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Juno Dawson was working as a school teacher when she was confronted by a huge gap in young people’s education — one she’d already experienced firsthand in her childhood in Bingley, England: LGBTQ+ kids were being left out to dry. A few years later, after she’d left teaching to pursue a writing career full-time, her editor suggested she write about sex and relationship education, and she realized she could help teach queer and trans students the life-saving lessons they weren’t necessarily getting in school. The resulting book, This Book Is Gay, went on to become a massive hit, described by Publishers Weekly as an “irreverent, informative handbook” and assigned in countless sex-ed classes. Dawson won the 2014 Queen of Teen award for This Book Is Gay’s impact.
But not everyone has been happy to see This Book Is Gay make its way into classrooms. Years after the book’s publication, Dawson found herself the subject of fresh controversy as conservative efforts in the United States to remove LGBTQ+ representation and sexual health education have escalated. According to Vanderbilt University, This Book Is Gay is now the ninth-most banned book in the U.S.
All the senseless negativity has done nothing to slow Dawson down; in fact, it only strengthened her awareness that what she’s doing matters. In 2017, she published her first book aimed toward an adult audience, The Gender Games, a memoir about her experiences living as a transgender woman. In 2021, she published What's the T?: The No-Nonsense Guide to All Things Trans and/or Non-Binary for Teens. Dawson’s new book, You Need to Chill, is aimed toward her youngest audience yet: The short, rhyming picture book tells the story of a child explaining her sibling’s transition to their classmates.
When she’s not publishing bestseller after bestseller, Dawson is investing in other important art. In her hometown of Brighton, a city in England she describes to The Wildest as a kind of “safe haven” for queer people, Dawson performs with Club Silencio, a queer cabaret show that answers pressing questions like “What if Dorothy had to return to Oz twenty years later to satisfy her book agent’s sequel request?”
A School Role Model for the Stonewall charity, Dawson is committed to showing kids that a happy life as a trans person is possible. And by her side throughout it all is Prince, her nine-year-old shockingly chill Chihuahua. Prince came into Dawson’s life just before she started her gender transition, and she describes adopting Prince and beginning hormones as similarly nerve-wracking but overwhelmingly worthwhile decisions.
The Wildest caught up with Dawson to talk about falling head-over-heels for Prince, making art that elevates LGBTQ+ voices and celebrates queer joy, and creating You Need to Chill, a delightful must-read for the kids in our lives.
Tell me about Prince. How did he come into your life?
Prince came about in 2014. I had been mulling for a while the idea of getting a dog. I had turned 30, and I felt it was kind of weird that a queer person can get into their early 30s without having any sort of responsibility in their life. In a previous life, I had been a primary school teacher, which is obviously a job that comes with huge responsibility, but since going freelance to be a full-time writer, I almost felt too free.
I could kind of go out for days on end, I could stay out all night, and nobody was really worried about where I was. I was like: That’s almost quite sad; you haven’t really put down any roots, you don’t own a property, you don’t have a car. I felt like it was time to grow up a bit, and I felt that a dog is perhaps more responsibility than a cat or a goldfish.
How did you decide you wanted a Chihuahua?
I’m gonna shout-out to my friend and colleague Alex T. Smith, who is an amazing author and illustrator, famous for the Claude series, which is about a little dog. He’d had Chihuahuas, and I’d always seen myself with one. I knew I wanted a toy breed because I find them endlessly amusing. And also we lived in a three-bedroom flat in London, so it wouldn’t have been right to get an enormous German Shepherd or something.
What’s his personality like?
[When I first met him], his brother kind of came running up to me, kind of launched himself and was very licky and wanted lots of attention. Then there was this other one, this little gormless thing kind of sat in the back. And I was like, “Oh, I want the little gormless one,” because he looked so chill. I think Prince was possibly the runt of the litter as well; he was smaller and a bit out of it — honestly, he was a bit stoned, I think. I picked him up and gave him a cuddle, and I just felt that he was for me. And it was my first dog, so I thought, “Well, maybe if this one is a bit more placid that might be a sensible thing to do.”
Those feel like good signs he was the perfect dog for you.
However, obviously, he was still a puppy. The first six months were one of the most challenging periods. Nobody really warns you about how challenging a puppy is. It’s that awful sense of, if you don’t have eyes on them, they’re doing something wrong. Something is being [peed] on, something is being chewed.
But still, when people meet Prince now, nine years on, they still think, “Gosh, he’s very chill for a Chihuahua.” And he is. He’s very territorial of our home, but I think it might be a bit too late to do anything about that.
You’ve written and spoken about This Book Is Gay being the ninth-most banned book in America. Your new book, You Need to Chill, is another children’s book and your first picture book. Why do you think it’s important to explore LGBTQ+ themes in children’s literature?
I used to be an elementary teacher. I worked mostly with 10-and-11-year-olds. And initially, I got my first book deal for fiction. My editor was just like, “Oh hang on, we’d really love you to do some books about SRE, sex and relationship education. How would you feel about that?” Because I was kind of broke, and I’d left teaching to write full-time, I was like, “Oh, of course I’ll do it.” That’s kind of how This Book Is Gay came about.
I knew from my teaching years that sex and relationship education for LGBTQ+ people just didn’t exist; it just wasn’t there. It was only in 2003 in the U.K. that teachers were even allowed to talk about LGBTQ+ issues in school. So, I thought, Maybe there’s an opportunity there to do something informative that’s also kind of funny. And I knew it had to address the time we were in...we’re in the internet time, and adolescents did have access to all kinds of crap online that we just didn’t when I was in school. So, I wanted to talk about online safety as well. I guess it was everything I wish I’d known when I was 14.
You mentioned teachers being banned from speaking about LGBTQ+ issues in schools until 2003. Here in the United States, some states are rolling back those protections — like in the case of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Why is it especially important to create and protect these kinds of books now?
I think on both sides of the Atlantic we’re looking at what is being called “the culture war.” I think there are bad actors, there are right-wing politicians who haven’t got anything to celebrate. You know? Trump didn’t really achieve anything in power, the conservatives in the U.K. have been in power for a really long time, and the country has gotten materially worse, we’re in a cost-of-living crisis, Brexit was a disaster that no politician is allowed to talk about. So, what can you talk about?
Well, you can talk about a book. Or you can talk about trans healthcare. Or you can talk about a drag queen. You know, this is scapegoating 101. It’s a witch hunt, it’s Jaida Essence Hall “Look over there!” — it’s a distraction. It’s a distraction from their failures, and I think they do a disservice to their voters because I don’t think anyone in either of our countries can really think that trans kids or drag queens are the true menace in our society. You know, it’s guns, it’s war; there are real, serious systemic issues in both our countries, and it’s not drag queens.
So, how did you decide to deal with that?
During the pandemic, I felt so disenfranchised. I felt powerless. And it was really shocking to me that during the pandemic in particular, transphobia in the U.K. just got worse and worse and worse. There’s a real sort of legitimization of transphobia in the press in the U.K. that was incredibly scary and toxic. And I was like: Look, I can’t change this. I don’t have any power in the media. But I am a well-respected children’s writer. That’s the one thing I can do. And that’s where What’s the T? and You Need to Chill came from. I was like, “I can’t do much, but I can do this one thing and I can do it really well.” So it’s a contribution, I suppose.
It’s such a necessary contribution. Speaking of scapegoating, trans kids, in particular, are being used as political tools to pass all this anti-trans legislation. Politicians are positioning it as, “We need to protect children from being taken advantage of by trans people.”
I find that just incredibly hypocritical. For one thing, I was surrounded by books as a child, and they all featured straight, cisgender people, and that didn’t keep me safe. It kept me ignorant, and it kept me unprepared. So, when I left school, and when I left home when I was 18, I was so unschooled and so unprepared for adult life that I was vulnerable. I was taken advantage of; I put myself in some incredibly unsafe and dangerous situations. And had an LGBTQ+ elder said to me, either in-person, or online, or in the form of a book, said, “Look, you need to be careful, there’s this thing called Grindr, there are people who will take advantage of you, this is how you protect yourself, this is how you stay safe,” that would have made a big difference in my life.
In the midst of controversy and living life as a public figure, how has Prince been as emotional support?
Oh, he’s amazing. The best thing about having a dog is there’s something just kind of uncomplicated about a dog’s love. They just really love you. And it’s really mutual. I think before I got Prince I didn’t really know how much I was capable of love. And now there’s this little thing in the world who needs me. That’s a lot of responsibility. And now he’s getting older, I start to think about what life will be like without him, and it’s almost too sad to think about. It feels quite cruel. It doesn’t feel like nine years; it still feels like he’s my new dog.
You got Prince right before you transitioned. I was wondering what it has been like having Prince by your side through so many life changes.
I did worry initially that I might smell different, or he wouldn’t know who I was or something. Luckily, that has not been an issue. It’s been fine. He’s good. He still understands I am his primary caregiver, and he always did. It’s funny; that last year before I started [my] transition, I was already in therapy and speaking with a therapist about potentially transitioning, and I think Prince was one of the things I did that was kind of like, Well, maybe if you do this, it’ll take your mind off transitioning or you could do this instead of transitioning. Like, I got a bunch of tattoos as well. But you sort of think, actually in the end, this isn’t going to go away; you have to address this.
You’re going to be touring soon to share You Need to Chill! Is Prince coming on tour with you?
No. That would be so good. He’s never been on a plane, and now’s not the time to start now that he has a heart murmur. I’m very lucky that my husband is amazing, but also if I go away for extended periods, Prince stays with my friends who’ve got two kids, so it’s almost like he’s got two homes. Especially before I met my husband, that was such a big help to have this family who were just willing to have my dog whenever I needed to go away with work.
Where can people find you on your tour?
I’m coming to New York, San Francisco, and various events around Chicago and Illinois. Please do, people, come along and see me in those bookshops, because otherwise, I’ll be sat in a bookshop reading to myself. That can happen! I’m very aware that in America I don’t have the same pull that I do in the U.K., so it is humbling to sit in a bookshop waiting to see if anyone’s going to come along to see me.
Where are you finding your queer/trans joy this pride month?
Club Silencio — we call it a cabaret, which I think is a very loose definition — that is something that brings me great joy. I love that I have this creative thing I do that has nothing to do with my career but still brings me a lot of joy.
And I think where I live [brings me joy]. I live right outside Brighton, which is one of the queerest places in the United Kingdom. There was a point last year when things got really bad on TERF Island, and I thought maybe it’s time to leave. Maybe I’ll go to Spain, maybe Ireland, maybe even look farther afield to Australia or New Zealand. And I realized I almost live in a safe haven. Yes, my country is in a mess, but actually Brighton kind of looks after itself. There is a kindness.
[My friend and I] decided both politically and community-wise it’s better to really focus our efforts on grassroots local organizations. So, last year, we revived Club Silencio to raise money for Trans Pride, which is a local organization. It’s again about trying to find your power. Like, I cannot single-handedly bring down a right-wing government, but I can put on a queer show which raises money for a trans organization. Or I can volunteer and do small things to make political change come around, which it always does. It always does.
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