In Beth Reichmuth’s preschool class at the Little School, storytime is a big deal. It’s a daily event that takes place in the classroom’s designated storytime corner, and Reichmuth always tries to share a diverse range of books. So when she met a student in her class who was assigned male but wanted to wear tutus every day, she started looking for a picture book that reflected the student’s experience.
“There’s not very many books that show off kids being creative with gender, or even just not being stereotypical with gender,” Reichmuth said. The books she found that did break gender norms generally explored conflict and resolution, and the kids in those stories learned lessons about tolerance. Reichmuth wanted a book that showed gender-nonconforming children having their own adventures.
Reichmuth, who lives on the edge of the Mission District, decided to create that book herself. Two years later, “I’m Jay, Let’s Play,” written by Reichmuth and illustrated by Olympia, Wash.-based artist Nomy Lamm, is on sale at Dog Eared Books and Alley Cat Books. The duo will have a launch party on June 3rd at the Little School in Lower Pacific Heights.
“I’m Jay, Let’s Play,” is not so much about gender as it is about playtime, as a group of children put on costumes, build block towers and have mock pizza parties. The text does not assign pronouns to any of the characters. Instead, it refers to them by their names. The central character, Jay, wears a tutu, of course—and brings one to share with the others.
Reichmuth decided not to use pronouns for a number of reasons. “I wanted the book to stay relevant despite the children’s changing relationship with gender,” she said.
She also wanted it to represent a wide variety of experiences with gender. By leaving out the characters’ pronouns, the characters’ roles became open to interpretation. For example, she said, Jay could be a boy in a tutu or a girl with short hair.
So far, this seems to reflect the way children have interacted with the story. Once, Reichmuth said, the child who inspired the book pointed to two pages featuring Jay and said, “On this page Jay is a boy, and on this page Jay is a girl.”
Writing the book without using any pronouns was a challenge at times. “We kept a lot of the names monosyllabic,” Reichmuth said.
When reading the book, though, the omission is hardly noticeable. In fact, a lot of the attention Reichmuth has received for her story focuses not on its engagement with gender, but on its depiction of the children having fun. Parents have told Reichmuth, “That’s just how kids play,” Reichmuth said. “That’s the most surprising feedback: ‘Oh yeah, that is how they play.’”
Reichmuth raised $11,500 on Kickstarter.com to fund the project. When she launched the campaign, she expected that parents at her school would raise most of the money. In the end, people from all over the country, and even a few internationally, pitched in. It was a reach far larger than she expected. Next, she hopes to sell the book in bookstores in Chicago and Indianapolis, where she is from. She may even read from it at Indy Pride, the Indianapolis pride parade.
For a project that began locally, Reichmuth said, “it was really cool to see how far it travelled.”