Books / Culture

REVIEW: I Am Jazz

I am JazzJazz Jennings is a very unique young woman, who is more than worthy of the recent honor of being named one of TIME Magazine’s 25 Influential Young People of 2014 this past week. She embodies all that we would want for our children – confidence, poise, intelligence, and the ability to advocate for herself. In addition to being an honoree and an advocate, Jazz has recently also become an author. Her debut children’s picture book is entitled I Am Jazz (2014), and was co-authored with Jessica Herthel, with illustrations by Shelagh McNicholas.

I read the book recently and conducted a multi-age focus group interview (full disclosure: my own three children were the only members, ages 10, 7, and 4 years of age). Two of my children are what could be called gender-conforming, and the middle child is definitely not, though he does not identify as a girl or as transgender. The attention span of the group was typically short but I was able to glean some insight into their perspectives nonetheless.

The cover and book are visually pleasing, with bright simple illustrations and realistic drawings of the real-life characters. The writing is clear and there are not too many words on each page to overwhelm even the youngest of children (or the most tired of parents). Jazz tells her story, lamenting that she “never gave up trying to convince them. Pretending I was a boy felt like telling a lie.”

The book is intended for a very young audience, perhaps in the range of 4 to 6 years old. Developmentally, I wasn’t sure if my four year-old would grasp the concepts in the book, but she actually did seem to understand. She said, “I liked the book, it was kind of familiar to my other books… she wanted to wear girl things, and she wanted to be a girl. No, he wanted to be a girl. So they then they let his hair get longer, so it can like go into a girl instead of a boy because that’s because it was familiar to my other books.”

My ten year-old told me that this book should really be read to those who have never experienced this before. Since they were already familiar with these concepts (and because it was written for much younger children), he felt that it was unnecessary for him. My seven year-old said, “I think it was really interesting because she was in a boy’s body but a girl’s mind. She liked what I like and she didn’t really feel like a boy, so what I… think it’s kind of interesting, turning into a girl, and he or she changed her name… [4 year-old] to Jazz.”

I asked them what they thought other kids who had never heard of a boy who likes “girl things” would think of the book. The ten year-old stated, “Even as we were reading this book, it’s obvious that all boys and girls are different. It’s the same in this case, really hard to tell. As a kid, I know.”

This book uses the word “transgender” and doesn’t address the potential for kids who are gender non-conforming or gender-creative instead. It focuses only on the story of one little girl, Jazz, and her experiences with her family and community. That is a strength and weakness of the work. Certainly there is a place for a book like this, which could be a lifesaver for a child and family who are going through this, but wouldn’t be appropriate for those children with a more nuanced gender performance. It is necessarily simplified, which I think is developmentally appropriate for the age group.

The multi-age focus group

The multi-age focus group

The most important message of the book is the final one: “I don’t mind being different. Different is special! I think what matters most is what a person is like inside. And inside, I am happy. I am having fun. I am proud!” This is a message that any child can grasp and internalize. I am grateful that we live in a time when a book such as I Am Jazz can be published and sold by a large-scale publisher, so that no child has to live with the feeling that they are the only one living their experience.

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3 Comments

  1. Love the end message and the picture of your little ones!

  2. i think your four year old gets it but doesnt have the words for it. now if only someone would write a book from a gender nonconforming viewpoint for middle grade…

  3. Thanks for your comments! I completely agree, there need to be books for the
    Middle grades, where the questions really start to deepen!

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