Jessica Herthel, a straight ally, Harvard Law School graduate, and married mother of three straight kids, never planned on becoming a transgender rights advocate. But a series of happy coincidences placed her in the right place at the right time, and she has been fighting for equality ever since.
With an extensive theater background and many gay friends, Jessica made it a priority to teach her children about tolerance and acceptance from the time they were two years old. But it was not until her children entered kindergarten, and were learning at school about only a traditional version of family, did it ever occur to them to look at a same-sex couple and say—as her then-five-year-old daughter did—"That is strange."
Startled by this comment, and realizing that it does, in fact, take a village to raise a child who doesn't shy away from differences, Jessica began volunteering for her local school district (Broward County, Florida; the sixth largest district in the nation), helping them to create inclusive lesson plans and purchase diverse books for elementary school classrooms. She ultimately served as the primary content editor of "Broward County's LGBTQ Critical Support Guide," which was distributed to all district administrators in 2014.
That consulting position led to a job as Education Director for the Stonewall National Museum & Archives in Fort Lauderdale. There, Jessica oversaw the development of additional educational resources, and for three years she facilitated the Museum's annual national conference of 200 district administrators committed to the creation of inclusive schools.
Through an entirely chance encounter, Jessica met and developed a friendship with Jeanette, the indomitable mother of transgender superstar Jazz Jennings. When they introduced their children to each other, and Jessica saw how easily even her youngest daughter was able to grasp the basic concept of "transgender" and quickly move past it, the idea for the children's book was born. The main goal of the book was to allow trans kids like Jazz to see themselves in a story for the very first time, but Jessica further explains: "I thought there should also be a resource for parents and allies like me, who wanted to explain 'transgender' to their kids but didn't know how."
Tune in to see Jessica on the TLC program, I Am Jazz, which returns for its second season in June 2016.
From the time she was two years old, Jazz knew that she had a girl's brain in a boy's body. She loved pink and dressing up as a mermaid and didn't feel like herself in boy's clothing. This confused her family, until they took her to a doctor who diagnosed Jazz as transgender and explained that she was born this way.
Jazz's story is based on her real-life experience and she tells it in a simple, clear way that will be appreciated by picture book readers, their parents, and teachers.
The subject of transgender rights has exploded into our national consciousness. From Jazz Jennings to Caitlyn Jenner to Laverne Cox, the conversation about transgender people has gone far beyond water coolers and deep into living rooms and classrooms. Knowing how to discuss these issues intelligently and compassionately has never been more important, especially as more of our friends, family, and coworkers are bravely coming out of their closets every day.
Kirkus Review calls I Am Jazz "[a]n empowering, timely story with the power to help readers proclaim, in the words of Jazz's parents, 'We understand now.'"
Common Sense Media says, "This is an excellent choice to jump-start a conversation about gender, identity, compassion, and honesty."
Barbara Walters explains: "Jazz is a sensitive and courageous young woman. Her story is inspiring and important to read. By sharing her experiences and view she has added to our understanding and compassion for the transgender experience."
"All young people—regardless of difference—deserve the things Jazz shares in her lovely book: a loving family, supportive friends, and the freedom to be their true selves. A beautifully illustrated and accessible primer on one trans girl's journey of living her truth."
—Janet Mock, New York Times bestselling author of Redefining Realness
"I wish I had had a book like this when I was a kid struggling with gender identity questions. I found it deeply moving in its simplicity and honesty."
—Laverne Cox, acclaimed actress and transgender advocate
"A terrific and timely book that explains to kids what it means to be transgender and—more importantly—that reminds kids our similarities are much more important than our differences."
—Jodi Picoult, New York Times bestselling author of The Storyteller and Between the Lines
"I Am Jazz is honest, inspiring, and beautiful—but its greatest strength is it never apologizes for being different."
—Brad Meltzer, New York Times bestselling author of I Am Amelia Earhart
Jessica works tirelessly as an ally. She's truly one of a kind. Through her efforts, she helped share the story of my transgender daughter Jazz. In doing so she's made the world a better place for all of our children, by promoting tolerance and acceptance for all.
— Jeanette Jennings (Mom of Jazz Jennings)
Jessica's love for our students is evident as she leads us through a compelling presentation full of insight, personal revelation, and concrete examples you can bring back to your classroom or family. Through her passion, research, and personal stories she shows how to make a potentially thorny subject easy to understand regardless of your age. We can't wait to welcome her back here to Minneapolis.
— Jason Bucklin, Out4Good LGBT Program Coordinator (Minneapolis Public Schools)
Jessica Herthel's warmth, humor, and compassion shine through to make her instantly relatable. When she speaks, no matter how large the group, you feel she's speaking to you. She is an amazing advocate and gifted storyteller.
— Amy Lyle, parent (Mount Horeb Public Library, WI)
You were a great guest speaker. The students were engaged, and your presentation had flair and fun all over it. I'm glad to hear you'll be coming back to campus to talk to the GSA club and hope you become a regular here.
— Josh Wood, Director, Creative Writing Conservatory (Orange County Schools of the Arts)
Jessica Herthel breaks down barriers and teaches tolerance in an easy-to-understand and non-threatening way. Her presentations are dynamic and anecdotal. You will laugh and cry and think a little bit more afterwards how you can also make this world a better place. She speaks in an accessible manner on a subject that can be sensitive and make some uncomfortable. It's nice to know there are upstanders like Jessica in this world. I highly recommend her book and programs.
— Cindy Muchnick, parent (Tustin Public Library reading)
[Jessica] did an excellent job of presenting a difficult subject. [She] presented the information in a very kind, understandable manner. I think we all left with information that helps us to understand and to inform others who may have difficulty dealing with transgender topics.
— Cynthia W., parent (Temple Bat Yahm)
Thank you for enriching our district with your time and talents! Feedback from parents and kids has been so positive about the message, the book, and your style and approach. We could not appreciate you more!
— Grace Jones, school psychologist (Top of the World Elementary School)
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"#PulseMom's Legacy: Orlando Shooting Victim Loved Her Children Unconditionally"—Today.com (contributor)
"Campus Pride: How Colleges Are Welcoming LGBT Students"—NBCnews.com (contributor)
"Why I Wrote a Book About a Transgender Child"—Huffington Post
"How to Talk to Your Kids About Bruce Jenner"—Huffington Post (April 2015)
"A Boy in a Dress Isn't Funny Anymore"—Huffington Post
"Author Confronts School Who Banned Her Book"—Yahoo! News