Title: I Am J
Written by: Cris Beam
Published by: Little Brown, 2011
Themes/Topics: Diversity, LGBTQIA, transgender teens, coming of age, New York, cutting, friendship, emotional problems
Suitable for ages: 14+
J could smell the hostility, the pretense, the utter fake-ness of it all before they even climbed the last set of stairs. He was going to this party for Melissa, though she knew he’d hate it, though she’d have friends to talk to and J would stand in the corner like a plastic tree, sucking at a beer, steaming in his too-many shirts and humiliation. The stairs were already sticky with spilled drinks, and reggaeton thumped through the door.
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. (Goodreads)
Why I like This Book:
J starts off in a bad place and in his funk, he comes across a little misogynistic and introspective, but this felt authentic to me. He speaks dismissively of gay kids and he puts his own pain over his best friend’s. But these flaws are very human. The fact that J and other characters are real jerks at times felt one of the strengths of the novel for me. The diversity of the cast of characters is also immediately striking. They come from working class families, many are people of color, and many come from immigrant families. There are not many novels that are written for teens of color about issues of gender. This added depth to this queer novel, which predates not exactly a plethora but the increase in trans YA novels of the last 2 or 3 years.
Cris Beam does a great job of illustrating J’s process as he unpacks and challenges his own misogyny and homophobia and faces his parents’ prejudices. The secondary characters add a tremendous punch to this novel too, each offering something different to J on his journey, particularly J’s new trans female friend Chanelle, whom he meets when he transfers to the school for LGBTQ teens. Chanelle, while not perfect is smart, strong, confident and a badass feminist.
J’s childhood friend, Melissa is struggling with her own identity issues and uses cutting as a coping mechanism. While she often doesn’t get J and is caught up in her own teen angst, her character arc is strong and she proves a supportive and influential part of his coming out.
The traumatic emotional roller coaster of how it feels to be F2M trans as a teenager, and the dissociation of mind and body feel genuine, with the at times violent dislike for body parts that shouldn’t be there. There are heart wrenching moments when J almost forgets he isn’t “really” a guy, only to be crushed by a casual word or comment or his birth name, the way a tiny word, like “she” or “m’hija” from his mom. The use of the pronoun ‘he’ for J throughout is an important authorial choice, which sets a tone from the outset.
J describes how something which feels as natural and permanent and obvious as being a guy on the inside seems to be so universally and vigorously rejected by everyone else. He’s told he’s sick, he’s wrong, he’s just a butch dyke, and so on. The gender dysphoria is real as is the knowledge that no matter how far he takes his transition, he will never have quite the body he believes he should live in. Very practical issues such as obtaining testosterone when under eighteen or chest binding are woven with skill into the narrative.
Beyond the wells developed characters, J’s transition portrays a painfully realistic and honestly complex struggle in his relationship with his parents, one that many queer and trans teens (and adults) will relate to all too well. He has to learn to survive on his own (and also to accept help), he builds a loving and supportive chosen family and navigates the legalities of his transition. He also has a brief but life-changing interaction with an amazing, mature trans sex worker midway through the book who is actually the first person J comes out to.
I also, of course, enjoyed the NYC setting!
This is definitely an “issue” novel in that the ‘plot’ is J’s process of coming to terms with being trans and beginning his transition. For teens who is interested in exploring trans issues, I think I AM J offers a very strong realistic view of one young man’s story. Cris Beam offers teens, queer or straight, a chance to look at the complexities of gender identity, and the integrity and courage needed to be true to oneself.
There is a great list of genderqueer/non-binary resources on this Tumblr Transgender Teen Survival Guide.
Here are some resources for NYC and the surrounding area for trans teens.