by Cris Beam
Paperback (13 Nov 2012), 352 pages.
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
J spun. His stomach clenched hard, as though he'd been hit. It was just the neighbor lady, Mercedes. J couldn't muster a hello back, not now; he didn't care that she'd tell his mom he'd been rude. She should know better. Nobody calls me Jeni anymore.
J always felt different. He was certain that eventually everyone would understand who he really was: a boy mistakenly born as a girl. Yet as he grew up, his body began to betray him; eventually J stopped praying to wake up a "real boy" and started covering up his body, keeping himself invisible - from his family, from his friends...from the world. But after being deserted by the best friend he thought would always be by his side, J decides that he's done hiding - it's time to be who he really is. And this time he is determined not to give up, no matter the cost.
An inspiring story of self-discovery, of choosing to stand up for yourself, and of finding your own path - readers will recognize a part of themselves in J's struggle to love his true self.
"Cool!" J said, and turned his cap around backwards on his head. Four of the other Alchemists were there, each at a workstation. Jorge looked up at him.
"Jdid you even shower this morning? You look like the breakfast that came out of my ass."
J winced. Jorge was an asshole, but he was good with tools, and everybody appreciated him when they needed to weld something onto a motherboard, or toggle tiny switches somewhere. J was the programmer, and he liked to think of his clique as a sort of computer itselfeach member doing its part, competently humming as a whole. "Well you look like the paper I wiped with," J answered back. "And you didn't give me any time for hygiene. You sent the 848."
Deane looked up from his headphones, where he was simultaneously listening to "Learn Arabic! The Easy Way" and said, "Don't fight, assholes. There's work to do." And then, "J, seriouslyyou should be our spy. You look like a guy but you're really a girl. You're way smarter than a real girl, anyhow. You'd be great undercover."
J swallowed hard. He never knew how to take these comments. He'd been mistaken for a boy since he was four, playing with the trucks in preschool. He remembered being devastated when the neighborhood kids, Gus and Junior, told him he couldn't throw the football with them in the streets anymore, because he was a girl. He was about ten when this happened and he ducked his head whenever he saw Gus or Junior after that. As he got older, he snuck into the men's restroom at restaurants and held it at school, because he got such angry looks and even screams when he used the women's room. Still, Deane's comment bothered him. He wasn't smarter than a girl; he felt a deep course of shame when anyone even said the word"girl" around him. At school these days, where some teachers still used his old name, he liked to think of himself as a "nothing"especially now that his body had betrayed him by growing hips and curves, now that the fantasy he had nursed as a childthat he'd miraculously wake up as a boyhad long since simmered, smoked, and died. Most days, he didn't want to think about it.
J looked back at his screen and was logging on, when Mischa, the usually-quiet kid from Russia, joined in. "Yeah, Jyou should be our spy! You practically look Afghani anyway," He looked around at the other Alchemists, and smiled when they laughed. He saw he had everyone's attention, so he puffed out his chest and pushed on. "Maybe you could even bring home a girlfriend. She'd look even more covered up than you."
Excerpted from I Am J by Cris Beam. Copyright © 2011 by Cris Beam. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
- Describe J. What makes him a dynamic character? Is he the type of person you would want to befriend? Why or why not?
- How would you describe J's family? Are they in any way similar to your own? If so, in what ways?
- In I Am J, fear both motivates and incapacitates J. Consider how he deals with his fears. In what ways does he acknowledge them? Is he able to turn to others for help? What are the consequences of his reactions?
- What are your earliest impressions of J's best friend, Melissa? Do you find her to be a good friend? Using textual examples, support your position.
- How would you characterize the relationship between J and Melissa, and how does it change over the course of the novel?
- Explain the significance of the title, I Am J. In what ways does it accurately describe the events and relationships portrayed in the novel?
- After being attacked on the subway, J vows to become a "genuine freak." Coupled with the constant misunderstandings of his sexuality, how does this experience serve as a catalyst that drives J to reinvent himself?
- J's mother tells him, "You can learn to love the life you're handed." Do you agree with her assessment? Why or why not?
- In what ways is J's life similar to Melissa's? How are they different? What are some of the unique challenges faced by each of them? Do you think one has a significantly easier life? Explain your answer.
- J uses his photography to help make Melissa better understand him. Consider the photograph he stages to share with her; how is this image symbolic of who he is?
- Compare the parent/child relationships in the story: J and his mother, J and his father, and Melissa and her mother. To what extent are the relationships of these characters shaped by the world around them? To what extent do their relationships shape that world?
- After a relaxed portrait session with his parents, J thinks, "I want to remember them like this." To what extent do you think J understands how the bond between he and his parents will be changed?
- In your opinion, does J's new school provide him the support he needs? What are the advantages and disadvantages to attending a nontraditional school?
- Describe J's relationship with Blue; in what ways are his actions "typical" of a player in a high school romance? What does he ultimately learn from this failed relationship?
- Throughout the novel, readers witness the complexities of the various relationships among the characters. Consider whose relationship seemed most similar to one of your own personal relationships. What about it reminded you of your experiences?
- Consider the novel's cover. In what ways is the image symbolic of the events that transpire throughout the course of the book?
- Blue tells J, "You've probably never wanted to be anything different than what you are." Given that readers fully understand the irony of her statement, why might Blue have such an opinion of J?
- J's obsession with getting on "T" is indicative of his emotional state; do you think he will be satisfied in the end? Why or why not?
- Consider Melissa's dancing, Blue's painting, and Jay's photography. What role does art play in the lives of each of these characters? In what ways does it allow them to express their vision of their world?
- Using the phrase, "This is a story about
supply five words to describe I Am J. Explain
Click for a PDF of the full educator's guide including a list of resources
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
Chris Beam's poignant novel about a teenager's struggle for identity, approval, and self-acceptance is a welcome addition to the relatively small genre of novels featuring a transgender youth as the main character. Her story of events during several months in the life of 17-year-old J - female by birth, but with the unquestionable knowledge that his body should have been male - fictionalizes many of the trials faced by real young people who are already navigating the social quagmire of high school, the angst and rebellion of the teenage years, and who must also deal with the confusion and isolation of knowing that their physical gender and gender identity do not match. Without lecturing, criticizing, or patronizing, Beam uses the fictional J's story to, as she puts it, "portray the history, culture, and challenges in the young, urban trans community." Beam does this admirably, and although she proves to be more skilled as an advocate than as a storyteller, her novel still deserves recognition for its ability to call attention to an often overlooked and misunderstood segment of our young population.
"J" (short for Jennifer), was born into a female body, but for as long as he can remember, every feeling and experience has confirmed to his satisfaction that he is a boy. While having the wrong body was easier to ignore when he was young, puberty made life a nightmare for J, who has learned to thickly layer clothes and jackets even in the summertime. Living with his parents in a one-bedroom apartment has not given J many opportunities for privacy, and both dressing and shopping for clothes are painful. Looking into a mirror reminds J of how feminine his body looks, in spite of what his brain tells him. J's fondest wish is to begin taking testosterone shots, or "T." But after working up the courage to go to a clinic, he learns to his dismay that he must first get parental permission (at least until he is 18 in a few months), and go through at least three months of private counseling and evaluation before reassignment procedures can begin, a veritable lifetime to J.
In the meantime, J's relationships with his family and his only close friend are in disarray, and he is only able to find solace with those who do not know him well. He finds it nearly impossible to admit to his mother what is going on, finally thrusting a handout from the clinic at her and burying his head. And his father seems even less approachable. Through his mother's machinations, J winds up living out his last months of high school at the home of his best friend, Melissa. J has romantic feelings for Melissa, but she does not understand J's assertion that he is a boy, and not a lesbian. An ill-advised kiss on Melissa's lips while she is sleeping nearly severs their friendship. Frustrated, J works even harder at appearing physically male by observing the way men walk, talk, and hold their cigarettes, among other things. After J starts binding his breasts under his clothes and putting his male mannerisms into practice, he meets and makes friends with a girl from another school who does not know J's assigned gender. To J's delight and wonder, Blue sees him as he wants to be seen, as he feels he really is.
The thrill of being recognized as male is a critical occurrence for J, but I believe the real turning point comes after he transfers to an alternative school for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youthor as J says, "a special high school for queer kids." He doesn't personally appreciate what he perceives as the Kum Ba Ya, "I'm okay-you're okay" pretense of the school, which is decorated "like a rainbow that threw up on itself." But there he is able to make new friends and mentors who help him to find his path and gain a modicum of confidence.
For some time Cris Beam has been dedicated to helping transgender kids, particularly those who have been rejected by family and peers, and have nowhere to turn; but her inexperience as a novelist does show at times. There is very little narrative arc to the story, which covers less than a year of J's life and feels more like a snapshot than a journey; J is not much different at the end of the book than at its beginning. Beam also has difficulty combining a fictional treatment with the advice and wisdom she so clearly wants to give. As a result, J's voice has a tendency to suddenly shift from that of a confused teen who mistrusts "fancy words" to that of omnipotent narrator and experienced writer (Beam holds an MFA in non-fiction writing).
In spite of the novel's flaws, the characters are its strength. None of them are perfect; instead they are strong, believable, and naturally complex. This is a tale of human proportions, about imperfect people doing the best they can in a world sufficiently flawed that boys can sometimes be born into female bodies, and vice-versa. But at the end of the novel, one is left with a sense of hope, because although J's difficulties are not over, and the loose ends are not all neatly tied into a ribbon, he has at least started on the path toward becoming the person he wants to be, and you can feel his joy.
Reviewed by Cindy Anderson
The writing, however, bogs down the story. A more tightly written novel might have more impact.
Readers should be absorbed by J's struggle to prove 'My gender's not a lie. I am not a lie.
School Library Journal
J is an especially vivid character, and the supporting characters are carefully drawn. Told in third person, the story is believable and effective due to insightful situations, realistic language, and convincing dialogue.
Starred Review. Beam has written easily the best book to date about the complicated condition of being a transsexual teen, not only sharing important information that is artfully woven into the plot but also creating, in J, a multilayered, absolutely believable character whose pain readers will share. Grades 9-12.
Starred Review. Finally, a book about a transgender teen that gives its central character a life in which gender and transition matter but do not define his existence!
Teens are already subject to a lot of stress, but transgender teens face myriad additional challenges. According to PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), a majority of LGBT kids (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) are bullied and harassed in school. In fact, 74% of students polled heard the words faggot and dyke "frequently" in school, and 86% said that they have been "verbally harassed." The stress put upon kids by this type of ridicule can lead to unhealthy and self-destructive behaviors such as self-mutilation, eating disorders or suicide. A 1989 US Dept. of Health report found that LGBT youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than other young people, while a 2008 report by the Suicide Prevention Resource Center estimates that 30-40% have attempted suicide. Performance in school also tends to suffer when a teen is subject to harassment.
Organizations such as GLSEN host workshops to increase awareness, and provide publications for students, parents and educators. Student-led clubs at school can also help address LGBT issues and promote a community of acceptance. A website called TYRA (Transgender Youth Resources and Advocacy) offers a number of links for transgender youth, their parents and families, and also has a list of agencies and other websites that serve transgender youth. Good resources are out there, and the topics of LGBT and transgender are being seen more frequently in the mainstream - not just on HBO, but also on shows such as Modern Family, Glee, and movies like TransAmerica starring Felicity Huffman.
In September 2010, a media campaign called "It Gets Better" was launched by columnist Dan Savage; it includes more than 100 short videos from celebrities, politicians and many others, including a particularly powerful video made by employees of Pixar, letting LGBT kids know that there is hope, and that the bullying and negativity they are experiencing will not last.
A book of essays edited by Dan Savage, an extension of the "It Gets Better" project, came out in March 2011.
Transgender is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. It can describe anyone who is searching for their place on the gender spectrum, whether they are transitioning or transitioned from Female-to-Male (FTM), or from Male-to-Female (MTF), are cross dressing, transsexual, or are questioning or changing their gender or sexual orientation. Such individuals may, or may not be undergoing surgical alteration or taking hormones.
Although it may be difficult to understand, it is important to distinguish between FTM or MTF transgender individuals and those who are gay or lesbian. One is a gender identity, the other is a sexual orientation. For example, as a boy, J is attracted to girls, and does not consider himself a lesbian even though he inhabits a female body.
Other terms in I Am J that may be unfamiliar:
- LBGT, GLBT, and LGBT are all acceptable variations of Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay, and Transgender. Some people add "Q" to the end these acronyms, which stands for "Queer," a controversial term typically used only within the GLBT community, and sometimes in the specific branch of academic critical theory called Queer Theory, which looks at the social construction of sexual identity, and includes gay and lesbian studies. It is controversial because the word "queer" has long been used as a term of hate against gays/lesbians.
- Gender Binary: Refers to the rigid dichotomy of male and female that does not allow for other variations in the gender spectrum. It includes socially constructed notions such as "pink is for girls" and "little boys should play with trucks, not dolls." Most transgender folk reject the gender binary.
- Transvestite: a derogatory term, according to GLAAD (The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation). Cross-Dresser is the preferred term, which is not indicative of sexual preference or a desire to alter one's gender. For the same reasons tranny or trannie should be avoided.
- Transman, Transwoman, Transboy, Transgirl: "Trans" is the adjective, while "man," "woman," "boy," or "girl" refers to the gender with which the person would like to be identified. J, for example, is a transboy. Transgender should always be used as an adjective and not as a noun or verb (e.g. "he is a transgender person", not "he is transgender").
- Cisgender: Cis (which means "on the same side as") individuals are those who are not transgendered, that is, those who remain comfortable with their birth gender and who are heterosexual in orientation. The term is frequently considered to be negative toward transgendered people because it assumes that CISgender is the "norm," which situates transgendered individuals outside of the norm, or in the realm of "abnormal." While some people use it to simply mean "people who are not transgendered," others prefer to avoid it altogether.
- National Medical Center Outreach Program for Children with Gender-Variant Behaviors and Their Families
- GLAAD: Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation
- GLSEN: The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network
- Laura's Playground: A Transgender Umbrella Resource Community Online
- PFLAG: Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays
- TYRA: Transgender Youth Resources and Advocacy