November 17, 2017

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A New Picture Book Biography About a Transgender Girl | Up Close

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Jazz Jennings, a 14-year-old transgender teen, and Jessica Herthel, the director of the Stonewall National Education Project, are the coauthors of the new picture book, I Am Jazz (Dial, 2014.) Inspired by Jazz’s childhood, it covers her discovery at the age of two that she had “a girl’s brain in a boy’s body.” Jazz’s parents took her to a pediatrician, where she was diagnosed with gender dysphoria. Soon after, Jazz began transitioning and publicly identifying as female. Told in simple language and geared to early elementary school readers, I Am Jazz is a unique and much-needed addition to literature on the subject of transgender children.

Jazz Jennings

Jazz Jennings

In your experience, what have been the hardest aspects of being a transgender child (and now a transgender teen)?
Jazz: Being transgender is one big challenge in itself. It’s difficult when you have people trying to tell you who you are or how you should think. They can be cruel and unkind and not open to acceptance. But I know that they don’t determine who I am—I decide. I have the right to make my own decisions whether people respect it or not. Being transgender makes you a stronger person. The challenges you overcome help you better understand yourself and the world around you.

Throughout I Am Jazz, it is clear that your parents and siblings were supportive and able to help you transition. But some teachers and kids were quite ignorant or cruel. Have things gotten better for you over the years?
Jazz: Things have definitely gotten better. My parents and siblings look out for me and protect me. Our family wants to spread the message of peace and equality for all. My teachers and peers are great as well. I’m only friends with the people who will accept me for my true heart no matter what. The administrators at my school don’t tolerate bullying among the students and they look after me.

Jessica, how did you first get involved in the writing of this book?
Jessica: As a person who had done a lot of theater growing up and had many gay friends, it was important to me that my three daughters understood, from a very early age, that love is love and that we should value people for who they are on the inside, not based on their outsides or whether they look or act like a stereotypical notion of a “boy” or “girl.” I was having success with this concept until my kids entered school and were exposed to only a very traditional idea of family. At that point, I decided not to go back to work as a lawyer, as I’d planned, but rather to start volunteering with my public school system in the hopes of encouraging teachers to present more diverse representations of family in elementary schools. I met Jazz’s mom, Jeanette, while volunteering on a committee geared toward making schools safe for every child, and out of our friendship this project was born.

What was it like to co-author a picture book? What do you hope kids and/or parents who read it will take away from it?
Jazz: Co-authoring a picture book was a great experience and cool journey. I hope this book will help others to be who they are and stay true to themselves. I want this book to educate kids about what transgender means and that being different is okay. This way if they ever meet a kid like me, they will learn to accept them and love them for their personality. This book was created to help others, and that’s what I hope it does.

Jessica: I hope that this book reaches three main audiences: families that have a transgender child; communities that have been affected by controversy surrounding a transgender child (for example, those school districts featured in the news due to their decision to allow, or not allow, transgender kids to use the restrooms of their preference); and parents who consider themselves to be allies of the LGBT community and want their kids to grow up to be informed and compassionate allies, too. My wish is that families come away with not only a greater understanding of what it means to be transgender, but also a greater willingness in general to embrace other people’s uniqueness.

Jessica Herthel

Jessica Herthel

How did it come about that I Am Jazz would be a picture book (as opposed to a biography, a chapter book, or middle grade fiction)?
Jessica: It was an obvious choice for me, because I want parents to feel empowered to tackle this important subject with even the youngest kids. Jazz began self-identifying as a girl as soon as she learned to talk; obviously, then, we can’t wait until our children are in middle school to have this conversation. Plus, I had a built-in focus group at home to help me with revisions of the manuscript!

Were there any particular challenges in adapting Jazz’s story for young readers?
Jessica: The only challenge I anticipated was the illustration of the page where Jazz says, “I have a girl brain but a boy body.” For weeks I racked my brain as to how this could be effectively conveyed in a picture. But the hugely gifted Shelaugh McNicholas of Tea Time with Sophia Grace and Rosie (Orchard, 2013) fame took it in stride, with the brilliant idea to illustrate the page by using real-life drawings that Jazz had made before, during, and after her transition.

Jazz, with your work supporting TransKidsPurpleRainbow, along with your many public appearances, you have become a well-known advocate for transgender rights for kids and teens. What is it like to be in the spotlight?
Jazz: It’s a lot more difficult than it seems. Although everyone’s compliments and messages of kindness are dear to my heart, I feel so humble. I’m just an ordinary kid; I just feel like me. I do what I believe is right to help others and spread my message. Being in the spotlight is critical because I know we are saving lives, and that’s the greatest change I can be proud of.

Through your work you’ve met many interesting people and celebrities. Was there anyone that made you star struck? 
Jazz: Even though it was an awesome experience to get to meet amazing celebrities, I wasn’t star struck. They are people just like me and you, and should be treated equally and respected for who they are as individuals. But, I must admit I loved meeting Jennifer Lawrence because she was really funny and kind.

What advice would you offer to other transgender kids and teens?

Jazz: Just always stay true to yourself no matter what. Express your inner emotions, and don’t let others tell you who you are. If your parents are not supportive, find a friend or adult who is. Let them guide you and help you open up. Let your feelings blossom, and keep growing. Don’t let the opinions of others make you shrivel, for you are a beautiful person no matter what anyone says. Be the beautiful flower you are.

Are you planning any sequels?
Jessica: Jazz is an extraordinary kid with so many stories to tell. I get goose bumps just thinking about her, and how many people’s lives she and her family have changed by being brave enough to come forward with their truth. I would love to write another book with Jazz—perhaps focusing on her triumphant, two-year fight to regain her spot on the girls’ soccer team—and if enough people support this project to justify a sequel, I’ll get to work on it right away!

This article was published in School Library Journal's August 2014 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Kiera Parrott About Kiera Parrott

Kiera Parrott is the reviews director for School Library Journal and Library Journal and a former children's librarian. Her favorite books are ones that make her cry—or snort—on public transportation.

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  1. Jazz is so lovely, ♡ te adoro Preciosa ♡ βεℓℓα ➸♡ ☿♡♬♪♫♪ ❤。◕‿ ◕。 ~.~ ◕ ‿-。 ☀ kisses !