Introducing Teddy: a gentle story about gender and friendship by Jessica Walton, illustrated by Dougal MacPherson.
Bloomsbury, New York, 2016.
Picture book, 32 pages.
NOTE: This is a work of fiction although I’m not reviewing it on Fiction Friday.
The story of a young child’s imaginary friend who transitions.
I appreciated what this book is trying to do, but we still didn’t like it much. Picture books are hard to write, and Walton has good moments, but at points her text is too wordy. Not that the text-to-picture ratio is off, but the dialogue in particular betrays an awkwardness and lack of flow. Minor character Ava is building a robot that reoccurs and complicates the plot for no reason.
Great illustrations could have compensated and elevated this book into a recommended read. However, the illustration fell flat. Tilly (the teddy bear who is deadnamed in the title), is the main character here. Her emotions are crucial to the story, but barring that we should at least feel some empathy for her.
However, Tilly’s expressions are difficult to read. I had to go over the story several times before finding any cues about her emotions. Kids aren’t likely to pick up on these nuances. In our home, the kids didn’t care about this book, and it didn’t meet our goal.
I don’t mean that I dislike the illustrations entirely, because in a different story or format these could be wonderful. But the illustrator doesn’t seem to have a good grasp of how to best utilize the unique picture book format. The make-or-break here is the reader’s connection with Tilly, and MacPherson seems uncertain what to do with her. His awkwardness compounds Walton’s missteps in the text.
The book is gentle, but there’s also a lack of clarity. The title is “Introducing Teddy”, but to whom? Tilly’s friend Errol reintroduces her to their playmate Ava, but only after calling and referring to Tilly as Teddy. Deadnaming is a serious topic that I wish this title had shown more sensitivity around. This and the awkward robot could both have been easily avoided.
Tilly first comes out to Errol, then is reintroduced to Ava, then changes her bowtie into a hair bow. I see the symbolic potential in this clever idea and the possibilities for imaginative play. A velcro bow and any child can have their own transgender or non-binary stuffed bear/dinosaur/doggie/etc. Since a stuffed bear is the same physically for either gender, I read this as a symbolic transition. Tilly has transitioned socially and is now finishing her outward transition.
But once again the waters are muddied by Ava taking off her hair bow and saying she likes her hair down. Why is that compared to Tilly transitioning?
The book normalizes that tea time and riding bikes and most anything a child does is appropriate for girls or boys. Tilly likes the same activities she did before transitioning. This is truly a quiet book, unlike some other transgender children’s books which can be garish. I liked the ideas behind this, but wished the execution lived up to them.
If you are trying to specifically explain to a very young child that a friend or family member is transitioning, I think it could be useful. If you are just trying to educate your children or students about transgender people, then it would be much less useful.
I’m uncertain whether it would be good for transgender children. It could be affirming or provide a talking point, but it’s vague about transitioning and what being transgender is, so I think a book like Who Are You? would be more useful. This book also lacks an author’s note or any information to help adults navigate this conversation.
For now, I’ll err on the side of more transgender representation being a plus even if deeply flawed in this case, and wish I could wholeheartedly recommend Introducing Teddy.