cole

Based on a true story about two male penguins that hatched an egg and raised a chick together at a zoo in Central Park, New York City. The illustrations are beautiful, and the story is interesting and informative. The human families depicted visiting the zoo are ethnically diverse.

What Makes a Baby, by Cory Silverberg, Illustrated by Fiona Smyth

We relied heavily on this book to explain the creation of baby number two to our first child. Silverberg explains about the uterus, sperm, and eggs, but doesn’t connect them to genders or “mommy” and “daddy.” What Makes a Baby works for everyone, including folks who make their families using assisted reproductive technology or surrogacy, as well as lesbian couples and transgender men who carry a pregnancy. The narrative also explains both vaginal (“through a part of the boy that most people call the vagina”) and surgical births.

My only (slight) complaint has to do with consent and medical procedures. One sentence in the book reads, “Sometimes a midwife or a doctor will be the one to say it is time for the baby to be born.” Ideally, I’d prefer a more nuanced phrasing that includes some mention of the parent whose body is doing the gestating and birthing.

Rainbow Train (CD) by Chana Rothman

The music on this album is of such decent quality that the professional musicians in our household can mostly tolerate the fact that the toddler insists on listening to it on repeat in the car (for months now). Musical styles include hip-hop, pop, folk, and disco. For those who need to know, the pitch and rhythm are excellent and phrasing is capable.

The songs celebrate gender diversity and also provide kids with some words to deal with dogma they might encounter. For example, a kid on one track explains that, “there’s no such thing as boy colours or girl colours.” Songs also mention historical figures who challenged norms and changed our society.

We’ve been listening to Rainbow Train for a few years, and the kids get more and more out of it as they mature. Both my kids thought for a LONG time that the lyric “gender, gender gender, put it in a blender” was all about blending up some ginger. I recently explained to the six-year-old that the lyric is, in fact, GENDER, and we talked about the difference between gender and sex.


Gina’s Wheels, by Mary Harelkin Bishop

Gina’s Wheels addresses disability explicitly. As in, the whole book is entirely focused on disability, which is okay-ish, though I ought to hunt around for some books that simply include disabled characters being who they are.

Gina, an able-bodied young girl with orange hair, becomes fascinated with wheelchairs after meeting the Paralympian Colette Bourgonje. We learn about Colette’s injury and her tremendous athletic achievements, which, again, is okay-ish. However, I need to find some stories with disabled characters that aren’t all about achieving physical prowess despite disability (known as the disabled hero, or “supercrip” narrative).

When Gina goes to kindergarten and meets a classmate in a wheelchair, she is ready to be friends. D’aww. The classroom includes a girl wearing a hijab and a Black boy, but they don’t say words or have roles in the narrative. All the main characters are Caucasian.


Books that fit into more than one category!!!

What?! What will we do?

Yes, it’s true. There are some books that celebrate a wonderful range of diversity on more than one level.

Everywhere Babies, by Susan Meyers, illustrated by Marla Frazee

This sweet board book is lovely for babies, toddlers, kids who are learning to read, and those expecting new siblings. The text highlights all the different ways that babies are loved and cared for by their families and caregivers. The illustrations include two mom and two dad families, grandparent caregivers, teenage caregivers, and male caregivers in addition to the more common mom-and-dad family unit. There are depictions of Asian, Brown, Black (some with natural African hairstyles), and Caucasian children and families. One of my favourite pages describes the many ways babies are fed, including pictures of breastfeeding, bottlefeeding, cup feeding, spoon feeding, and beginning solid foods (along with giant messes!).

Under the Love Umbrella by Davina Bell, Illustrated by Allison Colpoys

This is a story about feeling connected to our loved ones, when we are excited, scared, shy, hesitant, tired, or even apart. No matter where you are, you’re always under your loved one’s “love umbrella”. The illustrations are bright and detailed. The main characters depicted include people of colour and a two-mom family.

KAZOO Magazine

This is sold as a “magazine for girls age 5 to 10”, but we all need to get it for our boys, too. My boy needs to see representations of strong, intelligent, creative, powerful women just as much as my girl does. If we’re ever going to improve on our patriarchal rape culture, surely we must educate our boys.

I LOVE this mag. It comes out 4 times per year and includes stories, poems, articles, word puzzles, colouring, and lots of suggested activities. Every item in the magazine is girl or woman-focused. For instance, January’s issue was all about building stuff, and included an interview with a female engineer.

The editor’s approach is obviously intersectional, and care is taken to include women from typically underrepresented groups. In the last issue we received, a story featured a girl in a wheelchair as a main character. Unlike Gina’s Wheels, disability was not the focus of the story, but was incorporated into the narrative. As readers, we got a sense of how disability made the girl’s lived experience different from the world of able-bodied folks – without making her into a rarified hero or a pitiful dependent.

Fair warning to parents: My 6-year-old needs plenty of help in reading this mag and trying out the various projects. There’s lots to discuss and not much that he can do alone at his age. 

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Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Parenting Survival: When My Toddler Can't Sleep

The Toddler was up at 2am so we went out to listen for frogs. Unfortunately, the frogs in the ditch seemed to be fast asleep. We settled for waking up all the animals in the barn. We got the rooster crowing nicely and the goats got up to pee and poop. Then we turned off the barn light and went out again, leaving them all wide awake. None of it woke the frogs.

Inside the house, we cooked plantain because the Toddler was famished. 
Toddler: Friends X and Y were here, but not right now.

Me: No, not right now. You know why?

Toddler: X and Y are sleeping!

Me: YES!!!

Smiles and cuddles. Yawn.
ALL this started because Toddler woke up wanting to nurse and in my groggy state I didn't notice that the damn supplementer tube was pulled out of the water and not working, which led to much screaming. Not your average breastfeeding problems, yet somehow I am certain every parent has been there done that in some similar fashion.

Now she has nursed back to sleep and is using my belly for her pillow.

Supplementer? Toddler? Yes. After relying on it heavily when she was an infant, we just have not been able to shed the tube. It is part of our nursing relationship, even though the "supplement" is water. She is about the best hydrated kid I know, and I suspect the water is alright for her teeth, too.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

La Leche League Celebrations!

2016 is La Leche League’s 60th anniversary, so this worldwide breastfeeding support organization is having some big celebrations. I’m honoured to be participating in two of these events, one online and the other in Chicago! 

Here’s the info:

We’re having an online global LLL meeting for 24 hours straight on October 1st.  Any person, regardless of gender, who is breast or chestfeeding or planning to breast or chestfeed in the future is welcome to join us. This is just like a local chapter support meeting, but online. The meeting is happening on Facebook, and you can join the group for it here. LLL leaders from around the world are hosting different hours, including volunteers based in Canada, New Zealand, Japan, Slovenia, Italy, France, Israel, USA, Mexico, Korea, Netherlands, and more. We’ll post discussion threads, and folks can ask questions, comment, and share information and support. My hour, with co-leaders Melissa Kent and Linda Mellway McIntyre, is taking place at 10pm Greenwich Mean Time.

An in-person celebration is taking place in Chicago on October 15th. I’ll be speaking on a panel with five other leaders, talking about my journey with LLL and why I’m so passionate about this amazing organization. I’m extra super excited about the evening dinner with LLL founders, including Marian Tompson. We’ve talked on the phone a few times, and Marian has been a staunch supporter of my path to breastfeeding. I have long been inspired not only by her work founding LLL, but also her advocacy around breastfeeding and HIV. This will be my first time meeting her in real life! I’ll leave you with my favourite Marian Tompson quote from an interview by the Pioneer Press for the Wilmette Life:

When Tompson gave birth to her third child, a group of 17 hospital employees—externs, interns, even the receptionist—came to watch. "They circled my delivery table," Tompson said. "After it was over, one of the residents walked up to my doctor and said, 'Doctor, how did you do it?'"

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Publishers Weekly: Ultra Queer Book Review

I'm excited to report that Publishers Weekly reviewed my book, Where's the Mother: Stories from a Transgender Dad.

And, the reviewer appreciated the ways that I draw attention to varying degrees of privilege, including my own. It's a rad, queer review!

From Publishers Weekly: "MacDonald’s debut memoir tells a tale noticeably absent from the plethora of parenting and breastfeeding books available: that of a transgender man in a gay marriage to a cisgender man who was himself adopted, both desperately trying to feed their biological child nothing but human milk... MacDonald owns his identity, using his elevated platform to call attention to issues faced by transwomen and transmen, people of color, and those living in poverty. Most importantly, his story of transitioning is frank, clever, and easy to process, providing plenty of parallels to his later struggles with nursing for curious cis readers... a refreshing and insightful narrative."

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Parenting Through a Vigil for Orlando

As queer parents, my partner and I carefully discussed whether to attend our local vigil in Winnipeg, Canada for the LGBT people of colour who were victims in Orlando. I’m a gay, transgender man, married to a gay man, and we are privileged to be raising a five-year-old boy, Jacob, and a twenty-month-old girl, Emily. We needed to consider how to talk to our children about what happened, if the event would be safe for them, and if we could convince our kids to behave appropriately given the circumstances that were the reason for the vigil.
Our twenty-month-old toddler is going through painful teething and prefers my arms at all times, so leaving her with someone else during the vigil was not an option. The event started at 8:30pm, when our kids would usually be winding down for bed. But we wanted desperately to be there, to find our community and exchange hugs, and to show our support for the victims who were mostly young, LGBT, Latinx people.

My partner and I decided that we must get there. We talked to our five-year-old about what happened using simple but honest language. We emphasized that the violence occurred in another country, and that as white people living in Canada, we are lucky to have more privilege than those who were killed or injured in Orlando. It is important for us to stand up in support of our queer siblings of colour.

But as we said these things, we were also aware that other LGBT events could be targeted. A trans friend of mine who lives in Philadelphia told me that he and his partner decided not to risk taking their own young child to any pride events due to safety concerns. One parent or the other might go, but not both, and never their child. The calculations we make about personal safety and risks feel dramatically different now that we are parents.

At the vigil in Winnipeg, hundreds of queer people and allies gathered, surrounded by a heavy police presence as well as ambulances and fire trucks that lined the block. I felt deeply moved by the words of an officer who spoke on behalf of police to let us know that they and other first responders are here for our community, doing their best to keep us safe.
Simultaneously, I thought of trans friends I know who have experienced discrimination and violence at the hands of police. I’m not talking about decades ago at the Stonewall riots, but personal friends in Canada and in the US who continue to endure police brutality.

As politicians and community leaders spoke and lit candles, we struggled to find the right balance as parents at the event. A family sitting next to ours on the grass had brought ninja turtles for their children to play with. After a few minutes of trying to listen to the speeches whilst our children gazed with rapt attention at the other children’s sickeningly inappropriate gunplay, we moved elsewhere. My toddler needed to pee about half a dozen times, so I kept whisking her over to some nearby bushes and then returning to the crowd. She and her brother ran up and down a small hill, but didn’t make too much noise, and hopefully didn’t disturb others. At one point, a man with a walker came through and I hastily grabbed both children to prevent them from tripping him, while listening to a community organizer speaking out against Islamophobia.

After the main speeches were over and some balloons released to the sky, our kids were absolutely finished. It was 10 pm. A lawyer we hadn’t seen for years approached to greet us but we had to hurry away. During the car ride home, when all I wanted to do was reflect quietly, I sang cheerfully to our toddler who was constantly on the verge of screaming from exhaustion but could not seem to fall asleep.

After becoming parents we got busy and our priorities changed. We haven’t been to a gay bar in years. We connect to our queer community much more easily online than we do in person. Other queer parents we know posted to Facebook to say they were at the vigil in spirit but needed to stay home for bedtime. For any parent, often already tired from sleepless nights and working during the day, it takes a huge amount of energy to get kids out to an event like this one and address their many questions and various behaviors while paying one’s own respects. Add to this the daily stresses of being a trans or non-binary person and it can become overwhelming.

Yet, my partner and I are fearful of what our kids will face when they enter the public school system and broader society. Now more than ever, we feel motivated to do our best to be involved in our community and to promote tolerance and diversity. First, we must take care of ourselves and survive. And then when we can, for the sake of our own children and LGBT youth everywhere, we must attend the vigils, we must speak out, we must stand up for vulnerable people, we must lead by example, and change the world for the better.

Monday, 6 June 2016

Proud to be a New La Leche League Leader!

In 2014, La Leche League International changed its policy about the eligibility of Leader (volunteer) Applicants to be inclusive of all gender identities. As a result of the rule change, I was able to apply, and I went through La Leche League Canada’s (LLLC) thorough and fantastic training, becoming accredited as a Leader two weeks ago. I am grateful to the Leader who supported me and spent many hours answering my questions, and to the Leader at the Accreditation Department who guided me with patience and kindness and kept me on track.

LLL’s updated policy came in advance of federal legislation proposed by the Government of Canada to protect transgender Canadians from discrimination. This quote from a message sent by LLLC to its Leaders shows the confident position La Leche League has taken on this issue (reprinted here with permission):

 We recognize that any breastfeeding parent, regardless of whether they self-identify as a mother or father, should be - and is now - welcome to investigate LLL Leadership. There are other prerequisites that a potential Leader needs to satisfy, but being a woman isn't one of them.”

La Leche League is the world’s best breastfeeding peer support organization – this was the reason I wanted to become a Leader when I first asked about applying, and it is why I am so proud to join other Leaders in serving breastfeeding families. Leaders assist more than 20,000 families across Canada each year, using carefully compiled resources.

I feel I truly found my community when I found La Leche League. LLL is one place where I know I will be accepted with my breastfeeding toddler and where my nursing relationship with my child will always be valued. In fact, I believe I have felt more criticism around nursing an “older”* child in public than for nursing as a man. And that really speaks to why we still desperately need LLL, and why it was founded sixty years ago. We need to continue sharing information and resources around breastfeeding and the breastfeeding relationship with those who come in search of support in the context of a culture that continues to marginalize breastfeeding.

* “older” is in quotes, because we are talking here about anyone over the age of one. But let’s face it: two- and three-year-olds are simply not “older”!

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Chestfeeding Research Published!

In this University of Ottawa study, funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, I interviewed 22 transmasculine individuals.

Here’s a quick overview of what’s new and exciting about this paper:

1)     Discussion of pregnancy and chestfeeding after top surgery. Out of 22 participants, 9 had chest surgery before they became pregnant. They experienced different amounts of mammary growth during pregnancy. Some chose to chestfeed and others didn’t. This is the first paper to discuss experiences of chestfeeding after chest surgery!

2)     The paper includes the first academic reference to a transmasculine individual binding during the lactation period, and taking testosterone during the lactation period. As the paper states, the participant reported that his child had normal testosterone levels, i.e., it appears that the child was not exposed to any effects of testosterone through the milk. Also, the participant reported that there seemed to be no decrease in his milk supply. Binding and taking testosterone allowed the participant to chestfeed for longer because these actions helped mitigate his gender dysphoria.

3)     Zero of the participants’ surgeons discussed the potential for future chestfeeding before performing top surgery. Equally important, participants reported that they didn’t feel comfortable bringing the topic up, either. They cited their surgeons’ strong and obvious belief in the gender binary and the feeling that they needed to tell the right story in order to access chest surgery.

4)     Changes in secondary sex characteristics during pregnancy. References in the academic and medical literature state that a low-pitched voice and facial hair are permanent results of taking testosterone. However, in this paper, we report the experience of one participant who found that when he stopped taking testosterone and became pregnant, his facial hair literally fell out and his voice became higher in pitch. 

5)     Experiences of gender dysphoria. As you might expect, some study participants reported experiencing gender dysphoria when chestfeeding. Some of them stopped chestfeeding due to gender dysphoria. However, others did not gender the process of feeding their babies from their chests at all. Nine of 16 participants who initiated chestfeeding reported experiencing no gender dysphoria while chestfeeding. Three of them didn’t experience gender dysphoria during chestfeeding but they DID experience it after they weaned their babies. The usefulness of chestfeeding in terms of nutrition and bonding was cited frequently as a reason for doing it. 

6)     Unexpected and unwanted lactation. Several participants who had had chest surgery and chose not to chestfeed their babies experienced problems with milk coming in. One had early symptoms of mastitis. Both the participants and their health care providers were unprepared. 

7)     How gender dysphoria can be triggered by health professionals. We tend to think of gender dysphoria as something that a trans person experiences because of their body. In this study, we found dysphoria could be triggered, in a person who otherwise was not experiencing it, by the way they are treated by others. From the paper: “care providers and others are capable of causing gender dysphoria in a patient by misgendering them. Conversely, care providers can affirm a patient’s gender identity through appropriate language, respectful touch, and other intentional actions, and thus alleviate distress associated with gender dysphoria.” In other words, the act of chestfeeding itself might not cause gender dysphoria for a transgender guy, but a health care provider talking about putting baby to “mom’s breast” might do so. 

8)     Using donor milk. Seven of the 22 participants said they used or intended to use donor milk, and one donated milk to others. 

9)     The language. This study was trans led, and the language used throughout the paper is appropriate for our community. We didn’t say in this paper, “some trans men use this word chestfeeding” and then ourselves use breastfeeding or nursing after that when we wrote in our own words. We used chestfeeding throughout the paper, as THE word. Why? Some trans guys are okay with “breastfeeding,” but some are very triggered by it. We didn’t think any trans guys would be triggered by “chestfeeding,” so we decided to use that term throughout.

What a way to celebrate the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia!

With so much thanks to the study participants who made this possible, and my research team members Joy Noel-Weiss, Diana West, Michelle Walks, MaryLynne Biener, Alanna Kibbe, and Elizabeth Myler. Big thank you as well to Karleen Gribble for her detailed comments in the open peer review process!