For the past two years the Human Rights Campaign has sponsored national I am Jazz reading events, where people will gather in schools and community centers to read the children’s book by transgender teenager Jazz Jennings, as told to Jessica Herthel and beautifully illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas. As a trans person myself who was a gender non-conforming child I appreciate the intent behind the readings, but I frankly hate the book, and I really wish they would find something else to read.
Let’s think about what we want to accomplish by reading kids a book about transgender issues. First, we want to teach kids to accept and support any classmates who might be trans. Second, we want to give kids the understanding and good habits to accept and support trans people when they grow up. Third, we want to send a signal to any trans kids in the audience that they are accepted and supported. The HRC says as much in their press release.
So how does I Am Jazz do? Well, let’s start by going over the plot, such as it is. Jazz loves girly things, because Jazz is a girl in a boy’s body. Jazz has lots of friends who are girls, and they have lots of fun doing girly things together. In terms of plot, it’s no Cat in the Hat. It isn’t even Go Dog, Go! The only action is Jazz and her friends playing soccer, and that happens mostly off the page. Everything is static, habitual. Jazz is. She likes things. She has friends. She and her friends like to do things. The end.
Jazz is expertly drawn as a pretty girl who may inspire some desire in other girls: if I were open to having a trans friend, these girls will think, she might turn out to be like Jazz, and then we could be pretty and girly together. Herthel wrote that she was inspired to write the book when her daughters had just such a reaction on meeting Jazz. On the other hand, there is nothing here for boyish boys and tomboyish girls. They may be turned off by Jazz’s focus on all things girly, and anyone who might have been thinking of her as a messed-up boy ripe for bullying would not be deterred by anything they read in the book.
When I was a kid, I just wanted to be able to do whatever looked like fun, including dancing and playing with dolls and having tea parties as well as tree climbing and toy trucks (and not really soccer). I wanted to wear whatever looked cool and comfortable, including skirts and tights and barrettes and lipstick as well as baseball caps and jeans. I wanted to stay friends with the girls in my life, and I didn’t want to chase them as part of some bizarre dominance ritual. When I was a teenager I felt a desire to be a pretty, girly girl, but I didn’t necessarily want to give up being a boy, and as a young adult I chose to become and stay a man.
I’m having trouble imagining that a kid – or a parent, or a teacher – would be any more sympathetic to my wants or choices after reading I am Jazz than before. I didn’t want to be a stereotypical boy, but I didn’t want to be like Jazz either. When I was a little older, a part of me wanted to be like Jazz, but another part of me didn’t, and ultimately I’m glad I didn’t spend time as a girl in high school. Where is there anything like my life in I am Jazz? How does it even lead to people understanding me, much less accepting or supporting me?
In case you think I want to replace a ceremony that’s all about Jazz with one that’s all about me, it’s also hard to imagine that seeing Jazz being successful at being a pretty, girly girl would make kids more open to masculine-spectrum transgender or nonbinary kids, whether they’re transitioning or gender non-conforming. We need something that includes all of us.
The best thing I’ve ever read, or heard, on this subject is a book and record, and television special, that my sister used to play when I was a kid, Marlo Thomas’s Free to Be… You and Me. It has a ton of pieces that address all kinds of gender non-conformity, including a musical adaptation of another book, William’s Doll, sung by Alan Alda. In keeping with HRC’s earlier mission, Thomas said that ABC executives “wanted ‘William’s Doll’ cut, because it would turn every boy in the world into a homosexual — which isn’t such a bad idea.” (There is nothing at all about sexuality in “Wiliam’s Doll” – Thomas was joking.)
I’d love to see new books for kids about transgender issues, but until we have them, I’d be happy to take part in school and community readings of Free to Be … You and Me. “Boy Meets Girl” and “William’s Doll” are just as powerful as they were back in 1972. I’m guessing there are a lot of kids who could benefit from hearing a grown man sing “It’s All Right to Cry” in front of their classes. And the final lines of Dan Greenburg’s “Don’t Dress Your Cat in an Apron” really say it all:
A person should wear what he wants to,
And not just what other folks say.
A person should do what she likes to.
A person’s a person that way.