Penelope is “no ordinary kid.” Penelope is a ninja—strong and smart, with ninja moves. It’s hard to be a ninja with a name like “Penelope,” though, when everyone calls you “cute.” And no one sees that Penelope is a boy—so he has to tell them, in an affirming new picture book that is also a true story, written by the real boy’s mother.
Penelope, the five-year-old, Black protagonist of Born Ready: The True Story of a Boy Named Penelope, by Jodie Patterson (Crown Books for Young Readers), knows what he likes, from activities like karate and skateboarding to clothing choices like high-tops, baggy blue jeans, and button-front shirts. But his mom, dad, and three siblings, while loving, are too busy to stop and notice the most important thing about him: that he’s a boy. Readers see his anger and frustration as he stomps through the house and pounds his fists to get attention.
His mother finally asks why he’s so angry, and he replies, “Because everyone thinks I’m a girl.” It’s fine to feel like a boy, his mother responds, and he counters that he doesn’t just feel like a boy, “I AM a boy.” She listens quietly as he explains, “I love you, Mama, but I don’t want to be you. I want to be Papa.” He asks her to help him be a boy, holding her hand to “transfer some of my ninja powers to help her understand.” The first-person perspective of the book helps readers connect with Penelope’s feelings, perhaps nowhere more than in this scene.
His mother agrees unconditionally, and says they’ll make a plan to tell “everyone we love” that he is a boy. In the next spread, Penelope has a new, shorter haircut. His Grandpa G flies in from Ghana for Penelope’s birthday party, and his mother tells him of Penelope’s gender. The grandfather comments that in his language of Twi, “gender isn’t such a big deal. We don’t use gender pronouns.” This is a much-needed reminder for readers that the traditional Western view of gender isn’t all there is.
Penelope’s big brother still doesn’t understand, but their mother says that it doesn’t need to make sense to him. “This is about love,” she insists.
Penelope’s father then says that if Penelope is a boy, he has to tell him himself. Penelope stands up tall and does. This feels like a lesson in confident masculinity, in itself an affirmation of Penelope’s identity.
The next Monday, we see Penelope dressing in a shirt and tie for school. “I’m going to show my friends all of me,” he says, walking into the building “like I ‘own the joint’–just like Grandpa JohnnyBoy, from Harlem, taught me.”
A friend asks, “Hey, Pen, why are you wearing a boy’s uniform?” and Penelope tells him that he is a boy. He also asserts that he likes his full name, Penelope. His friend is unfazed and says he looks great. The school principal is likewise fully supportive, though she clearly hasn’t had transgender students before. She admits, “Today you’re my teacher.”
Later, we see Penelope in karate class, training with other students and showing that he doesn’t quit, even when a skill is hard. Eventually, Penelope competes in his first tournament, where he can put his training to the test, affirming his identity in the process. (I won’t spoil the outcome.)
I love this book. Maybe it’s that Penelope’s personality shines through on every page, both in the text and in the illustrations by Charnelle Pinkney Barlow, which give him just the right amount of little-kid swagger and put a sparkle in his eyes. Maybe it’s that Penelope’s karate training gives the story a plotline other than just his coming out, making him feel more well-rounded than the protagonists of some picture books about trans children. Maybe it’s the lack of preachiness in the text, or the loving support of family and friends.
Maybe, too, it’s that there are no White people here. The few background characters who aren’t Black read as other people of color. I say this as a White person myself; there are enough LGBTQ-inclusive picture books with White protagonists and largely White supporting casts. The genre needs more books by and about people of color, and we White folks don’t necessarily need to be in them. Additionally, the characters here aren’t just Black, but take visible pride in Black culture and heritage, not only through the reference to Ghana and Harlem, but also through visual touches like a map of Africa in Penelope’s room, a Ghanaian flag on the family fridge, and African masks in the school principal’s office. Our identities are intersectional, and Patterson and Barlow convey that seamlessly.
The book also gets bonus points for the subtle touch of the endpapers: in the ones at the front of the book, we see sketches of Penelope still in girl’s clothing, looking nervous and shaky as he tries tricks on his skateboard; in the ones at the end of the book, he is wearing boy’s clothes and looking cool and confident as he nails his skateboard moves.
Finally, as more and more states are enacting bans on trans youth in sports, this story serves as a timely reminder of the power that sports have to instill life lessons, like dedication and perseverance, that can benefit all youth. Trans youth have the right to access these lessons by engaging in sports as their authentic selves.
All of these elements form a winning combination by Patterson, a writer, entrepreneur, and activist who is chair of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation. Her 2019 memoir for adults, on which she based the story of Born Ready, is The Bold World: A Memoir of Family and Transformation, and also highly recommended. Families with trans boys should especially appreciate Born Ready and its determined protagonist, but it also feels like the kind of engaging story that just may help cisgender children and their parents better understand what it means to be trans. It’s strong and with an impact you might not see coming—kind of like a ninja.
One further note: In an interview with New York Family last week, Patterson noted that while her son initially wanted to keep the name “Penelope,” he is now in eighth grade and about two months ago decided to go by “Penel.” The book was already in production then. I have used “Penelope” above in talking about the character in the book, since that is the name used there, but would of course use “Penel” in talking about the real boy.