I am a woman. I was born female, and even at my most tomboy stages, I have always known that I am a girl. In fact, I never even really thought about it, I just am. And it is beyond my imagination to understand how it must feel to not have that synchronicity.
J was born Jenifer Silver. But he prayed that God would realize He had made a mistake, and one day he would wake up as a boy. It didn’t happen. In fact, as he got older it got worse: puberty hit and he began to look like a girl. No matter how he dressed or cut his hair or walked or talked, people thought he was a she. And worse, they thought he was a lesbian.
But J does not want to be called a lesbian. He isn’t. He is a boy.
After a disastrous episode with his best and only friend, he decided to stop waiting for God to help him, and help himself. Senior year at school goes on the back burner while he researches ways to change himself.
This book is diverse, in more ways than one. Not only is J a transgender boy, he is also half Puerto Rican Catholic and half Jewish. So J is not only dealing with his changes, he is also dealing with the cultural repercussions of them.
It took me a few chapters to really get absorbed into the story, and then I couldn’t put it down. When I had to stop reading (damn dinner can’t cook itself), I spent the time away from the book wondering what will happen next, what is happening in J’s life, what am I missing?
I didn’t always like J. He was an unsympathetic character for a good chunk of the story, self-centred, and to be frank, a total a**hole. While it may be understandable, and we have probably all acted out for various reasons, being in pain is not an excuse for being a jerk. And he can really be a jerk. His dismissal of the girl at the party, his treatment of Blue, all because of how he felt he should behave, how he thought a guy would act, was crap. And all because he could only think of himself and what everything meant to his life.
But I still connected with him. His struggles, his pain, his need to express himself, his need to identify himself, are feelings that are recognizable and universal, even if they are directed differently for each person.
Melissa and Chanelle and Zak are wonderful secondary characters. They each support and guide J in their own unique way. Melissa is self-centred and unable to see beyond her own conflicts, in the beginning. But her love for J is stronger than her pain, and they help each other through their very different transitions. Zak and Chanelle, as members of the trans community, offer guidance and common sense advice. And friendship.
And support for J’s change comes from some of the most unexpected places, with unexpected lessons about love and acceptance, while those you hope will support him turn their backs. It will make you cry.
Author Cris Beam does a fabulous job educating the reader on the issues and challenges faced by trans people every day, without coming across as preachy or political. She is sympathetic without ramming judgement down readers’ throats.
The Author’s Note at the end of the novel is a must-read for everyone. Although not of trans experience herself, Beam is surrounded by those who live it daily, and I think she does an incredible job of translating their experiences to the page for those of us who need more understanding.
The novel is appropriate for the mature YA reader, as it deals with themes such as self-harm.
I am J was published March 1st, 2011 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.