By Andy Bandyopadhyay
There’s a tender moment in Lexie Bean’s Kirkus-starred middle-grade novel, The Ship We Built, in which Sofie, the main character’s best friend, asks a simple question: “What’s your name?” It’s not easy for our protagonist to answer. He’s a ten-year-old trans boy, and he’s been writing a different name on his assignment each day for the entire school year, searching for a moniker that feels like home. But he lights up at being asked, and suddenly realizes: “My name is Rowan.” Sometimes a friend really seeing you, holding space for you as you figure yourself out, can make all the difference.
The book is set in suburban Michigan in 1997. Rowan lives with his mom and dad, who argue frequently. Sometimes Rowan’s dad punches walls. Like many kids in this situation, Rowan tries to escape into his room. But that turns out to be unsafe, too, because his dad starts coming into his room at night.
In the book, the abuse is implied, not explicit. For example, Rowan says:
“Dad slept in my room again. He said yard work is hurting his back, but really he’s just much older than most dads. His forehead has a lot of lines on it and his body left a shadow shaped like a turtle on my wall when I was half-asleep. There’s something about my bright pink walls that seem to glow in the dark. I wonder if my dad thinks I glow in the dark too, because he always seems to find me no matter what. Patti, Pouch, Pinchers, Legs, and all of my other stuffed animals were smart and ran to the floor.” (p. 133)
Rowan needs someone to talk to. And sometimes he’s just not ready to talk to Sofie. So he starts writing letters—each chapter of the book is a single letter—then attaches his missives to balloons, hoping someone out there is listening.
It’s the perfect format for Lexie Bean, whose most recent anthology, Written on the Body: Letters from Trans and Non-Binary Survivors of Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence, was a Lambda Literary Awards finalist. Bean is a trans person and an incest survivor who coped, as a child, by stopping speaking. Eventually, they found their voice again by writing letters to their own body parts.
For Bean, clearly, The Ship We Built is a personal project. But it’s also universal. In a way, every kid struggles with trying to figure out who they are and who they like. Every kid—trans or cis, queer or straight—has to decide where to sit in the cafeteria, which kids to befriend, and which to avoid. Every kid gets it wrong sometimes. The loneliness can be excruciating.
As a trans man who didn’t realize I was trans until I was 26, the moment of connection between Rowan and Sofie touched me. I wondered if I’d have figured out the truth about myself sooner if I’d had a friend like Sofie, or if I’d had this book, which is dedicated to “… all the boys who didn’t know who they could grow up to be; for ten-year-old me.” I asked Bean what it would have been like for their ten-year-old self to read The Ship We Built. Their reply: “It would have affirmed that there are many things that I could grow up to be. It would have helped me separate what should be normal and what has become normal through a violent society and a violent household. To be honest, I’m not sure if I would have been ready to fully claim identities of trans or survivor due to my circumstances at the time; however, I believe the text would have let me know subconsciously that neither of those would have been my fault.”
That Rowan is 10 years old isn’t an accident. “That’s close to the age I was when I stopped speaking,” says Bean. “For me, it was also the age I realized not everybody was my friend. It was the age where my imagination became punishable.”
Like many survivors, Rowan doesn’t have the language to describe what’s happening. “Instead,” Bean says, “Rowan has colors, shapes, sounds, and doubt.” For example: seeing his dad’s shadow against the wall. Drawing a picture of his dad on the floor in his room. Hearing the sound of his dad’s footsteps at night. Remembering the smell of peanut M&Ms on his dad’s breath. Writing this in a letter: “I’m starting to think that maybe kids aren’t supposed to be treated like the way I get treated sometimes. Do you know what I mean?” (p. 214). These fragments of dissociated memory are common to trauma survivors. The brain chops up traumatic experiences into disjointed little pieces, then scatters them all around for our protection. A survivor may know that they instinctively hate the smell of peanut M&Ms, but somehow they don’t know exactly why. They’re unable to put together a full-color, all five senses recall of a rape scene.
When his surroundings betray him, Rowan retreats into his mind, using his imagination to stay alive.
“Sometimes when my favorite places seem super-duper far away, I pretend [they are] inside of my body. That way, I can go whenever I want. Do you think something is pretending if it feels real? I’m not sure. When Dad left my room the other day, I just closed my eyes and retraced my steps to my favorite river. It felt like spring again.” (p. 101)
Rowan also invites Sofie into his imaginative world—into a ship constructed out of a refrigerator box, “to go sailing without a map, travel to the moon, or go anywhere she wants to, a place where nothing bad could ever happen” (p. 105).
I asked Bean how they, as a survivor, approached writing about trauma. “I’m still not fully okay with this part of my own story, which is why writing The Ship We Built took six and a half years from first draft to it getting published,” they said. “But Rowan has helped me feel less alone in that. I hope he will help readers of all ages feel this as well.”
To Bean, reaching kids is what matters most. “Welcoming young people—including trans kids and boys—into our national dialogue about sexual abuse and the #MeToo movement is vital. Children without support most often become survivors again as adults, repeating abuse because it has become normal. I would open up conversation and reflection about what feels normal to each child.”
Like Bean, I also dream of showing kids what a safe home feels like. Parents are supposed to be present and loving. They’re not supposed to hit you. They’re not supposed to expect you to raise yourself. And every kid should get to decide who touches their body and how they relate to their body.
The Ship We Built was released May 26, 2020 from Dial Books. Bean hopes their readers will take away the following: “To kids, your thoughts, feelings, fears are real and worth expressing. To parents, listen and don’t make an emergency out of all of the wrong things. To teachers, pay attention to the quiet ones. To adult readers, it takes a lifetime to raise yourself. I hope this book helps.”
Andy Bandyopadhyay is a queer, trans man. He’s a storyteller for middle school audiences through the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus educational outreach program, Reaching Youth Through Music.