Cultivating Compassion: A #SecretCodeBook Interview with Rowan Walker
“Stories are seeds: You recognize the humanity of people not like you.”
By Diana Black
When Rowan Walker, 30, says they “grew up in a library,” it’s not far from the literal truth. With their mother working as a school librarian, Rowan’s childhood was blessed with hours of reading and practically “unlimited access to books.” Rowan calls Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937) a “cornerstone” of their personality and selected it as their #secretcodebook. Yet many, many books were formative in Rowan’s life. Among innumerable lessons, books have taught them to cultivate the practice of compassion – both for others and for themself.
Talking with Rowan today, perhaps the first thing you will notice is a dazzling fluency with words – you’d never guess that they overcame dyslexia, which literally translates to “word difficulty.” Starting in kindergarten, Rowan’s teachers began to observe their habit of writing backwards. Held up to a mirror, the print was perfect, but in others’ eyes, it was impenetrable. Rowan’s temporal lobe, meanwhile, internally flipped what they had written. To Rowan, through the prism of dyslexia, it looked absolutely correct. Beyond writing, when they read aloud in class, their brain and mouth seemed to go at different speeds, with a resultant skipping of words that made teachers question Rowan’s comprehension level.
In the face of such difficulties, it would have been easy for Rowan to interpret their dyslexia as cause for shame or to conflate it with a lack of intelligence. Fortunately for Rowan, their mom modeled bibliophilia and made time for stellar readalouds, creating plenty of positive associations with reading. And perhaps just as luckily, the right book came along at the right time, as it so often does.
As Rowan fondly recollects, Lloyd Alexander’s 1996 fantasy Time Cat depicts Leonardo DaVinci as an awkward teen who writes in a strange mirror alphabet. “[In Time Cat], dyslexia’s not necessarily a bad thing,” Rowan says. “It’s reframed from ‘What’s wrong with you?’ to something to be trained in and used constructively.” Around age 8, Time Cat helped Rowan to see their mental letter flipping as a kind of low-key superpower (talk about #secretcode!): “In some cases, it’s actually an advantage,” they note. Indeed, Rowan’s work as a theatre stage manager often demands that they keep mental track of several physical spaces which are flipped depending on one’s perspective – stage right, stage left, house right, house left – and credits their dyslexia with this cognitive fluency.
Throughout childhood and beyond, Rowan would draw on books not only to reframe their thinking about dyslexia, but also to develop empathy for others: “Stories are seeds: You recognize the humanity of people not like you.” As an elementary schooler, Rowan pored with particular fascination over Danny Kaye’s Around the World Storybook (1960), marveling at the power of stories to emphasize our shared humanity and broaden our imaginations. They were most drawn to science fiction and fantasy books in particular, perhaps because both genres offer appealing escapism and demonstrate an “acceptance and embracing of the Other.” And Rowan, to the best of their recollection, has “always felt Other.”
Although Rowan was “socialized female,” they didn’t feel like a girl or a boy. Still, they quickly picked up on the fact that boys and girls were not valued equally in America and this inequity continues to trouble them even now (quite rightly, Mia would say!). Rowan remembers being “expected to be able to put myself in a boy’s shoes” when they read stories with male protagonists, and was rankled by how rarely boys were asked to take others’ perspectives in reading: “There were ‘girl books,’ which only girls were expected to want to read, and then rather than ‘boy books,’ there were just ‘books.’” Even in 2018, this problematic tendency to segregate books by gender persists in children’s literature.
It took until much later in life for Rowan to understand that they are a gender non-binary person, not classifiable within the traditional “boy/girl” dichotomy. “Part of why it took me so long to realize I was non-binary was I had no context for it,” they say. Rowan so rarely saw themselves reflected in what they read or viewed. Yet enby (enby = NB = non-binary) kids, they imagine, could cultivate self-understanding more readily and feel less alone if they saw more gender nonconforming people represented in books and other media.
Going forward, Rowan ardently hopes that trans kids will have the chance to read more books that are explicitly for them and which “more accurately reflect the makeup of society” in general. There is such a glut of material in the children’s literary canon, and the literary canon writ large, authored by what Rowan accurately calls “dead white guys.” Even Rowan’s favorite genres are not immune from this. And Rowan points out that non-fiction about transgender and genderqueer people in history presents unique challenges: unless there is a record of a historical figure unambiguously stating why they wore clothes differing from what society would expect of them, for example, we have no way of knowing whether they did so because they were transgender or for some other reason.
There are some heartening trends: popular author Rick Riordan (himself a cisgender white man) features a genderqueer character in his Magnus Chase series, for instance, and those who want to can find curated lists of relevant books on social media. But Rowan would love to see more “own voices” media for trans kids by trans authors – and there is an increasing body of such works available even in mainstream stores, especially within the Young Adult market.
It’s clear that we need diverse books. Rowan’s story is just one of many evidencing that we need books to be diverse in every sense – for every child to see him, her or themselves reflected in what they read. With more thoughtful voices like Rowan’s in the mix, perhaps finding their #secretcodebook and a corresponding sense of belonging will be that much more attainable for all kids. We at Mia Learning certainly hope so.