"My thought was there needed to be a book for kids that talked about what happens physically when someone transitions," said first-time author and transgender activist/advocate Jenson Hillenbrand of his new bookParts & Hearts: A Kids ( & Grownups ) Guide to Transgender Transition. "Kids deserve to have age appropriate, accurate information about their bodies including knowing where babies come from, what puberty is and what the proper terms are when referring to their body parts."
Hillenbrandwho was born and raised in Frankfort, Illinoisreceived his bachelor's degree in fine arts from Columbia College Chicago and his master's degree in special education from the University of Phoenix. He currently lives in Lombard, Illinois.
Prior to writing the book, Hillenbrand spent a number of years as a restaurant manager and later teaching special needs kids.
"My mom became terminally ill about five years ago, so I started taking care of her full-time until her death two years ago," said Hillenbrand. "It was during that time that I began my transition. Prior to both of my parent's deaths, I spoke to them about my gender identity and they said do what you need to do to be happy. I wish they were both here to see my transition but knowing that they loved and supported me before they died is a really nice memory to have. I have an older sister and both she and my extended family have also been supportive."
Hillenbrand said he looks up to Chaz Bono, who also transitioned at age 40.
One of the reasons why Hillenbrand decided to write the book is due to his role as a Sunday school teacher and special needs teacher. When Hillenbrand transitioned, the parents in his circle asked him how they should explain that Auntie Jen is now Uncle Jen.
"I searched online and went to Howard Brown to try and find resources for the parents and kids in my life and I couldn't find a single thing," said Hillenbrand. "Everything was for adults. There were a handful of trans children's books but they were stories in support of trans children."
When asked why he chose Parts & Hearts as the title of his book, Hillenbrand said, "It refers to the last paragraph of the book which says 'No matter how anyone may change on the outside, the most important thing to remember is that in the end, it's not the parts of people's bodies that make them who we love; it's what's in their hearts, and that never changes.' The parts of our bodies can change but what's in our hearts doesn't change and that's what we love about a person, what's in their heart."
Hillenbrand chose artist and illustrator, Quinlan Omahne, to do the book's illustrations. Omahne was introduced to Hillenbrand through his friend of 30 years, Lance Ehlers. Both Omahne and Ehlers previously worked together at MTV in New York City.
"I wanted something that would stand the test of time in terms of the illustrations and he delivered," said Hillenbrand. "I asked him to make one or two changes to the illustrations, but other than that he's had full control over the look of the book and has also designed my website, [www.partsandhearts.com]. He's an absolutely amazing artist."
"With the transgender community slowly beginning to gain visibility, I was elated when Jenson pitched me the idea for his book," said Omahne. "I wanted to create illustrations that everyone could relate to by using welcoming colors and simple shapes. I would say my greatest challenge working on this project was figuring out how to ensure the end result would resonate with both children and adults alike. Whether I achieved that or not is up to the reader, but nonetheless, it's rewarding enough to know that I had a hand in transgender education."
As for the response to the book, Hillenbrand noted that he's gotten great feedback from a cross-section of society who told him it's well-written and has just enough information.
"I only got one negative response and it was from an LGBT bookstore in San Francisco," said Hillenbrand. "They said I was 15 years behind the times with my terminology because I used gender pronouns. They also asked why I didn't address those who are genderqueer or other gender identity names and what they mean."
When asked if he would continue writing books, Hillenbrand said, "I'd like to write a book that explores the nitty-gritty of transitioning. It would be a lay person's guide to transitioning catered toward academics and medical people."
Recently, Hillenbrand spoke at his niece and nephew's high school's ( Wheaton-Warrenville South ) gay-straight alliance. About 125 studentsa dozen of whom identified as transattended the talk.
"As someone who feels strongly about things as far as the little onesincluding teenagersare concerned if there's one kid that gets the answers they're looking for then I'll consider that a victory," said Hillenbrand."I want this to be a national success, like Jennifer Has Two Daddies and Heather Has Two Mommies. I think every kid in America should read my book and it should be in every library.
"I want my book to be a part of the national conversation to help inch us toward understanding, empathy and compassion on the issue of being transgender and to bridge the gaps that people might have about the transition process so we can create a better society."
On June 21, Hillenbrand will be speaking to the Children's Gender and Sex Development Program teen transgender group at Lurie Children's Hospital and will also be appearing at Gender Odyssey in Seattle as a vendor/workshop presenter on Aug. 4-7.
"My hope is to have as many opportunities as possible to read this book out loud to kids," said Hillenbrand.
To contact Hillenbrand, visit www.facebook.com/partsandheartsbook and www.twitter.com/PartsAndHearts .