If you’re somehow involved in the kidlit publishing world, you’ve almost definitely heard of Christian Trimmer, Editorial Director of Henry Holt Books for Young Readers. But he’s also an author, most recently of the picture book Teddy’s Favorite Toy, about a little boy whose favorite toy is a doll. He’s here today to talk about the personal experience that inspired the book and the growing conversation about gender nonconformity.
But first, here’s the book, which released in February and is illustrated by Madeline Valentine:
A mom goes to great lengths to rescue her son’s favorite doll in this delightful tribute to treasured toys—and mothers.
Teddy has a lot of cool toys. But his very favorite doll has the best manners, the sickest fighting skills, and a fierce sense of style.
Then one morning, something truly awful happens. And there’s only one woman fierce enough to save the day. Can Teddy’s mom reunite Teddy with his favorite toy?
I have a vivid memory from my childhood. I’m five years old, lying in my parents’ bed alone. It’s close to bedtime; my mother is somewhere in the apartment, and my father has yet to return home from work. I am sucking my thumb, an activity that my mom has strictly forbidden but that I just cannot keep from doing (again, I’m five). Suddenly, my dad is in the doorframe of the room, and I instinctively pop my thumb out of my mouth. I know my dad doesn’t really care about the thumb-sucking, but if he tells my mom, I will be yelled at. He gently walks over and kneels in front of me, and as if he knows what I’m thinking, he says, “Let’s make a deal. I won’t say anything about you sucking your thumb as long as you cut out all the girl stuff.”
The “girl stuff.” He means me putting on my mom’s skirts and lipstick and sticking tennis balls in my shirt. He’s talking about my play preferences, particularly my favorite toy, a Wonder Woman doll inspired by the TV series starring Lynda Carter, a doll I just happen to have tucked in beside me. I instantly feel shame, and I give him a nod of ascent. Yes, Dad, I will try to behave less like a girl. (If I have a cornerstone memory, this might be it.) I remember coming home from kindergarten soon thereafter to find her gone, my mom informing me that she had thrown the doll away because one of its legs had broken off. In my mind, I scream, “But I don’t care about the leg—I still love her!”
Though I try to keep my promise to my dad, I fail. But I learn to keep my preferences hidden. I only play with Wonder Woman when I’m alone. I look forward to playdates away from my home, particularly with Muriel, who is French and has all of the Strawberry Shortcake dolls and is happy to share them with a boy. When I play superheroes with the other kids in the neighborhood, I whisper my chosen character—Wonder Woman, naturally—to my brother and him alone. As I get older, I start to collect more gender-appropriate toys: the Masters of the Universe and Thundercats. Teela and Cheetara are my favorites, but it is easy enough to keep that hidden among their all-dude colleagues.
Still, I’m not behaving the way a boy should. I’m teased at school. I try to be what they want me to be and fail again, and the layers of shame are getting deeper. I’m given mixed messages from my mom: “Don’t let their teasing bother you, they’re just jealous. But you better not be gay.” I am gay, and I don’t talk about it in front of her for years to make sure she feels comfortable. That approach—put others comfort before your own—becomes second nature in most of my relationships, personal and professional. It is exhausting.
I just wanted to play with a doll!
Years later, I write a picture book called Teddy’s Favorite Toy about a kid and his favorite doll and their awesome adventures. His mother doesn’t care that he loves this doll—she celebrates it. As I’m working on the manuscript, Target announces that it will stop labeling toys for boys and girls. On the day we announce the deal, Mattel runs a Barbie commercial featuring a boy for the first time. The outrage that accompanies both events is muted by the overwhelming support.
There’s a growing conversation about gender nonconformity. (That’s what I was doing back in the early 1980s—gender nonconforming. I much prefer that expression to “sissy.”) Earlier this year, the New York Times published an article called “Breaking Gender Stereotypes in the Toy Box,” which concluded, “Children are actively seeking clues about what their gender identities mean; toys and play should give them space, not narrow their choices.” Last summer, the Times published an article about “How to Raise a Feminist Son,” which included this very valuable lesson: Let him be himself. Though progress has been made in breaking down gender stereotypes for children, the barriers remain strong, particularly for boys. Michael Kimmel, a professor of sociology and gender studies, in a CNN article titled “Why Girls Can Be Boyish but Boys Can’t Be Girlish,” noted, “Women have changed what it means to be a woman and embrace a much larger human canvas. Men are still painting on half the canvas.”
Though I was raised in an era that shunned and shamed its effeminate boys, I found a way to move past traditional ideas of masculinity, to use more of the canvas. Therapy absolutely helped, as did an intelligent, open-minded circle of friends. Living in New York City made everything seem possible—I highly recommend it. Being gay, the ultimate affront to traditional masculinity, revealed to me the limitations put on straight men in terms of the careers they are “allowed” to pursue and the way they approach relationships. I highly recommend it.
I have friends with small children, and it’s amazing to see how gentle and encouraging they are with them. I hope that for every child—that they get to be themselves and experience the world without limits. I wrote Teddy’s Favorite Toy for all the little kids who maybe like things they’re not supposed to. I wrote it for the parents who allow their kids to explore the world unfettered. Most of all, I wrote it for five-year-old me, who was made to feel ashamed for loving a doll.
Christian Trimmer is a children’s book editor and writer. He is the author of Simon’s New Bed, Mimi and Shu in I’ll Race You!, Teddy’s Favorite Toy, and Snow Pony and the Seven Miniature Ponies. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his partner. Learn more about him, his books, and lots of other things at ChristianTrimmer.com.