February 03, 2024

Still My Tessa

Written by Sylv Chiang
Illustrated by Mathias Ball
North Winds Press (Scholastic Canada)
32 pp,
Ages 4-8
January 2024
Evelyn is both perplexed and worried. The older child she has always known as her sister is now telling her that they aren't her sister, or her brother. Tessa is her sibling. What does that mean? Is Evelyn even Tessa's sister?
From Still My Tessa, written by Sylv Chiang, illustrated by Mathias Ball
Evelyn sees that Tessa is not herself. Evelyn wants to play with Tessa and take them out of their dark room and make them smile again but she doesn't know how. When she writes a note to the "Best Sister Ever!" Tessa explains to Evelyn that they are not her sister, or her brother, but prefers to be called Evelyn's sibling. They do some stuff together but it's obvious that Tessa is growing up and their interests have changed. They are also burdened with educating Evelyn about their pronouns (they/them/their) and dealing with those who assume they know what Tessa's pronouns must be.
From Still My Tessa, written by Sylv Chiang, illustrated by Mathias Ball
Evelyn wants to learn and she does. After a week, she's using Tessa's preferred pronouns and almost gets a smile from her sibling. But when the family goes for a bike ride, Tessa is again challenged by those who assume their gender is female. Evelyn has no problem informing people they meet that Tessa is her sibling, recognizing that if she can adapt to Tessa's pronouns in a week, others can learn as well. And when their parents introduce Evelyn as a girl and Tessa as non-binary, Tessa's smile finally returns.
From Still My Tessa, written by Sylv Chiang, illustrated by Mathias Ball
The premise behind Still My Tessa goes beyond just recognizing that we should all feel comfortable with the pronouns by which we are addressed. It also recognizes that young children might have to learn about pronouns and being non-binary but that this can be learned with the right teaching. Teacher Sylv Chiang (she/her) finds a sibling relationship the perfect vehicle for addressing the use of pronouns. As a little sister who obviously adores Tessa, Evelyn just wants them to be the sibling with whom she can play and make happy. And by modelling what's she's learned, Evelyn can help teach others what is appropriate for Tessa and all of them. 
Illustrator Mathias Ball (he/they) may have had to struggle with enlightening others about their preferred pronouns, and, as such, their depictions of Tessa are truly authentic, reflecting what a child struggling to understand and accept and advocate for themselves with their non-binary status and pronoun preferences would feel. Evelyn is a happy child whose biggest worry is who will play with her, while Tessa is filled with angst. Whether it is becoming a teenager, already a struggle for many, or understanding their non-binary nature, Tessa projects that burden, rarely cracking a smile or venturing from their room and from beneath their headphones. Still, Mathias Ball doesn't make them sullen or angry, but they do make them introspective and solemn. That doesn't mean the illustrations are anything but bright and cheerful and inclusive, ensuring that Tessa and Evelyn both see the joys of their world.

Accepting how we would like to be addressed is an important part of our identities. But it isn't always easy for others to accept the appropriate pronouns or gender designations (even nonconforming ones). Still Evelyn demonstrated that learning can happen and doesn't have to change her relationship with Tessa, except by also becoming their ally now. With a little instruction–Sylv Chiang offers some help understanding of what it means to be non-binary, how to use pronouns, and how to become an ally. With compassion and clarification, every young child can learn to use the correct pronouns as Evelyn did for her sibling and help others to do the same. (And Still My Tessa may even help a few parents learn how to becomes allies for their children.)

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