Meet the author and illustrator of a joyful, heart-warming book celebrating the power of individuality
Interview by Bex Shorunke
LGBT History Month might be drawing to a close but we know we should be learning about and celebrating queer identities year-round, so if you have a little person in your life why not gift them The Spectacular Suit?
This joyful and heartwarming book follows Frankie, who, as her birthday party approaches, is desperately trying to find the perfect outfit to wear.
The Spectacular Suit explores gender identity and the power of individuality, as author Kat Patrick (they/them) and illustrator Hayley Wells (they/them) draw inspiration from their own real-life experiences.
We had a chat with Kat and Hayley to find out a bit more about them, the importance of exploration and what LGBT History Month means to them.
What inspired The Spectacular Suit?
Kat: My own childhood! I was quietly obsessed with suits when I was younger, so I thought I would finally create something that small me would have loved to stomp about in.
What is it about Frankie’s story that resonates with you particularly?
Kat: The willingness of the family to help out and the trust they show in Frankie’s desire. Although it’s not something they can directly understand, they are willing to make themselves vulnerable in the process. It can be scary not knowing precisely what your child (or any loved one) is going through but rather than try and change, or excavate, or question feelings that are different from your own, you can choose to listen and learn.
Hayley: I have never really felt like a girl, but I knew for sure that I wasn’t a boy. So although “girl” didn’t feel like a good identifier, I begrudgingly accepted it for a long time because I didn’t know there was an alternative. What’s really beautiful about this story is that Frankie is able to dream another option for herself.
Queer people have always had to write our own rules and imagine authentic, joyful futures for ourselves, so it is nice to see that reflected in this book. I hope it makes young queer readers feel empowered and hopeful. We refer to Frankie with she/her pronouns in the text, but at no point do we state that she is cis, trans or non-binary. She is simply exploring in the way that kids naturally do. And I hope that openness allows people of all genders to connect with the story in some way.
Why do you think it’s so important for gender identity to be explored in the spaces that young people are in?
Kat: There are much smarter people than me who could answer this more articulately! I can speak to it on a personal level – very basically, I would have come into myself a lot faster had there been less pressure on being somebody I wasn’t. I didn’t have the skills to interpret what those feelings meant when I was a kid, so for a long time they manifested in damaging ways. [I thought] there was something horribly wrong with me, that I was somehow broken. Once I’d figured it out – as an adult – I discovered what an absolute bloody joy it could be. The sooner you can experience the joy, the better.
This is your first picture book. How did you find drawing it? What was the process like?
Hayley: The book was challenging to make, not so much because of the content but because of what life threw at us on the way. There was, of course, the pandemic to contend with, but I also became seriously ill part way through making the artwork. So I had to adapt my process and work on an iPad from my bed. Fortunately the team at Scribble were incredibly supportive, kind and patient during that time. I’m especially grateful to them for helping the book become what it is.
As queer people, how have you found navigating the arts and literature scene?
Kat: I’ve been incredibly lucky – working with people I love, who are committed to seeing change at all levels of the industry. With this new book, it’s a little more daunting than usual. Being in the public eye as a trans person comes with its own huge stresses, and it can be difficult to have faith in the UK media especially – a place where our lives seem to be constantly up for debate.
Hayley: It is tricky at times but I have had positive experiences too. Sometimes people contact me because they’re looking for “women illustrators” and I have to explain that I’m non-binary – in some cases I have lost work and in others it has led to lovely, exciting projects where my identity is seen and respected. Although it doesn’t happen often, I have been publicly misgendered which takes quite a bit of emotional labour to correct. Generally people do seem to be taking things more seriously but there is still work to be done.
Who are some of the queer illustrators and artists you really admire?
Hayley: I read a lot of graphic novels and especially love those by Alison Bechdel and Tillie Walden. Maia Kobabe’s Genderqueer is an outstanding graphic memoir that resonates with me on a very personal level and Kate Charlesworth’s Sensible Footwear: A Girl’s Guide brilliantly documents queer history in the UK – I’m excited to see what both of them make next!
Why does LGBT History Month matter to you?
Kat: It’s a time to honour and celebrate.
Hayley: LGBT History Month helps me to connect with my community and pay respect to the activists and artists who have come before us. It is also an important time to reflect on the various struggles our community still faces and to uplift those who are marginalised in other ways, too.
Do you have any words of wisdom to share with budding illustrators wanting to use art to tell queer stories?
Hayley: Sharing your authentic self with the world is an empowering, liberating act so don’t be afraid to embrace yourself and your creativity. Nobody can tell your story better than you can.