I rarely know the date and time when I first had an idea for a book. But, in this case, I happen to know exactly! Because I texted my friend Nicolau straight away.
Me: So, I had an idea for a book for kids. But I don’t know if it’s a good idea, can I share it with you? I thought of a book with the title “Boy or girl?” and inside there’d be pictures of kids doing many things. A baby crying, a child on a slide, painting their nails, jumping into the water, anyways, stuff that kids do. The idea would be to make the reader try to figure out if it’s a boy or a girl, although they actually couldn’t. There’s never a right answer, they could be either. Buuuuut, it may also look like the book is trying to reinforce stereotypes -_-
Nicolau: You mean, negatively?
Nicolau: Because by saying that painting one’s nails should be for everyone, you’re actually reinforcing that it’s not normal
Me: No, I’m just saying that if the book doesn’t have any text, it may look like I actually want people to say that painted nails = girl, toy car = boy
Nicolau: I see. Could be a cool idea, but it needs some twist to avoid having a flat meaning
As you can see, the initial idea was a bit different than what it turned out, but it all started here.
I think I had this idea because I had been preparing a presentation where I’d show two pictures of when I was a child. These two:
I thought that, if I didn’t tell anyone that it was me in the photos, the majority of people would think it’s the photo of a boy and a girl. And I don’t mean that it’s wrong. We all take snappy conclusions at first sight. I also do it. It’s quite normal to look and think trousers+toy car=boy, doll+skirt=girl. But I also think that it’s important to question why our minds go that way. And to remember to question those first impressions and say to ourselves: ok, that child is wearing trousers and short hair and it’s playing with a toy car, so maybe it’s a boy, but it might as well not be.
Because, in fact, not all boys like the same clothes or toys. Neither do girls. If we’d split the world in two halves — boys on one side, girls on the other (like on sports classes) — each of the groups would be very different within itself.
And when we start thinking about these things, we often find another question: is it really important to know if it’s a boy or a girl? In my opinion, it’s not that necessary.
For example, there are a lot of other things that you can learn about myself that go beyond whether I’m a boy or a girl. If someone asks “Who is Joana?” and the answer is “She’s a girl”, that’s unquestionably a part of who I am, but it doesn’t say much about my taste and personality.
If the answer is “Joana was a ballerina” or “Joana is an illustrator” or “Joana doesn’t eat chocolate salami because once she ate too much of it, got sick and could never eat one again”, those are things that also say a lot about who I am.
Which leads us to another question: what if someone is neither a boy nor a girl? As you can see from the ballet and salami examples, people can be many different things!
What if someone decides they don’t need that piece — being a boy or a girl? Or if they want to replace it for another one? I don’t think that should matter that much, because it’s only a part of the whole puzzle that makes us us.
So tried to turn all these thoughts into a book. I started writing it in Spanish, because I was going to send the book to a picturebook contest in Spain. I guess writing it in another language helped making it really simple — because I’m not that good at Spanish, so I had to keep it simple!
I looked for popular sayings in Spanish that were similar to the Portuguese versions of “Beauty is only skin deep” or “To each their own taste”. Then I translated them back to Portuguese and I really liked how they sounded! Maybe this was cheating, somehow, using set phrases from another language, but it worked!
The drawings also started to blossom slowly, along with the text. For the first drafts I used felt-tip pens, but then I realised I preferred crayons.
In the beginning, I had thought of this book as being an exercise, a test where you’d realise that there’s no right answer. And, in the end, that idea remained. On one page, the characters ask “Who is what?” and on the next page they remind us that the answer isn’t in the eye of the beholder. There is no answer. The reader doesn’t know. And that’s ok.