I Am J
by Cris Beam
2011 • 352 pages • Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
I’m not sure I have that much to say about I Am J, let alone the seven hundred words I decided a long, long time ago was my required length for a review in this house. (Every space I occupy, be it a physical space or not, inevitably becomes referred to as a house. Even the Church of Bowie, although, I suppose, it is technically also the Thin White Duke’s House.) The novel is a fairly straight forward transition narrative: a teenage trans man comes to terms with being trans, decides to begin hormone treatment, and finally comes to a place in his life where he can live as himself. It isn’t poorly written. It boasts a diverse cast. It actually talks about homelessness and queer youth. But there wasn’t anything for me in it.
But that’s the wonderful thing: I Am J is not for me. I’ve experienced texts before that haven’t been for me, but that’s always been in very negative ways. Superbad, for instance, isn’t for me, but it also actively repels any engagement from someone who isn’t exactly like the two leads. And that’s coming from someone well trained in the art of reading against a text in order to snatch at any scraps of representation. (I’m watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus at the moment, and the “comedic” mileage they get out of queer males—queer ladies are, evidently, not on their radar—is as deeply discomfiting as my feelings for Terry Jones are deeply fond.) So to be faced with a novel that I can’t engage with because it’s so specifically for someone who actually needs it is sort of refreshing.
It’s easy, especially for someone like me who consumes media so fast out of both impatience to catch up and because of my hideous anxiety, to forget that some texts are the first texts for some people. I tire of queer coming out narratives as an adult (this is not the only story to tell about queer folk!), but I could have used exactly one thousand of them as a preteen. I Am J, by virtue of simply being one of the few young adult novels centered around a trans boy making the decision to transition, is going to be that text for a lot of someones. I hope that, in the future, our transgendered youth will have thousands of novels to pick from, featuring trans characters transitioning or trans characters falling in love or trans characters simply living their lives. But we don’t, and that’s why I Am J is so important.
So it’s to author Cris Beam’s credit that I Am J isn’t a neat, fluffy transition narrative that centers around gender reassignment surgery, but a story more about achieving the support system that you need for something so big. J dreams of looking like some of the men he meets late in the novel, when he’s attending an arts school for queer youth as well as a support group for trans boys, to the point of visualizing his testosterone injections as almost magic, but, of course, it’s never that quick. His parents have difficulty accepting J’s gender, to varying degrees of acceptance and deception. J’s dearest friend (and oldest crush), Melissa, has trouble as well. J does make some friends and allies once he’s actually in the queer community, though, and Beam nicely strikes a balance that allows J to see his old family and friends the way they are while still being able to rely on them. J’s transition nicely overlaps with his own coming of age, as Beam lightly touches on the kind of masculinity that J has absorbed in his youth and the kind of masculinity that he begins to see as a viable option for himself once he actually sees what he can do with his own resources and the resources of the queer community around him.
Fair warning: throughout the novel, Beam constantly uses trans as a prefix, not an adjective, which is not, in my understanding, common practice. (“Trans boy” describes a boy who is trans. “Transboy” implies that a transboy is different than a boy.) Beam is obviously on the side of transgendered youth here, but it’s an odd choice.
I rented this book from the public library.