At the age of 5, Thomas Wurst's life goal was to become a little girl. By age 7, he was considering a future as a professional (female) clown in the exploding job market of ice-cream-truck drivers. But by age 27, Wurst had forsaken his childhood dreams; he was a man employed at an architectural firm in Seattle.
Wurst decided his new dream was to be less of a flake and write a children's book by age 30. He began illustrating his book in 2002, and watched as it evolved into a children's Christmas book—about himself. The illustrations were finished in nine months. It was only then that he sat down and narrated the story. ("I'm more of an artist than a writer, and you can't tell a good story without pictures.") By the time Wurst hit 30, he was shopping it around to publishers.
Pearl's Christmas Present is 40 pages long and chronicles a day in the life of a prepubescent boy who is persecuted by his family for preferring high heels to Tonka trucks. Pearl's family wants nothing more than for him to be a normal little boy. Pearl wants nothing more than to be a normal little girl (sound familiar?). His brothers sic the family dog on him. His sisters make him do chores (in heels) in exchange for playing beauty parlor. His parents forbid him from speaking freely with "Santy Claus" because they dread his Christmas wish list. But Pearl is a serene boy with a firm sense of self and good survival instinct, which saves him from being a depressing and pitiable character.
Growing up different is tough, but it tends to instill in people a strength their peers do not have, evident in characters like Pearl, or the Elephant Man. Despite Pearl's less than perfect home life, he improvises to make himself happy. A Christmas tree skirt becomes a makeshift ball gown accessorized by his sister's new pumps. When Christmas morning brings more Tonka trucks rumbling his way, Pearl discreetly saves the Christmas ribbon on his unwanted gifts.
Exactly how much of the story is true?
"It's based on a short story I wrote years ago," Wurst says, "but it's still my life. The family dynamics are true, and my brother nicknamed me Pearl because I liked to play dress up."
The illustrations, much like the story, are both jarring and serene. Each page is chalkboard black with white script, which happens to be Wurst's penmanship (he made the font himself out of old school assignments). His childhood home is drawn from memory. The family dog has an alarmingly large number of teeth. And while Pearl is almost always depicted with a smile and a sweeping halo of hair, his siblings and parents sport angry eyebrows and sharp scowls in every frame of the book. One brother—Chester—has curls that resemble demonic horns.
The story is dark, Wurst acknowledges, but it was liberating and cathartic to write. "It's about knowing who you are," he says, "but also knowing when you can show it."
He admits that the story might resonate with gay men more than young children. "However, if I would have had a book like this around while growing up, it would have made a difference. Life would have been easier for me. I've had several elementary-school teachers buy copies of Pearl's story from me. Just having older children accustomed to the ideas in the book and open to diversity will help a few children. That's my goal."
This new goal compels Wurst to continue with Pearl's story, even though writing a Christmas storybook about trannies (for kids!) is apparently the quickest way to get your book rejected. Wurst eventually printed the book himself, at a printer coincidentally less than 100 miles away from his childhood home in Minnesota. He sells Pearl's Christmas Present for $20 through his website (www.pearlanddotty.com), at Bluebottle (415 E. Pine St), and often at the First Thursday art walk in Pioneer Square.
He has plans for four more books, each following Pearl through a different stage in his life and ending somewhere in Pearl's teens, which were the "hardest and darkest" to live through. Eventually Pearl, like Wurst, will realize that he is a young gay boy. His desire to be a girl will fade, presenting Pearl and his family with new challenges to face as he begins getting comfortable with his identity.
How does Wurst's family feel about the debut installment of Pearl's story? They have yet to read it. "But," he adds with a smile, "they're all getting copies for Christmas."