Saturday, September 18

“What Are Your Words?” – New Children’s Book by Ohio Illustrator Explores Pronouns & Identity

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Ari’s uncle Lior is coming to visit and Ari could not be more excited!

As the protagonist of the newly released book What are Your Words?: A Book About Pronouns, Ari embarks on a journey exploring pronouns when Uncle Lior comes to visit for a big summer bash. As Ari and Uncle Lior travel around their neighborhood, they learn about their neighbors’ and friends’ words that include pronouns such as they/them, ey/em, and ze/zir.

Written by Katherine Locke and illustrated by Andy (Anne) Passchier (who both use they/them pronouns) the book is a heartwarming and vibrantly illustrated story for young readers that both teaches the importance of exploring one’s own identity, as well as how to approach and respect others’ identities.

The Buckeye Flame had the opportunity to speak Passchier, who currently lives in Cleveland, about how they got their start and the impact they hope What are Your Words? has in the community.

Anne Passchier (also known as Andy)

Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get your start in illustrating books? And what brought you to Ohio?
I’m originally from The Netherlands and moved to the United States to attend art school. After graduating, I was hired by a company in Cleveland and started my career as a professional illustrator. My background is in surface design, creating products like wrapping paper, greeting cards, and fabric. Eventually I started to want to make work that related closer to my identity as a nonbinary person and reached people in a more narrative way. I started freelancing alongside my full-time job early on, and after a few years, I took the step to go full-time freelance. I now work on all sorts of projects, from toys, puzzles, activity books, and baby board books, to much more elaborate and equally wonderful picture books like this one.

How did you become involved with What are Your Words?
I’m represented by The Bright Agency, so like most of my assignments, I got this project through them! Usually, a publisher will look through the portfolios of illustrators an agency represents, find somebody that could be a good fit, and then propose the project. When Little, Brown Books for Young Readers and Bright contacted me about this book, I was super excited as the topic is something very close to my heart, and I think it will be a great tool and conversation starter about identity in general.

Can you speak a little bit about your art style and how that evolved for you?
I’ve always had quite a loose and graphic way of drawing and started looking at other illustrators who worked this way while I was in college. I like combining simple shapes with subtle texture, creating a bold and playful effect. The element of finding a personal style gets emphasized so much, especially when in art school or when you’re first starting out, that we often forget it’s a natural process that takes a lot of time to develop. I definitely experienced a lot of anxiety over the concept at first, worried I was never going to find my artistic voice, but as I’ve progressed over the years, I definitely see consistency and recognizable elements in my work.

What was your process in turning Katherine Locke’s words into the book’s illustrations?
First, we focused on designing the characters of Ari and Uncle Lior and created the rest of the neighbors in that same style. I also felt that the book needed a bright, cheerful color palette to represent the mood of all the neighbors getting together during the summer. I wanted everyone to be able to recognize themselves in the illustrations, while at the same time creating enough diversity to realistically depict a big, happy neighborhood.

Diversity and representation in the media we consume are so important, so it was vital for me to include a variety of skin tones, body types, hair, and clothing, as well as characters with visible disabilities. It was a really fun process to keep the overall style childlike and playful, while simultaneously giving everyone unique characteristics. I hope the end result conveys what I intended: a lively and fun community who’ve all gathered to celebrate one other in all of their diversity!

I definitely think it has! As someone who is nonbinary, what impact do you hope this has on young readers, or even their parents/guardians who might be reading this book with their young person?
I really love that this book introduces pronouns as just another set of words we use to describe ourselves. Our pronouns don’t define us as people; we’re made up of so many other interests and characteristics. Often when you are part of a marginalized group, your entire identity gets boiled down to just one aspect of that identity. Being trans or nonbinary often leads to a discussion of what your pronouns used to be versus what they are now, or investigating specific aspects without appreciating all of you as a human being. I hope that this book is able to demystify and un-other pronouns from being just a trans or nonbinary topic: everybody uses pronouns!

Identity is also not static, and just like our interests and aspects of our personality, pronouns can change throughout our lives! I love that Katherine was able to emphasize that no matter what language you use to describe yourself, you’re still fundamentally you, and that doesn’t ever change. I think it would be so beneficial for both trans and cis kids to be able to explore who they are freely, try on different words and identities until they find one they’re comfortable with, and know it doesn’t fundamentally change anything about who they are as individuals.

Finally, when I was growing up, I didn’t know being trans or nonbinary was even a thing. I didn’t have words to explain some of the things I was feeling, and it took me until after college to begin coming to terms with my identity. I hope this can make it slightly easier for kids and adults to find the language and resources they need to accept themselves and feel valid in their experiences. 🔥

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About Author

Originally from Toledo, Jen Kuhn now resides in Columbus where she is a creative nonprofit professional moonlighting as a writer and occasional DJ.

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