As parents we are always looking to find books that are both entertaining and at the same time help teach valuable lessons. As a mother of two who grew up in an extremely homogenous (and often narrow-minded) small town, some of the most important lessons I believe we can teach our children is to think with an open mind, to embrace honesty, to not judge and to accept differences with an open heart. Every now and again we stumble upon a book that not only our child loves reading, but also helps reinforce these values we hold dear. Jacob’s New Dress, by Sarah and Ian Hoffman, is absolutely one of these books. It follows a little boy named Jacob who wants to wear a dress to school, and the struggle he faces in feeling so different from his peers.
SSP: Can you please tell us a little bit about your personal experiences that have helped shape your inspiration behind Jacob’s New Dress?
When our son Sam was two, he wanted to play with the toys and wear the clothes generally thought to be for girls: pink sneakers, pink t-shirts, flowered hats, and the princess dress-up costumes at preschool. Eventual Sam asked, “Can I wear a dress for real? To school?”
It was a confusing experience for us as parents as we tried to balance supporting our son’s intense desire to be himself with concerns about his safety. We joined a national support group for parents of gender-nonconforming kids, and found we were not alone. There were lots of parents like us, and none of us had resources to help our kids manage the complex social dynamics that come from being different. As writers (Ian as a children’s book author and illustrator; Sarah as a writer for grown-ups about kids and gender), it seemed natural to collaborate on a picture book about a boy who wants to wear a dress. It was our way to help other boys like Sam. Having a book where they can see themselves portrayed in a positive way is very powerful. And it gives parents and teachers a way into a conversation about acceptance of difference.
SSP: For all of the parents out there with gender-fluid children, this must provide immeasurable support….reading about another child out there that is so similar to them! Can you tell me about the most meaningful feedback you’ve received?
While it’s exciting to read good reviews in magazines and newspapers, the most meaningful feedback comes from individuals. Parents of gender-diverse kids (as well as gender-nonconforming or trans adults) from all over the world have written to us to share their stories—stories that are often heartbreaking as well as heartwarming. They send photos of smiling little boys wearing princess dresses and holding a copy of Jacob. Knowing we’re making a difference in a real child’s life makes us feel both immensely proud and deeply humbled.
In a recent visit to a K-5 public school, a parent cried as she told us how the book had transformed her whole family’s approach to supporting their son, how they moved from shame and hiding into acceptance and even celebration of their son. By the time she was done we were all in tears.
SSP: I personally appreciate how honest and realistic this book is. It is not easy being different, and reactions to being different can often be extremely hurtful. Why was it important for you to write in this way, specifically when you write about how Jacob “can’t breathe” when he’s in these circumstances? It tugs at a parent’s heart.
Life can be very difficult for kids who are different, in any way. Since our goal was to write the book in a way that portrayed a gender-nonconforming child in a positive light, we had to also be honest about what life is like for a child like that. While our son felt happy and free twirling in a sparkly dress while wearing a tiara, his experience with other people’s reactions (both kids and adults) was often deflating in a way that gave us that “can’t breathe” feeling. It’s a story we heard over and over again from other parents, and we felt that the experience needed to be reflected in the book.
Jacob’s New Dress was a hard book to write. We knew the joys and sorrows of Jacob’s life so well from our own son’s experiences. The early drafts were too intense for a young audience; it took a while to move away from the reality of our son’s story and come up with Jacob’s story, which is fictional and more appropriate for a picture book. You can read the real-life story of Sam’s first day in a dress here http://www.sarahandianhoffman.com/cookie-sh-article.pdf.
SSP: As a mother of 2, one being a 3 year old daughter…I see how innocently and beautifully they visualize the world. So accepting and open. No gender-bias. When she invites her boy friends over for a play date, she often asks if they want to play dress-up (which means a tutu in this house). She never questions or thinks why that would be different for a boy or girl. How do you suggest we help them maintain this way of thinking?
Bias is learned. Parents teach it, teachers teach it, television and movies and gendered aisles in toy and clothing stores teach it. Even if at home you support your daughter’s open-hearted free thinking, as she gets older it will become harder and harder to counter all of the gender-divided messages she’ll receive from the world. However….
We’ve learned that kids are pretty tolerant of difference if they’re taught to be tolerant. Education makes a huge difference in terms of what kids will or won’t accept. We saw it clearly in Sam’s school—when kids were taught simple lessons about letting everyone be who they are (Colors are for everyone! Boys can have long hair! Girls can have short hair! Like what you like, and let others like what they like!), they accepted Sam. When they weren’t explicitly taught, they rejected him. Education is powerful. It works.
In unsupportive environments, kids like Sam are teased, ostracized, and brutalized. We want to try to prevent these behaviors before they start by building a culture that tolerates, values, and celebrates difference. Our book is a small piece of a much larger effort to build a more empathetic, compassionate culture.
SSP: Is there anything you’d like to share specifically with those parents and families of transgender children?
First, find support—for both yourselves and your children. Join a support group of like-minded parents (or form one if you can’t find one); bring your child to a group for gender-nonconforming or trans kids. Enlist thoughtful, supportive family and friends to buoy and celebrate your child and your efforts to make their world safe. Read books about parenting gender-creative children, and fill your child’s library with books that reflect gender diversity (our website has a list of books for adults and kids of all ages—http://www.sarahandianhoffman.com/resources/recommended-reading/). Ask your school to be proactive about anti-bullying programs in general and gender education in particular (and if asking doesn’t work, demand it). Find organizations that support families and schools (our website has a list). The National Association of Independent Schools has a document, Guidelines for Independent Schools Working With and Supporting Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Students, which provides invaluable support for building acceptance in schools.
Educate everyone you can. Gender diversity is a new concept for most people; ignorance and prejudice are deeply ingrained. Even people who love your children—like grandparents—often need time to adjust. See each interaction as an opportunity to educate someone about the many forms of gender identity and expression.
Remember that your responsibility is to your child, not to manage the discomfort of adults. Walk away from judgment, and shield your child from it as best you can. And when you can’t shield them, teach them to manage it. Teach them the historical context for overcoming bias. When Sam was in kindergarten, we taught him about Rosa Parks and Harvey Milk—ordinary people who stood up to bias against them and changed the world. Tell your child the world will change. That it is changing. And that they are helping to change it, simply by being themselves.
Lastly: breathe. When you’re the parent of a kid who’s different, it’s easy to overthink everything you do, tempting to try to interpret the significance of everything your kid does, and appealing to try to predict the future. Our job is to accept our kids for who they are, and to protect them from harm. We can’t know who or what our children will evolve into as they grow up. We had no idea that one day Sam would put on khaki pants and cut his hair short (as he did at age 11) and be happy with that choice. We had no idea if he would grow up to be straight, gay, bi, gender-queer, trans, or his own special something—in fact, we still don’t. Sam, like all of us, is a work in progress. All we as parents can do is support our children unconditionally, and be open to who they become.