Six transgender or gender-neutral young adults candidly share their stories in Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin, a February release from Candlewick. Based on the author’s in-depth interviews, the book follows the teens’ emotional and physical journeys before, during, and after their realization of their gender identity. Accompanying the narratives are portraits and candid photos of the teenagers taken by Kuklin, as well as family photographs.
The author, who has written and photographed more than 30 books for children and young adults, explained that Beyond Magenta “seems to follow the strain” of several of her earlier works. These include 2002’s From Wall to Wall, a photo essay revealing how walls define spaces and keep things in and out, and 2008’s No Choirboy: Murder, Violence, and Teenagers on Death Row, in which young inmates discuss their experiences.
“From Wall to Wall looks at our barriers, and who’s inside and who’s outside,” said Kuklin. “And No Choirboy is about individuals who did a terrible deed and were literally imprisoned within walls. It suddenly came to me – what if you’re imprisoned by your own body? And I began thinking about people who are born as one sex but never believe that they really are that sex. It occurred to me they must go through a long process of finding out and learning to express who they are. I decided I wanted to learn more about that.”
Kuklin researched relevant organizations that could put her in touch with individuals to interview. She contacted the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center in Manhattan, which primarily serves New York’s LGBT community and has a teen health outreach program. Through the center, Kuklin was able to connect with five of the teens profiled in Beyond Magenta. For geographical diversity, she sought out a sixth teen through Proud Theater, a nonprofit, all-volunteer theater group for gay and lesbian youth in Madison, Wis.
A Close Collaboration Finds a Publisher
Even before she began taping the hours-long interviews with her subjects, Kuklin spent time getting to know the teens individually. “I needed to know who each was as a person, to get as much authenticity as possible, and was careful to explain to them exactly what the book would cover,” she said. “I transcribed the interview tapes myself, since I have to hear and feel the voices in order to write them.” She then edited the interviews, queried the teens for clarification if necessary, shaped their narratives, and shared them with the interviewees. “We worked together to make sure that everything included in the book was honest and authentic,” she said. “It was very collaborative.”
Kuklin also consulted with the teens about the book’s title, which is a spin on a line in a poem written by Luke, the Wisconsin participant, who is an FTM transgender person. In his poem, the narrator responds to the question, “What are you?...you gotta choose…Pink or blue?” with the words, “…I’m a real nice color of magenta.” After a lengthy deliberation of options for the title, Kuklin sent her subjects a group e-mail suggesting Beyond Magenta, and was happy when they all agreed to it.
At Candlewick, senior editor Hilary Van Dusen willingly gave the book project the nod after Ken Wright (at the time an agent with Writers House, now publisher of Viking Children’s Books) submitted the proposal to her.
But not immediately after. “Honestly, it sat on my desk for a while, since I wrestled to figure out how it would fit on our list,” Van Dusen said. “Then I showed it to some colleagues, including our editorial director, Elizabeth Bicknell, who agreed that we should publish this book that had the potential to be controversial. We both understood that Candlewick would stand behind the decision and offer support to the author and people who share this book out in the world. There hasn’t been anything like Beyond Magenta published, and we realized there was a huge need for it.”
When Kuklin turned in the manuscript and her photographs, Van Dusen said she was amazed. “The honesty with which these teens were able to speak to her and the way she brought out their voices were remarkable. There is a lot of in-house excitement about the publication of this book.”
A Pleased Participant
Jessy, one of the FTM teens featured in Beyond Magenta, was very happy to be part of the book project. “Above all, what inspired me to participate was the kind love, support, and warmth I received from those around me,” he said, “especially from those at the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, who stood by my side every step of the way during my transition.”
Asked if he discovered more about himself through his interviews with Kuklin, Jessy – who aspires to become a doctor and has been accepted to medical school – responds emphatically: “Yes, yes, and yes! Being interviewed by Susan made me reflect upon myself in all kinds of ways. It made me realize how far I've come from where I started, and I was able to see how much I grew mentally, emotionally, and physically. I was able to share heartfelt experiences and perspectives, as the interviews made me dig into my deepest thoughts and feelings.”
As he reflected on how he’d like Beyond Magenta to have an impact on others, Jessy referenced people who have or are considering transitioning – and those who are close to them. “I hope teenage readers will see that transitioning is a learning experience that one should embrace no matter what hardships they may come across along the way,” he said. “No one says that it’s going to be easy, but who and what you become at the end is worth it all. If a reader is a parent or loved one of someone who is transgender, remain loving and supportive because the difference you make will be more than words could ever express.”
Referring to the six teens as “my kids,” Kuklin made it clear that she bonded closely with them during the four years she spent working on Beyond Magenta. “I am not objective at all, but am completely passionate about these teens,” she said. “I hope the book shows readers that these teenagers are not stereotypes, but are lovely, interesting, multidimensional individuals from whom they can learn. My ultimate hope is that readers can see reflections of themselves in some facets of these teens. My second hope is that the book will give people more of an understanding when they see someone a bit different from themselves – an understanding that that person is not too different after all.”
Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin. Candlewick, $22.99 Feb. ISBN 978-0-7636-5611-9