Book Reviews

I Am J

I Am J
Cris Beam
Little, Brown and Company
339 pages.

When Jenifer Juana Silver was in sixth grade, she begged her parents to call her J instead of Jeni. J overheard her parents’ resulting discussion: Manny asserted that he didn’t have to call his daughter by a boy’s name and Carolina asked her husband, “You know what Jeni is, yes?” Although Manny wouldn’t allow Carolina to say it, they were wrong. J wasn’t gay.

Growing up in their small New York City apartment, J refused to wear dresses, and cut off her long curls with blunt children’s scissors. Manny and Carolina gave up resisting her masculine clothes, praised her good grades, and had no idea that J wasn’t telling them about teasing from classmates, or how good she got at fighting back.

At 11, hearing the word “transsexual” on a TV talk show, J recognized himself. Ugly online photos of reassignment surgeries made it clear that he couldn’t be fixed. Neither could J’s reality: he might have been born with a girl’s body, but he’s all boy. Like J, this penetrating novel for teenagers never compromises. It immerses us in J’s world: from its opening page, every pronoun that refers to J is masculine.

Puberty meant giving up his typical boyish dream of growing up to be like his dad. He also gave up swim team when he became too shapely in a swimsuit. Now at 17, “Jewto Rican” J – half Jewish, half Puerto Rican – always wears two sports bras and three big shirts to hide his breasts, oversized jeans to hide his hips, and a baseball cap over his short, razor-striped black hair.

Suddenly his best friend Melissa won’t speak to him because he kissed her. They have so much in common: Melissa is a dancer, obsessed with her body. J hides the same obsession. Sympathizing when others call J a dyke, Melissa says, “I know you’re not one. You just have your own style.” But the kiss makes Melissa think J is a lesbian, and she feels betrayed. J is devastated that Melissa hasn’t guessed the truth.

Reading J’s story is like entering alien territory. His inner reality has been at war with the outer world’s perceptions for his entire life. Like J, we become attuned to pronouns: “He’d heard that really skinny girls could make their periods stop, but that had never happened to him.”

How can J plan for college or a career when his inside and outside don’t match? As he reads a website about testosterone injections, J glimpses freedom. The people in the photos who took the treatment look like real men. When J runs away to get the shots, he sets in motion a string of life-changing events.

Carrying his beloved camera and all his money – $200 – J takes the subway to a seedy hotel. A room for one night consumes a shocking $80. At the clinic, a social worker raises one barrier after another between him and those magical shots. J has nothing he needs: a letter from a therapist recommending hormone therapy, identification proving that he’s 18 – or since he’s underage, a letter of parental permission. If a woman in his hotel hadn’t sent him to a shelter, J would be on the street. The next day, he’s registering at a “gay school.”

When Melissa – now forgiven – calls J’s mother, he is forced into the open, and asks Carolina to sign his hormone treatment permission form. Shocked and sobbing, Carolina begs J for time to come to terms with his plans to become a man – and time to explain it to Manny. Meanwhile Melissa and her mother take J into their home.

In his new school, J meets other transgendered teens, becoming close to Charnelle, who has made the opposite transition from male to female. Following the requirements for his coveted “T” shots, he works with a therapist and a support group, meeting other adults like the man he will become. Having fallen in love with an artistic younger girl, Blue, who thinks he’s an ordinary male, J finds the courage to explain, even though he loses her.

After J’s 18th birthday, his first T shot is a celebration with his new supporters. Will he ever celebrate with his parents? When J shows up at their 20th anniversary dinner, he is stunned to discover that Carolina hasn’t told Manny who J really is, and has been pretending that he moved to Washington, D.C.  He also realizes that he’s fine without them. With the help of his own accepting circle, J goes to college to study photography.

Cris Beam’s novel brings us intensely into J’s reality, from his stark sense of alienation to his emerging self-awareness within a new body and community. As J frames his world through the camera lens, we borrow his eyes. We can see Blue, for example, as “a picture-book drawing of a fairy, almost like a manga cartoon.” Having shared J’s solitary desperation and emergence into light, we know that his journey continues past the last hopeful pages.

Beam’s previous book, Transparent: Love, Family, and Living the T with Transgender Teenagers, a nonfiction study of trans teens in Los Angeles, inspired him to write about a transgender boy in a way that “would speak directly to” adolescents like J rather than “about them in a book for adults.” His author’s note explains that since he began his study more than 10 years ago, “young transgender men” are “more out and visible than ever before.” As Beam hopes, his novel indeed offers a way for “their teenage friends . . . to understand their experience.” It includes a list of web and book resources.

Although most young adult novels target readers from age 12 up, the publisher of I Am J recommends it for age 15 up.

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