YA Book Review: I Am J by Cris Beam

by jack on October 30, 2011

Last week, I reviewed a totally rad non-fiction book geared towards trans teens, but both trans teen novels I’ve reviewed so far were pretty disappointing. So I’ve been feeling pretty grim about trans teen novels in general. When I read I Am J by Cris Beam, however, that all changed.

I didn’t know what to think in the beginning of the book. I was feeling pretty pessimistic after the last two novels and the main character, J, starts off as kind of misogynistic and douchey. I was immediately drawn in, however, by the fact that the characters are all from working class families, most are people of color, and many come from immigrant families. Since this happens in queer teen novels basically never, I decided to reserve judgement for awhile—and I’m glad I did!

The main character, J, gets way less douchey as he grows throughout the book—Beam does a great job of illustrating J’s process as he unpacks and challenges his own misogyny and homophobia. What really makes the story shine, however, is the secondary characters, each of whom offer something different to J on his journey, particularly J’s friend Chanelle.

Chanelle, a friend J meets when he transfers to a magnet school for LGBTQ teens, is the best representation of a young trans woman I’ve encountered in any of the teen novels I’ve ever read. She’s smart, confident and a totally badass feminist. She’s not perfect or fragile—definitely not a butterfly like other teen trans women I’ve read about so far. She was the character in the story I found myself actually wanting as a friend. Chanelle is the kind of character I keep hoping to find as a main character in one of these books and I wish I could read about her from her own point of view! She definitely makes the story.

Cris Beam, author of Stonewall Honor Book and Lambda Literary Award winning Transparent, former teacher at a school for LGBTQ teens and foster parent of a trans daughter, has written by far the best representations of trans teenagers I’ve read so far. In an afterword by the author, she says she wanted to write a story about a teenage trans guy because she hadn’t seen books with trans guys as the main characters—this kind of confused me a little because so far, books about trans guys are almost all I’ve found. After reading I Am J, Beam’s first novel, and getting to know Chanelle, I think she could write an amazing book about a teen trans girl and I really hope that something like that from Beam is on the horizon.

Beyond the awesome characters, J’s transition sparks a heartbreakingly realistic and complex struggle in his relationship with his parents 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 he survives the ridiculousness that is the Harry Benjamin standards of care. He also has a brief but life-changing interaction with an awesome, sort of maternal trans sex worker midway through the book—only the second time I’ve ever seen sex work discussed in a young adult novel (the first being the final book in The Hunger Games trilogy—read it!)and of course any positive representation of a sex worker in a novel for teens gets major points in my book—who is actually the first person J comes out to.

Story-wise, the book is definitely an “issue” novel in that there is not much going on with the plot beyond J’s whole process of coming to terms with being trans and beginning transition. But the thing is, “issue” novels are important and we gotta have awesome “issue” novels about trans teens before we can really start complaining that “issue” novels are all that’s out there, after all! For a teen who is interested in exploring trans issues, an adult who has been there, or anyone else interested in a rad story about trans teens, I Am J still by far best I’ve read so far!

Next week: I will explore another book where a teen trans girl character is described from someone else’s point of view as I write about Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher (and will someone please write a novel from a trans teen girl’s own point of view soon, please?). As always, go ask the raddest librarian at your public library to help you find the book if you are interested in reading along, but be careful with this one, you may find it a bit upsetting.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Morgan M. Page October 30, 2011 at 1:53 pm

I’ve heard really good things about this book, and now I’m especially excited that it portrays sex workers positively! Thanks for the excellent review, as always, Jack!

~M

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jackrad October 30, 2011 at 7:37 pm

thanks Morgan!

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Ginasf October 30, 2011 at 4:43 pm

I reviewed this a while ago on my blog: http://skipthemakeup.blogspot.com/2011/03/i-am-j-new-young-adult-novel-by-cris.html

I Am J is the best YA book about trans guys and Cris Beam is definitely many steps ahead of other non-trans writers in understanding trans identities. She has bothered to listen. Speaking for myself, I found J, other than his transition journey, to be a somewhat boring character… actually the least interesting character in the book compared to the others. It was beyond me what some of the young women in the book found so attractive about him. But I like that Beam showed street kids, transitional housing and some teen a-hole, lacking-in-any-logic behavior, things so many of the other YA books on this subject avoid.

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janedoe2 October 31, 2011 at 1:30 am

Give Almost Perfect a chance! What I love about it is that it is the only peice of media that I can think of that shows the concept of a trans woman / cis guy relationship in a way that shows that “like trans women does not make you gay”.

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jackrad October 31, 2011 at 1:40 am

i don’t wanna say too much about the book here cause i’m reviewing it next week, but i finished it a week ago and have not come out of the horrible self-hating mess it led me to plunge into and pretty much everyone i’ve talked to said the same–i wouldn’t put a disclaimer on a book like i did this one unless i really meant it.

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janedoe2 December 16, 2011 at 1:28 am

Oh, well the people you talk to about the book must not be straight trans women who have to deal with that type of stuff every day of their romantically active lives. The world isn’t perfect and it’s really funny / frustrating to see people insist on narratives that are disassociated from real life.

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Kelsey October 31, 2011 at 9:21 am

I promise I will write a trans girl teen main character. *queer scouts honor*

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Kelsey October 31, 2011 at 9:24 am

… A hard femme prince-to-princess seeking her soft butch Cinderella?

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jackrad October 31, 2011 at 1:08 pm

yes!!!! please do, I’m sick of reading stuff where trans girls are either the best friend or the object of someone’s affection/distaste/problems.

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Kelsey October 31, 2011 at 1:32 pm

Is the key word in “object of affection” -object- or -affection-? Because I do want to see more trans girls and women as viable we-even-get-to-live-at-the-end-of-the-movie love interests.

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jackrad October 31, 2011 at 1:41 pm

keyword is definitely “object”! object of anything, really, i’m so sick of reading about what trans girls mean in other peoples lives without any suggestion that they even have their own lives and feelings and stuff. and i’m also kind of probably projecting feelings leftover from the book my next review is about cause the trans girl in this book was awesome and i kind of really wanted her to be the object of J’s affection

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Kelsey October 31, 2011 at 1:57 pm

As somebody in a dyke-ish relationship with a trans woman, and considering the number of lesbian and bi trans women I know, I’m still holding my breath on a cis + trans dyke love story with a happy ending.

There’s a movie being made about Lili Elbie’s life, coming out next year I think, and they’re making the film about how her wife tries and fails to “deal with” Lili’s identity… when the biographies of the real life couple the film is based off of suggest that it was her wife’s idea that she even explore her “feminine side” in the first place… AUGH!!

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