Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings’s I am Jazz

I am Jazz (2014) is an autobiographical children’s picture book co-authored by Jessica Herthel and the title character, Jazz Jennings. Jennings, now a young transgender woman with her own TLC show, first entered the spotlight in 2007 when she was featured on a 20/20 documentary about transgender children. This book is a significant contribution to LGBTQ+ children’s literature, since it is co-authored by, and narrated from the perspective of the transgender child protagonist. Although there are a handful of picture book autobiographies of transgender children now, this remains one of my favorites for its clever storytelling strategies and positive focus on transitioning that still engages negative peer reactions.

The book is adorably illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas, who depicts Jazz as a pale-skinned very pink-cheeked little girl with a big smile. I am Jazz opens with an image of Jazz sitting next to a stuffed mermaid on a pink bed. The text above the young girl announces: “I am Jazz!” On the facing page, Jazz is depicted in a silvery dress accessorized with a tiara – she’s a girlie-girl. We quickly learn that Jazz loves dancing, soccer, and make-up, but the thing she loves most are mermaids.

The reader is not told Jazz is transgender until her identity as a typical little girl is well established. At that point, images of Jazz smiling with her friends are replaced by a sullen girl who acknowledges that she is not exactly like other girls.

In a two-page illustration, Jazz sits with her stuffed mermaid next to her, drawing a series of pictures. Through the Jazz’s drawings, we move backward through time and see an androgynous child growing more feminine in each subsequent image. The final image in the series is of a little girl with long hair in pink bows. The text explains the images: “I have a girl brain but a boy body./ This is called transgender./ I was born this way.”

After we learn that Jazz is transgender we’re provided with backstory through a set of images that show a child showing behaviors typically associated with a little girl, but now we know the androgonous child is Jazz. In one image, Jazz is shown playing with dolls as her mother tries to redirect her attention to blocks. Other images show her siblings confused by her behavior, because they think she is a boy. Jazz’s parents eventually realize she is much happy if they let her play with girl toys and wear girls’ clothes, but they still hesitate to fully accept Jazz.

Eventually, Jazz’s parents learn about being transgender from a doctor and can fully accept and support her.

Even though her family understands her better, her friends and teachers at school still think of her as a boy. Sometimes school children make fun of her. The authors write: “Even today, there are kids who tease me, or call me by a boy name, or ignore me altogether. This makes me feel crummy.” But, with family and friends in her corner, Jazz can finally be a happy little girl.

The flow of the narrative helps young readers accept Jazz as a girl, since this is how we are introduced to her. It also introduces the term transgender clearly and without too much fanfare.  The conflict is not within Jazz, who knows she’s a girl, but in parents and peers who haven’t figured it out yet.

The writers do a wonderful job telling Jazz’s story, and McNicholas does a great job with the illustrations. The presence of Jazz’s mermaid doll is a marker of identification for many transgender girls reading the text. I recommend this wonderful, personal, discussion about what it means to be transgender for even very young audiences. I’ve been reading it to my three-year-old for quite some time. It’s an uncomplicated narrative that presents Jazz positively as a happy little girl.

This review is part of my “Snapshots of LGBTQ+ Kid Lit” project, which parallels a formal scholarly manuscript, The Transformative Potential of LGBTQ+ Children’s Picture Books, that will be available from the University Press of Mississippi Spring 2022. Part of my research is identifying and interpreting English-language children’s picture books with LGBTQ+ content published in the US and Canada between 1979 and 2018. Follow my blog to follow my journey!

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