Books

Interview with Author of Jacob’s New Dress

 

JacobsDress

Photo Credit: Albert Whitman & Co.

One day, a few months ago, I happened across a book at A Room Of One’s Own, our locally owned feminist bookstore. It was called Jacob’s New Dress. I cracked it open, holding my breath—and then I raced to the checkout counter. Jetpack had been having some trouble at school, and I held within my two hands a book about a kid having a very similar situation—written with a delicacy and understanding that blew me away. I was lucky enough to able to interview one of the authors of Jacob’s New Dress, Sarah Hoffman.

L: Can you tell me a little about how Jacob’s New Dress came into being?

S: Our son, Sam, was two when he put on his first pair of pink sneakers. He quickly moved to pink t-shirts and princess dress-up costumes and pink marabou feather slippers and lip gloss. Finally, he wanted to wear a real dress–not a costume–to school. Sam experienced the bewilderment of his classmates and teachers, teasing, and, when he was older, bullying for his differences from other kids.

As we learned to navigate Sam’s world, I started writing about gender non-conforming kids for newspapers and magazines. We realized, after doing gender-diversity education in Sam’s kindergarten, how much of a difference education makes in changing minds and hearts. It’s when kids are little that fixed notions of gender begin. Since Ian is a children’s book author, we knew we could bring that kind of education into preschools, elementary schools, and homes. And, perhaps most of all, we wanted a way for boys like Sam to realize they were not alone.

L: The afterward of the book mentions your son Sam and his being gender-nonconforming and preschool age. My kid, Jetpack, is also pretty nonconforming—and has had a rough time getting used to kindergarten. How has Sam fared?

S: Jetpack! How cool a name is that?! While Sam did experience some challenges when he was in preschool and kindergarten, they weren’t nearly as significant as the bullying that came later, starting in first grade. The school was not willing to do gender diversity education throughout the school (only in his particular classroom), and so he was bullied–emotionally and physically–in the boys’ bathroom and on the playground, where he interacted with kids who had not been educated. And in the wider world, safety became an issue–Sam was verbally attacked in public men’s rooms, where men and boys did not expect to see a female-looking child. Oddly, it took only minor feminine details to trigger the anger of some males. The worst experience he had was while wearing a white t-shirt and khaki pants, and standing at a urinal next to his dad. Sam’s long hair was enough to incite another elementary school-age boy to try to punch him.

L: Oh man. I’m sorry that happened to him. I love Jacob’s friend Emily—she’s the kind of friend every kid should have. I had to laugh when his friend Christopher is so mean, and Jacob’s mom says, “Christopher’s not always a good friend.” That’s a very kind thing to say, and a better parent that I feel like I can be, sometimes. Any comment?

S: Part of writing a book after having gone through similar experiences as the ones in the book (though the book isn’t autobiographical–it’s a work of fiction) is that we had time to reflect on the best way to approach different situations. We are certainly not perfect parents all–or even most–of the time.

We did create fictional parents who had a harder time with their son’s gender nonconformity than we did. Accepting parents don’t make for an incredibly interesting story. And we’ve always found the struggles of other parents to accept their kids particularly compelling. It’s incredibly moving to hear the stories of parents whose first reaction was to reject and “fix” their child’s difference, and who were able to come around and love their children for who they are.

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L: I also really appreciated how visceral Jacob’s reactions are. Anything in particular spark Jacob’s very tangible feelings?

S: Kids really just want to be who they are, without people commenting or harassing them. It’s incredibly galling–to anyone–to have our choices questioned and constantly turned into an issue. We, as a culture, no longer make a big deal if a girl wants to wear pants. Or even try out for a sports team. Why should we make a big deal about a boy who wants to wear a dress? From a kids’ perspective, they’re just liking what they like, and hearing other peoples’ commentary can spark big feelings. We’ve seen it in many kids who are harassed. Kids feel others’ judgments acutely, and they often react without censoring themselves, unlike adults who may hide their feelings away.

In the bigger picture, we know that kids who don’t have the acceptance of their families and communities have far poorer health and mental health outcomes than kids who are accepted. The big feelings that come from experiencing criticism and rejection are real and important, and can have long-term effects.

L: I asked my son whether he had any questions for you, and he said he’d like to know when the next book about Jacob comes out. Any more plans in the works?

S: We love that Jetpack wants to see more of Jacob. We are working on a sequel now!

L: I am looking forward to purchasing the sequel—hopefully we can check back in with you when it happens! Thank you so much for bringing Jacob’s New Dress into our lives.

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