DEBUT MIDDLE-GRADE NOVELIST Lexie Bean’s dazzling, poetic, and powerful The Ship We Built, published by Dial Press in May, is the story of 10-year-old Rowan, who was born a girl but identifies as a boy. It’s 1997, and the idea of children being transgender is foreign to the Michigan mining community where Rowan lives. Rowan feels very alone. He writes letters to an unknown recipient and ties them to helium balloons, which he releases into the air, hoping someone will find them. Rowan also carries a dark secret: sometimes his father comes into his bedroom at night. Unable to tell anyone, Rowan becomes almost silent, just as the author, an incest and domestic abuse survivor, became mute in fifth grade.
Now 28, Bean edited the anthology Written on the Body (2018), a Lambda Literary Award Finalist, by LGBTQ writers. His latest masterpiece fills a void that exists in YA literature, not only for first-person transgender narratives, but also for work that explores universal issues of gender expression in a binary society, constricted by traditional definitions of masculinity and femininity. Bean emphasizes the importance of role models for trans people, who need to see themselves reflected in the media, a message echoed in actress Laverne Cox’s recent Netflix documentary, Disclosure. Rowan’s story also confronts themes of race and the unjust incarceration of black people. His one friend is Sofie, the only black child in his class, whose father gets arrested for a petty crime. Because they are both marginalized, Sofie and Rowan are in solidarity with each other.
The Ship We Built is lovely, timely, and necessary for both children and adults — parents, educators, social workers, and others who work with trauma survivors and queer youth. Bean examines the implications of “he” and “she” pronouns, grappling with complex questions of identity through a child’s eyes: what it means to be a girl and to be a boy, and how to find oneself.
SARA-KATE ASTROVE: What inspired you to write The Ship We Built?
LEXIE BEAN: I wrote the first draft because of a text-message dare I received from a friend I had big feelings for. I wrote that version in one sitting, in the back of a minivan going between Chicago and Indianapolis, while I was on tour working closely with domestic violence survivors. I thought of that first notebook page as a love letter to my friend who dared me to write the book. But it was also a Valentine to other people I have loved in a way that didn’t fit into quite the right shape; a Valentine to people who hurt in ways they weren’t yet ready to articulate.
You’ve published acclaimed personal essays in Teen Vogue, Ms. Magazine, and them. Why did you write this book as fiction?
While the book is largely inspired by personal thoughts and experiences, fiction allowed me the slight distance I needed to write even more personally. Especially in my earliest drafts, I was interested in lullabies, the ways they softly blend reality with the worlds we create through our imaginations to feel safe enough to rest.
The prose is authentic and relatable. How did you get inside the head of a 10-year-old?
Even the smallest events can have high stakes for a 10-year-old. It was fun to reshape some of my smaller childhood traumas from Rowan’s perspective — like when a boy stepped on my pencil and it felt like the end of the world — to let myself both feel the unresolved anger and laugh.
I also wanted to be sure to not use any words to describe Rowan that he wouldn’t have used to describe himself, especially as a child growing up in the late 1990s. Vocabulary and opportunities for gender representation were wildly different at the time. I didn’t want to alienate him before the book even begins.
The book is written in an epistolary format. Why did you structure it this way?
I chose this route for multiple reasons. I wanted to present Rowan’s internal world — his questions, his urgency for closeness — in order to humanize him. He has multiple identities, which are barriers for many people to offer him that humanization. In letter writing, you have to read all of these stories and musings before you get to the name of the author. Also, I would rather live in a world where Rowans can be treated as real from the start. But we, as a society, aren’t there yet.
I also chose the letter format to show what it means to ask for help, and as an alternative to the more “traditional” prayer. Meanwhile, the reader, who is directly addressed throughout the text, is suddenly responsible for Rowan’s well-being and for responding to his calls for support. I hope this offers a reminder that we are surrounded by people who won’t ask for help. We are surrounded by people who ask for support in quiet ways.
What was your writing process? Did you write the book in chronological order?
My first drafts were all little poems. I thought this would become a book of little queer nursery rhymes, or maybe short stories. Most of these drafts were written on long car rides and train rides, with crayons and gel pens.
As it stretched into what became the novel, I did start to address it more in “order.” The longer I spent with Rowan, the more he shared with me, and the less abstract he became. Though, arguably, the book doesn’t have to be read in order. Each letter can exist on its own because you never know who will find them and where. They can be read in the order that you find them.
Rowan communicates through drawings, interspersed with the text. Can you speak more about your decision to include illustrations?
There are some things Rowan doesn’t have the words for yet. They also offer him an opportunity to see and create representations of his future that he hasn’t seen anywhere else.
You write subtly about abuse, which makes sense for the age group of your readers. How did you find the balance between revealing enough to convey the difficult emotions but not too much that the book would trigger young readers with similar experiences?
It was less about not being triggering to the readers, because everyone carries their own triggers in everyday objects, smells, and sounds. It was more about being realistic about what Rowan would say or observe, so Rowan wouldn’t trigger himself. I wanted to be realistic about how much someone still immersed in their abuse would open up about it — whether it’s out of self-preservation, denial, or really believing that what is happening is just normal.
Why do you think the topic of gender identity makes some people so uncomfortable?
It makes them feel out of control: out of control over another’s expression, out of control over their own desires. They also feel out of control because they too have probably been punished and pressured throughout their lives to stay within the binary.
This book is set over 20 years in the past. Do you think present-day readers will still relate?
Yes — loneliness still exists and always will. Ill-informed therapy still exists and always will. Sexual abuse and the crossing of physical boundaries without having the words to express it still exists and always will. Incarceration still exists — but, if we can help it, won’t always.
How has the cultural environment for trans people evolved since the period when your story is set?
For trans people, it’s complicated. People are quick to believe we are already in a “post-gender society.” This is not true, as we can see through the increase of anti-trans legislation and the growing number of deaths within our community. I also think, within the United States, that “progress” is regional. “Progress” is, overall, concentrated in cities and on the coasts. The rest of the country is left behind, and we can see that with modern Trump-era politics.
Lastly, many queer people over the age of 20 did not grow up with complex representative media. Consequently, many of us have a hole that still needs to be filled. And everyone, whether they be cis, straight, trans, or fluid, has to continue the process of raising ourselves.