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Bash-O-Bash encourages genderfluid kids to express themselves 

Going beyond binary.

click to enlarge FAST FOX: One of Bash-O-Bash's only initially openly gender fluid characters, Fast Fox, identifies as a girl, is the youngest character, loves to race, dress up and is a founding member of the local makerspace. - BRYAN MOATS
  • Bryan Moats
  • FAST FOX: One of Bash-O-Bash's only initially openly gender fluid characters, Fast Fox, identifies as a girl, is the youngest character, loves to race, dress up and is a founding member of the local makerspace.

Looking through illustrator Bryan Moats' portfolio, there are traces of whimsy that make his work seem almost predestined for the pages of children's books. Take, for example, the 350 drawings he did for a research project in the communication sciences and disorders department at the University of Central Arkansas, images of interactions between people and animals compiled into a reel called "Weird and Endearing Moments." Or the plaid and polka-dotted Spotted Crow character he drew for Asthmatic Kitty Records, a record label run by Sufjan Steven's stepfather and best known for releasing the singer-songwriter's discography. Even in Moats' work as the former art director for the Arkansas Times, it shows — his cover for the "Get Lit: A Preview of the 2016 Arkansas Literary Festival" of books flying about a room, for example.

Moats' work is simple: filled-in line drawings, well-wrought, often against white backgrounds. "My trajectory as a creative person has always been leading me towards illustrating children's books," he told me as we sipped on coffee at a Little Rock coffee shop. "People have always told me, 'You know, Bryan, you should do that,' and I'd always agree."

When Moats and his wife, Meredith Martin-Moats, had kids — twin sons and a little girl — he noticed his sons never really embraced gender norms. "They like to paint their toenails or wear nightgowns," Moats said. "We could definitely see how this could end up being a struggle for both of them." So, Meredith and Bryan turned to look for things for their children that were not gender-conforming. Finding little, they decided to create something themselves. That work-in-progress series is called "Bash-O-Bash" (bashobash.com), an array of stories and artwork for children who are, as the project's website says, "as conforming and nonconforming as they come."

Moats is the illustrator, but he emphasizes that "Bash-O-Bash is a family project. Everything from the name (a "fun, explosive, nonsense word" his sons made up when they were younger), characters and story has been a collaboration with his wife and sons. "It's never been just my project," he said. "We talk about storylines over dinner," Martin-Moats said. "We have family meetings to talk about the characters. All of the characters are at least partially created by our kids."

In addition to the book, Moats and his wife are doing a monthly podcast, the first episode of which was released on iTunes in November.

"Bash-O-Bash" takes place in the countryside of Arkansas, and while it was important to him that "Bash-O-Bash" demystify a lot of things about kids and parenthood, he also aimed to mystify things we often consider mundane — namely, living in the country and being connected to the land. "It's a rural state," he said. ... It's really important to us to tell stories that fully show characters who are in every single way super happy about this environment they live in."

"I really love the process of helping layer the stories," Martin-Moats said. "For example, thinking about how creek names can surface in the stories or how butterfly migration patterns can make an appearance."

"Bash-O-Bash" will probably be a bit wordier than the average children's book, but that doesn't mean it's exclusively for children at specific reading levels. His aim, Moats said, is to illustrate it clearly enough so that "a toddler would love to flip through a lot." As for getting the ideas and themes across to someone who is only looking at the pictures, Moats says a lot of the gender fluidity will be "expressed through dress and clothing as well as context."

Sexuality, though, isn't going to be a part of the "Bash-O-Bash" universe. "From start to finish," the website reads, "Bash-O-Bash is about kids' nonsexual expression of their gender."

"It's not really an issue, but because we want to give these characters a life of their own, we might as well give each one paragraph and explain what they're all about and why you want to read more about them in the future. There's no sexuality in it whatsoever. It's just a zero part of it," Moats said.

"I think 'Bash-O-Bash' is an adorably brilliant idea," Emily Young, owner of Dog Ear Books in Russellville, said via email. "As soon as I read up on it some, I was hooked. It's something that is severely lacking in the literary world, especially on a local level." Young is a supporter of Moats' work on a platform called Patreon — a key part, Moats said, of publishing in a market where there aren't a lot of children's books bringing up the idea of gender-fluidity; "Bash-O-Bash" does not yet have a publisher. "I think these days, it's necessary for children to have fewer restrictions on who they are, so that they can figure it out themselves," Young continued. "I, personally, would love to have my child growing up with characters like 'Bash-O-Bash' provides."

Ultimately, Martin-Moats said, "It's about blowing open gender boxes and it's also about breaking down all kinds of walls. ... I think a lot of times adults are so afraid of anything that doesn't fit into a box. Kids' capacity for complex emotions is really quite huge. In my personal opinion, it's often adults who fear complexity more than children. The stories are about all of this."


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