Not many of my Friend Friday guests have run away to join the circus, but Lisa Robinson has! Well, perhaps she didn’t exactly run away, but click here to be amazed at her aerial skills. She’s also pretty darned good at keeping her feet on the ground, writing picture books on a varied number of topics. Her latest, Were I Not A Girl, The Inspiring Story of Dr. James Barry, with Laura Simkin Berke (Schwartz and Wade, Random House) is a thoughtful introduction to Dr. James Barry, a 19th century transgender military surgeon. Read on to learn the story behind the story.
Thank you, Kirby, for hosting me on Friend Friday!
The following are the first two lines from my and Lauren Simkin Berke’s picture book biography, WERE I NOT A GIRL, THE INSPIRING AND TRUE STORY OF DR. JAMES BARRY:
Imagine living at a time when you couldn’t be the person you felt you were inside. You couldn’t be true to yourself.
First lines present many challenges. How to entice your audience to continue reading. How to convey what the story is about. How to begin?! I always enjoy puzzling through first lines and often I try to write as many as I can until the right one leaps out at me as the best match for the story. (I often refer to this Writer’s Digest article about first lines as a tool for producing and playing with a variety of them). However, the first lines for this picture book were particularly difficult. I have lost count of how many times I reworked them. This challenge felt formidable because I felt a deep responsibility to tell Dr. Barry’s story with sensitivity and inclusiveness.
WERE I NOT A GIRL, THE INSPIRING AND TRUE STORY OF DR. JAMES BARRY is about a 19th century transgender military surgeon who was a tireless advocate for public health reform. Dr. Barry was an exuberant and passionate person who never shied away from speaking his mind about injustice, even if he ruffled feathers (and that he often did!) His story is an important part of LGBTQ+ history and I hoped to convey it in a way that was inspiring and engaging for young readers.
Several writers who identify as transgender assisted me with the language and wording. Sorting through their feedback was tricky as their suggestions often conflicted. However, the time taken to comb through the language and wording felt worth it. My editor was incredibly patient whenever I came back with additional ideas for refining and improving the text—even after the copyediting had been deemed complete. The extra effort paid off: I was thrilled to read this sentence from the Horn Book review:
“A remarkable life is given a sensitive portrayal in this picture-book biography.”
Even more gratifying was the photo a close friend recently sent me—the expression of delight on her transgender son’s face while reading the book.
It does take a village to create a picture book. I’m excited that everyone who worked on this one was dedicated to making it as thoughtful as it could be.
And the last line became a delightful companion to the opening lines:
Still, one answer is clear:
James was living his truth.
Lisa Robinson is a child psychiatrist, voracious reader, and children’s book author. She lives near Boston with her family and three Spice Cats: Cinnamon, Nutmeg, and Paprika. She has an M.D. from Tufts University and an MFA in Writing for Young People from Lesley University. When she’s not reading or writing, she’s walking on the tight wire or flying on aerial silks at her local circus studio. You can find her at her website or on Twitter @elisaitw.