The Power We Have: Reading Books with Transgender Characters by Jessica Lifshitz
Today we are surrounded by a lot of hate.
States, like North Carolina and Mississippi, are crafting legislation that takes away the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals. Several other states have similar legislation waiting to pass through congress. Politicians are running on platforms filled with hate and intolerance. Schools are cancelling readings of books and pulling books off of library shelves because the books contain characters who are transgender. People who are transgender are attacked and even killed simply for being who they are.
Because of this hate, and because of other factors, people who are transgender have a 40% rate of attempted suicide (according to recent surveys done by the National Center for Transgender Equality).
For people who are transgender. For all of us. These are scary times. And when faced with so much hate. When faced with so much fear. It is so easy to seek shelter. To hide from it all. To believe that we are powerless.
Except. What all of us here know is that we are not powerless.
Because we have our books.
And we have our students.
And what we choose to do with those books and those students is often very much in our control. We have the power to choose which books go into our classroom libraries. We have the power to choose which books we read ourselves and then share with our students. We have the power to choose which books we read out loud in our classrooms and then discuss with our students.
And with this power, we are able to invite into our classrooms those characters and real life people whose lives are told in the pages of the books that we read. These characters then have the power to increase our students’ understanding of people who are different than themselves. And with that we can begin to combat the hate that we might feel surrounded by.
Because once our students get to know and love a character who is transgender, they will be more open to getting to know and coming to love a human being who is transgender. Once we bring into our classrooms books that have characters who are transgender, our students will have stories that contradict the hateful messages that they might hear elsewhere and they will have another way to think about people who exist in our world. Once we share and discuss with our students books that are about transgender people and characters, then our students will know the language that should be used when talking about people who are transgender and they will no longer feel the need to stay silent for fear of offending someone. Once we read out loud the stories of people who are transgender, then our students will have a greater sense of empathy and an increased desire to speak up and defend those people who are being forced to stay silent about who they are.
And then there are the children who are transgender themselves. Those who we know are transgender and those we don’t. I know how much all of the hate in this world hurts my own, grown-up heart. It is hard for me to imagine how much it must hurts the hearts of transgender children growing up in today’s world. How scary it must be.
But then I think about what would happen for a child who is transgender who sees a teacher reading a book that shares a story that is similar to their own. Think of the power of that read aloud. Think of the power that one book and one teacher could have for that child. Think of the message that would send to that one child about this world and that child’s place in it.
So while there is hate that fills this world, we must remember that there is also love. While we exist in a time of hateful legislation, we also exist in a time of incredibly powerful and beautiful books. Books that feature transgender characters and transgender people exist for children and adults of all ages. We now have more access to books with transgender characters than we ever have had before. Now we must simply choose to bring these books into our classrooms and bring these characters into the lives of our students.
And I know that it is scary. I know that there are so many reasons why it feels scary for teachers and administrators and librarians to read books with transgender characters or to bring those books into schools and classrooms and libraries. But then I remember how scary this world is for people who are transgender and I believe that my fear and my discomfort pales in comparison to theirs. And that reminds me of what the right choice is.
Last year, in Wisconsin, a school cancelled a reading of Jazz Jennings’ picture book I Am Jazz. This book tells the true story of Jazz Jennings and her childhood, as she grew up in a body that did not match the way she felt inside. The book was scheduled to be shared with the school because there was a student in the school who was transgender and they were looking for a way to increase students’ understanding and empathy. When a letter was sent home, informing parents about the reading and the reasons for the reading, some parents complained. After receiving the complaints and threats of legal action, the school canceled the scheduled reading.
This year, on Thursday, April 28th, the Human Rights Campaign is organizing a day of action in order to show support for transgender youth by holding community readings of the book I Am Jazz throughout the country. Schools, book stores, libraries and other community businesses can sign up to hold a reading of this important book.
As educators, I believe that we have a powerful chance to join in on this day of support and send a message of love, tolerance and acceptance. I know that those who are reading this blog post know the power a book can hold. For a child. For a teacher. For a classroom. For a community. We know the way a child’s face lights up when the child can see herself reflected in the pages of a book that we are reading out loud. We know the powerful conversations that can come from sharing a book that leads a community of learners to a new place of understanding. We know the precious silence that can fill a room when a story is shared that helps us all to see the world, and the people in it, in brand new ways.
We know the power of a book. We know the power of a read aloud. Now we have a chance to chose to be a part of something bigger than just our own classrooms and send a loud message to our students and to the world of just how much a book can do.
To find out more about the I Am Jazz community readings, and to sign-up to take part in the event, please visit the HRC website at the following address:
And then join me, and so many others, in sharing I Am Jazz with your students.
For a list of other books that feature transgender people and characters, try the following links:
For Young Adults:
Jessica Lifshitz is a fifth grade literacy teacher at Meadowbrook Elementary in Northbrook, IL. She has the absolute pleasure of learning alongside her students as they work to discover the power that reading and writing have in this world. She blogs about what she learns at crawlingoutoftheclassroom.wordpress.com.
What you wrote about the situation in WI is true. What you left out however is that the community rallied behind this student and family. The book reading did take place, but at the public library to a standing room only crowd. The author was there and did the reading herself. Yes, there is a lot of hate lately which hurts my heart too, but there’s lots of love too.
This is beautiful! I’ll be sharing your post.
A beautiful post! Books are so powerful and I feel very lucky to be a teacher and be able to share books with my students. Spreading love and empathy is so important in this world, and books are one fantastic way to do this in a child’s life.
Thank you for this beautiful post. Amen to the power of the book and the call to action through literature!
Thanks for this beautiful, important post, Jessica. I wanted to mention that what happened after the school in Wisconsin cancelled its reading of the book was equally significant. A public reading attended by hundreds of members of the community (children and adults alike) was held at the local library. There was also an additional reading held shortly after at the local high school. If Nerdy readers are interested, here’s a link to the Advocate article. http://www.advocate.com/transgender/2015/12/04/watch-600-people-pack-wisconsin-library-reading-i-am-jazz
Thank you for this much-needed post. It’s not enough for authors to write these books. Teachers, librarians and parents must hand them to students — all students — if we want to create a world with more empathy, understanding and kindness. It can take incredible strength and bravery to live an authentic life. And it can take bravery to hand a child a book about such things.
Such a beautiful and important post. I love that when the book was read at the library, it was standing room only. I haven’t read the book, but want to. Have seen her on TV. Incredibly, brave story that would help many transgender children and their families. Compassion is key.
Raising Ryland is a book that can be recommended to parents as a resource as well. It is a moving story about one family’s journey in support of their transgender child.
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