'I Am Jazz' co-author speaks out on book being banned in the wake of Florida's 'Don't Say Gay' bill

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"I Am Jazz," a book chronicling the experience of a trans child, co-written by Jazz Jennings and Jessica Herthel, continues to be banned by school districts. But its co-author says its message is positive for children of all experiences. (Credit: Penguin Random House)
"I Am Jazz," a book chronicling the experience of a trans child, co-written by Jazz Jennings and Jessica Herthel, continues to be banned by school districts. But its co-author says its message is positive for children of all experiences. (Credit: Penguin Random House)

As anti-LGBTQ bills continue to flood state legislatures across the country — with nearly 240 thus far — another war is being waged by school districts to ban books from school libraries that center on LGBTQ storylines, particularly those aiming to educate readers on transgender issues.

One of those books, I Am Jazz, chronicles the life of a transgender child: Florida resident Jazz Jennings, who has identified as a girl since she was 5 years old and has become a staunch trans activist, using her life as the basis for a TLC reality show of the same name.

Last week, the book was removed from Palm Beach County classrooms and libraries in response to Florida’s new law, the Parental Rights in Education Bill (dubbed the "Don't Say Gay" bill), which prohibits any mention of LGBTQ issues for students in kindergarten through third grade.

While I Am Jazz continues to be one of the most banned books across the country, its co-author, Jessica Herthel, is pleading for parents and teachers to understand that the book was never an attempt to "recruit" young children into identifying as LGBTQ — like some conservatives have argued — but rather an opportunity to teach kids about the importance of acceptance.

"A lot of the people who have criticized the book never read it, never saw it, never put their hands on it,” Herthel tells Yahoo Life, pointing out the importance for adults to come to terms with the fact that "some kids are struggling with gender dysphoria from a very young age."

"The reason that I wrote the book was not necessarily for kids like Jazz, but for kids like mine," explains Herthel, a proud Jewish mother of three teenagers. "I wanted my kids who were just, you know, three privileged straight kids, to be able to be compassionate and understand people that were different so that they would grow up to be the kind of human beings I wanted them to be."

With the book, Herthel says she "wanted to explain trans people to my kids, and there wasn't a tool, so we kind of made our own." Still, that’s not to say Herthel doesn't understand the concern parents have about discussions around LGBTQ issues in the classroom.

"I very much sympathize with that reflex," she explains, "which is ‘kids are too young,' 'they don't need to know about this,' 'I don't want them to know about sex.' Well, I don't want your 8-year-old to talk to me about sex either. That is not what [I Am Jazz] is about."

Instead, she says, the book is about identity, giving people the freedom to express who they feel they are and how to be a good friend to someone who's different.

Even before the bill became law in Florida, wars against books have long been waged against books thought to be fueled by radical misconceptions about sociopolitical issues like critical race theory and LGBTQ rights.

While there have been several student-led protests countering such bans, some of which have been successful, Herthel says it's important not to assume that all young people are as pro-LGBTQ as the media lets on.

"I'll be speaking to young people and I'll say, 'Listen, old people, we don't get it. But you guys totally get it and I have so much faith in the future.' Then one of these kids will raise their hand and say, 'Yeah but gay people are going to hell, so I don't know what you're talking about," she says. "Then I'll catch myself thinking, 'Oh, wait, I've just generalized this entire demographic as being pro-equality and pro-LGBTQ.'"

Herthel notes that depending on what kids are hearing at home, their idea of what is 'right' can be very different, adding that she won’t be surprised if we start seeing counter-protests from conservative young people, should the war on books continue. "I have three teenagers of my own and I see how quick they are to jump into action. Teenagers are excitable, and they want to be involved in what they think is right."

Those messages start early — and in the home, something Herthel has witnessed as a parent.

"My youngest, she was in fifth grade when all of a sudden the whole world kind of politically turned upside down," she explains of the time leading up to the 2016 election. "The fifth graders were asking each other, 'Who are you for? What are you? Who would you vote for?' And I'm thinking, 'I don't remember having a political affiliation when I was in fifth grade.' [Their conviction] came from the families at home who were also incredibly electrified for their side."

Because of this, Herthel asserts that adults "have to really be vigilant that we're getting young people the right information" and making sure the next generation isn't "swept up into dangerous mythology about trans people or bad information about HIV transmission. It's really imperative that the adults in the room take action to give good information to young people because they're sponges and we just don't want them to absorb misinformation."

Herthel says being cognizant extends beyond the home, but also in the voting booth. "When you have someone at the top who's signaling 'This is what I believe,' then the people who agree with that are emboldened and they're empowered," she explains.

"I did a lot less writing, a lot less speaking during the Trump years because it was very dangerous to go out in public at that time when you didn't know who was going to show up," she explains. "There was a feeling of, if you're not for Trump and his agenda, you should step aside."

"I think it's really important for adults to say, ‘We are going to be the change that we wish to see in the world,'" she says. "Even when it's scary, go out and advocate for our friends and our family. We need to be our own role models sometimes, even when it's very daunting to do so. I'm trying to take my own advice."

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