Ten years ago, Jodie Patterson thought her child Penelope, then 3, was her daughter. Then he explained to her he was her son. She told her family’s story first in an online documentary made by Cosmopolitan magazine. She expanded on it in her memoir, The Bold World. Now she brings it to a child audience with Born Ready (Crown, April 20), with illustrations by Charnelle Pinkney Barlow. In it, Patterson writes in her son’s voice as he helps his family and his school community understand his gender identity, drawing strength from both their love and his karate practice. The story movingly places the experiences of this Black transgender child at its center, claiming his place. We spoke with Patterson via Zoom from her home in Brooklyn. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve been so clear that your memoir was your story as a cisgender woman learning from your son. I’d love to know what made you decide to make that leap from telling your story to telling your son’s story.

After I wrote my memoir, [I learned that] families wanted to share it with their children. And I thought to myself, it’s not really a kids’ book; there might be an eighth grader who could appreciate it, but it’s really not a kids’ book. I wanted to address the families that wanted our experience in a format that was OK for kids.

I [also] wanted to take it outside of the complexity of [the] adult brain and let my kids speak. They’re complex as well, but they’re different. And I thought that story was really, really special. How do kids support each other? It’s genderless, it’s racially agnostic. I really wanted to show how children are shifting for the ones that they love and how they’re successful.

What does your son think of it?

Well, for the record, Penel came to my room last night and said, “I’m changing my name. It’s going to be Penel going forward.” So I would like to just note that. He is 13, and he’s definitely ready for his name to be Penel.

He’s really proud of the book. He gets a kick out of reading it with me, [and] he thinks it reflects the family really well. Penel is planted, and he’s sturdy. As long as I don’t bring it into his classroom, he’s great with it. He thinks this book can help other kids.

Who do you see as the audience for this book?

I want trans kids to see that I hold them up and put them front and center, particularly Black trans kids and trans kids of color. I also think that anyone in a mothering position, a leadership position, needs to take a look at the stories of kids who are different so that we can figure out ways to support them. [Society has] taken a top-down leadership approach, which is professionalizing not only the office, but the home. And that approach is not working, you see it, our families are fragile. I think parents are asking for some new language, some new paths forward. The answers lie within our kids. The answers lie within those who are different. The answers lie within those who are bold. The answers lie within those who are changemakers and revolutionaries. I think Penel is revolutionary. Anyone looking for some answers for today’s dilemmas can pick this book up and see how communities can shift.

You made a really conscious decision to present best parenting practices in the book.

I’m writing now a lot about radical parenting. I honed in on that over the last 10 years with Penel. I’ve definitely looked at practices in the Black community, which is very radical and feminist in its nature. And then I watched that through my own experience. And then I’ve listened to what Penel and his siblings have told me. And then I thought, Well, what actually did this teach me? We have to raise and allow our kids to be activists—encourage them to spot the problem, and then fix the problem, right? So we have to really pay attention to our kids, we have to give them ownership, tell them that they’re responsible for things, and back them up. You have to give them strength to trust themselves. Penel found that strength by practicing karate.

My favorite moment in the book is when you and Penel are shown in profile. And Penel says, “I hold Mama’s hand and transfer some of my ninja powers to help her understand.”

We have energy, and we can transfer energy. And energy goes past time and space and matter. I actually got something from Penel. He was only 3, so it couldn’t have been just his words. I was raised by a mom who meditated, and we thought about [things] beyond the body, like energy. There was a gap between what Penel knew and what I knew. And he helped to close that gap.

That illustration is a really perfect example of how the pictures can add visual meaning to words. How did you feel when you saw Charnelle Pinkney Barlow’s pictures?

I was so lucky to have landed on the same moment in time with this illustrator. There was a lot of back and forth, which I don’t think is typical. And she welcomed all of my comments—even small things, like should the eyes be open or closed. Just as it took time to develop the language, it also took time to develop the imagery. Good things take time and integrity. She really just sat with this for months. And when I saw the end result, I got teary, for sure. I really, really liked how she gave us life.

When Penel saw the pictures, his jaw dropped. He was so excited that his dad looked like his dad and little baby Othello looked like Othello. He was tickled.

Where did the title Born Ready come from?

The karate master would always say, “P, you ready? You ready for this?” And Penel would be like, “Born ready.” He and his brothers were using that all the time. If you ask them if they’re ready for something, they’ll tell you, “I’m born ready,” which means there’s nothing that I’m not prepared for in this human experience. He’s not always taking home the gold medal. But he’s ready for the challenge.

Is there anything that you want to say about the book that we haven’t covered?

You asked what it felt like to look at the images. When I see our family and I see the book and I see the words and the message that we are giving, it doesn’t go over lightly, because there’s a mythology that Black folks don’t embrace gender diversity, and Black folks don’t embrace the LGBT community. And it’s just not true. It’s literally not true. In the process of making this book, I really insisted that our African culture was in our house and our Blackness was visible. And we were not racially ambiguous. We’re all kinds of colors and hair textures and features. I wanted that to come across. So when I look at this book, I feel really proud of the work that I did, the illustrator did, and the publisher did to portray this as a Black, queer, trans story—all of that, not just some of that.

Vicky Smith is a young readers’ editor.