AUBURN, Calif. — This is the story of Super Awesome Sylvia, an ingenious little girl who made robots, or so everyone thought.
At age 8, Sylvia Todd put on a lab coat and started a web show. A gaptoothed little kid with a pony tail and soldering iron, a rare sight in the boy's club of amateur inventors.
Before long, Sylvia had tens of thousands of viewers. And tons of robots, of course.
The most famous was Super Awesome Sylvia's WaterColor Bot. It did exactly what it sounds like — it painted any picture you asked it to.
But that bot did other things, too.
It got Sylvia invited to the White House Science Fair in 2013, when President Barack Obama tried it out and told its shaky-legged, 11-year-old inventor that it was great to see girls in tech.
Then came reporters, magazine profiles, even book deals. A story in the New York Times described Sylvia as half-silly, half-serious — and “(almost) certain that her future lies in science.”
By middle school, Sylvia was giving speeches all over the world, from the United Nations to elite girls' schools in Australia. This was a big deal for a kid from a small town in Northern California, whose parents often worried about paying the next bill.
That's how — year after year, show after show, speech after speech — Super Awesome Sylvia's robots turned a little kid into a role model for girls everywhere.
And that's how they trapped him.
Because underneath the pony tail and the prop lab coat, Sylvia didn't feel like a genius, or a celebrity, or a girl.
This is the story of Zephyrus Todd, a 16-year-old boy who prefers art to science, and knows a lot more about himself now than when people called him Sylvia and assumed he was a girl. It's about how Zeph got stuck inside Super Awesome Sylvia, “trying to be that person,” as he puts it.
And how he broke free.
Chapter 1 — 'My name is Sylvia'
In the beginning there was simply Sylvia. No Zeph, no super awesome anything. Just Sylvia and his mom and dad (and later a brother and two sisters) growing up in Auburn, Calif. A regular little girl, by all appearances.
“When I was a kid, I was just a kid,” Zeph said. “Making cool stuff.”
Zeph had always wanted to know how things worked.
He liked to pull apart old laptops and put together electronic kits with his dad, James, a computer programmer.
One day in 2010, Zeph decided to make a YouTube show about making things. His mom, Christina, sewed a lab coat fit for an 8-year-old. Dad helped write the scripts and held the camera, and Zeph just did his thing.
“Hi! My name is Sylvia and this is our super awesome Maker shoooow!” Zeph said in the first episode, pumping his arms in the air. “Let's get out there and experiment!”
Super Awesome Sylvia showed kids how to make a pencil that squeaked when it conducted electricity, and a cardboard periscope, and soft electric circuits and a heartbeat pendant.
And kids watched. And Zeph watched, amazed, as hundreds of viewers became thousands. Make Magazine started hosting the show on its YouTube channel, and altogether more than a million people clicked on Sylvia's videos.
Zeph got into the character. He wore the lab coat to Maker fairs, selling Sylvia bling at his booths, or posing with idols like Adam Savage from “MythBusters.”
In time, Zeph would get emails from parents who told him he was an idol himself to their sons and daughters.
Or at least, Sylvia was an idol. She was.
One day last summer, when it was all over and Zeph was just Zeph, James sat on a patio eating guacamole, watching his son splash in a pool, wondering if the fun had been worth all the trouble it caused.
“Before any of this s--- happened I used to tell Zeph, 'Fame happens to the unlucky; it's not a healthy thing.'" James said. “As a kid, it's a trap.”
Chapter 2 — Sylvia meets the president
When he was 11, with a few years of making practice behind him, Zeph decided to enter the international RoboGames. The competition was fierce: teams from around the world with heavy-duty battle bots and androids.
Zeph dreamed up something more his style: the WaterColor Bot.
He had always liked making props and puppets for the Super Awesome Sylvia Show (Curmudgeon Oxygen was a staple), at least as much as the bots themselves.
The WaterColor Bot had a paintbrush on two motors, a bright wood frame and eight little trays of paint. A local tech company partnered with the Todds to build it, Sylvia's fans helps crowdfund it, and James programmed an app so you could send it sketches through an iPad.
It won the silver medal in the artbot category — and caught the eye of people at the White House.
“They were just freaking out that there's a girl making stuff,” Zeph said.
Zeph remembers shaking nervously as he walked through the White House that spring. The other kids' projects all seemed so elaborate. A brain-controlled robotic arm; an artificial neural network; temperature-regulating athletic clothing invented by two 8-year-old boys.
“Why am I here?” Zeph thought. “I have this weird robot that I made.”
“It's really neat!” Super Awesome Sylvia told Bill Nye outside the White House.
And he smiled in his lab-coat with Obama, and held up a robot-painted watercolor of the White House.
He came back to California with photos that still get passed around his family — the highlight of his career as a supposed girl genius.
At the end of that school year he got a D in math.
The truth was, Zeph says, he's never been a natural at science. He liked the fairs, and he liked messing around with his family on the show, and he knew how to say the right things.
“I've learned how to seem like I know stuff,” he said. “People ask, 'Oh — do you know about this electronic thing, blah-dee-blah-dee-blah, and I'm like, 'I've heard of it!' so it seems like I know about it. But I actually don't.”
It worked very well. Zeph's grades hardly improved as nonstop invitations to amazing places followed the White House trip.
From the Katie Couric Show: “Is there anything she can demo that explodes like a volcano but cooler?”
From the United Nations in 2014: “Would you and Sylvia consider coming to Geneva” for an international girls-in-tech day?
So he went. Zeph's parents were teenagers when he was born. James dropped out of high school and got a job for the new family. Christina went to college, but the family always struggled to pay bills.
While Super Awesome Sylvia's fame didn't make them rich, it brought in some cash and gave the family a chance to see cities and countries they never could have otherwise.
The last big trip was to the other side of the world, Australia, where Zeph would make speeches at elite private girls' schools — and finally begin to confront who he actually was.
Chapter 3 — The end of Sylvia
Even before Australia, there had been signs that all was not as it seemed with the person called Sylvia Todd.
Zeph remembers asking a friend in seventh grade, “Is it weird to want to be a boy?” In his private sketchbook, he started to draw himself with shorter hair and hairy legs.
But these were still passing thoughts. On the Gold Coast of Australia in 2014, girls in uniform skirts crowded around the WaterColor Bot and listened to Super Awesome Sylvia's tips on invention.
Patience was important, Zeph told them: “Sometimes I just don't want to do it; Making isn't something that should be forced.” And the girls smiled.
The tour went so well that after Zeph returned home, the Todds said, he got an offer to come back to Australia and study free at one of the schools — St. Hilda's, “a place where girls dream and achieve.”
“It's an amazing school,” Zeph said. “An entire wing dedicated to makers. Everything's leather.”
But as he waited in Auburn for start of the Australian school year, those questions began to pass through his mind more and more often.
The character Super Awesome Sylvia began to fade from his life, and then so did the person called Sylvia.
Zeph became reluctant to make new Web shows, and eventually stopped altogether. His parents weren't sure why at first. They didn't know that Zeph that could no longer stand to look at his long curls, or listen to “how squeaky my voice was.”
And the thought of that school in Australia, with its leather and laboratories and uniforms, loomed in Zeph's mind like a deadline.
Finally, he decided, “I can't live with myself wearing a skirt every day.”
Australia would never see Sylvia Todd again.
Chapter 4 — God of the west winds
The fall of 2015 was a tough time in the Todd household. James had just lost a job, and the family was in danger of losing their house, with its big wild yard and that den that James and kids had turned into a mad scientist's laboratory, plastered with auto-drawers and computers and jury-rigged toys.
Zeph, meanwhile, was spending more and more time alone in his pink-painted bedroom, not making things anymore, not talking much, sometimes crying for unexplained reasons. The Web show was all but abandoned.
Christina went into the room one day to talk it out, mother and son — even if she still called her son daughter.
“Have I let my fans down?” Zeph asked, Christina remembers.
No, she said. “Be the best person you can be.”
In secret, Zeph was already working on that. He was drawing himself as a boy in his sketchbook all the time, prototyping new haircuts. He was looking up words on the Internet.
Lesbian; gay; gender fluid; pansexual; asexual; bisexual; tri-gender; demi-girl.
“So many labels,” Zeph said. But one seemed to fit.
He sat down at the dinner table one evening, and told his parents and sisters and brother: “I have something to say. I think I'm transgender.”
It took some time for the family to get used to that.
Zeph's sister Talulah wrote him an angry letter the next day. Christina felt like “it was the ending of that little girl, the amazing child I had,” she remembers. And James thought it was just a phase, at first.
But as fall turned to winter, Zeph fell silent less often, and his confidence grew. He painted his room blue from pink, covering one wall with a space alien mural, and another with Post-it notes to himself. “It's ok to cry. You are loved.”
The family came to realize that Sylvia Todd's greatest project had been to figure out that he was never Sylvia Todd at all.
So the Todds all sat down and brainstormed a new name. They settled on Zephyrus. It was fun to spell, and reminded the family of a character from a musical they'd once seen in London.
“But it's actually a Greek god,” Zeph said. “God of the west winds.”
It all seems pretty simple, in hindsight. It was anything but at the time.
“In the palette of human experience, about the best thing we can do is apply labels that almost match,” James told Zeph one day.
“Saying 'trans boy' probably covers 90 percent of what you are. The rest is something else that's just you.”
Chapter 5 — Super science girls
“Do you want to just shut it down?” James asked Zeph one day. He meant the show, and Super Awesome Sylvia. To erase and move past that whole chunk of a life.
But Zeph didn't want that.
“I was this girl role model at one point,” he said. “I didn't want it to just end.”
So he decided to keep Sylvia alive, as art — a drawing, a brainy girl character who both is him and is not.
Zeph drew her into a comic strip, explaining his transition. He sends it to people who still write to him, asking Sylvia to make an appearance.
He sent it to an assistant principal this year, and added a note that he'd be happy to come down and talk to the students — “as Zephyrus, not Sylvia.”
The assistant principal never wrote back. No one writes back after getting the comic, Zeph said.
One day this year, he got a book in the mail. It was called “Super Science Girls!” and the author had including a note, hoping the Todds liked it.
It was simple book, written for kids, about a girl who loved science but had trouble being herself. Zeph couldn't bear to open it. He knew the character's name was Sylvia — and he knew she was very much him.
The author, Ellen Langas, had interviewed Zeph about his life a couple of years earlier, before she started to write and he started to question himself. It had been Zeph's last big project as Sylvia. Now the book was finished, and Zeph had never told Ellen that he was a boy.
It sat on Zeph's shelf for weeks, unread. Finally, in April, he worked up the courage to send Ellen a reply.
“I deeply apologize,” he wrote. “I'm not a girl like I thought I was, I'm a boy. Regardless of what I was born as. My name is Zephyrus now.”
“But because of that realization, it's made everything associated with who I was very hard to deal with,” Zeph went on. “I've been having a hard time answering calls, and replying to emails because of the fear of explaining things. Again, I'm really sorry.”
He typed all this out and hit send, and felt a familiar knot in his stomach. But Ellen replied the next morning.
“My dear Zephyrus: I am happy for you and your family as you have discovered your true north and are following where it takes you,” she wrote, and signed off: “As always, I am your fan.”
Zeph still hasn't read “Super Science Girls!” But he held on to that email.
Chapter 6 — Goo
Life now . . . well, it's never perfect. Zeph met another trans boy in school last year. They bonded over a shared hatred of gym and started dating. He's learning to silk screen and working on his drawings of Sylvia, and helping his little brother Dorian — one of Super Awesome Sylvia's biggest fans — make bots of his own.
His old childhood idol Adam Savage accepted his transition without second thought at the next Maker Faire. So did many people he loved. But there are also glares in the hallways of high school, and anxious deliberations about locker rooms, and hassles with swimsuits and chest binders.
A few months ago, Zeph went with his family on his first science trip since coming out as a boy.
It was just a little expo at a college a few miles up the road, so Dorian could show off his bots.
Zeph and his boyfriend and James sat at the next table, trying to sell goo to pass the time.
To advertise, they put up the same photo of Super Awesome Sylvia and Obama, which had always drawn customers. That day, it mostly drew awkward conversations.
“Oh, who's this person?” someone would ask, looking at the ponytailed kid in the photo.
“Well . . . it's this person, right here,” James would say, and point to his son.
“But that's a guy.”
James tried the direct explanation: “He's a trans boy now.” He tried the vague explanation: “That's my eldest.” Everyone walked away regardless.
Zeph endured all this mostly in silence. Until finally, he got tired of having Sylvia explained.
The next time someone looked at the photo and asked for the girl — “Oh, is she here today?” — the boy replied for himself: