It’s time for another Author Spotlight! Today, I am chatting with Sarah and Ian Hoffman, the authors of the beloved (and banned) Jacob series, about their most recent release: Jacob’s School Play: Starring He, She, and They. I am so excited for this interview, so let’s jump right in.
First of all, I want to thank you both for taking the time to do this interview with me! I am thrilled to talk to you about your latest release Jacob’s School Play: Starring He, She, and They, but first, would you mind introducing yourselves to Mutually Inclusive’s readers?
Hi! We’re Sarah and Ian Hoffman. We’re authors, we’re married, and we have two kids, Sam and Ruby. We live in San Francisco in an old Victorian house with the kids, 3 chickens, 2 rabbits, 1 cat, and +/- 30,000 bees. The two of us have been working together on all kinds of projects for the last 25 years.
Jacob’s School Play is the third installation in the Jacob series, and each title focuses on gender nonconformity and the diversity of gender expression. Can I ask what drew you to write about the experiences of gender-nonconforming children?
When our son, Sam, was two, he started to be interested in things traditionally considered “girl things,” like fairies and Disney princess. He started wearing pink t-shirts and growing his hair long. At school, he only played with the girls. By the time he was four, Sam was wearing a tutu at home every day after preschool, and going to ballet class. Every day at preschool he wore the princess dress-up costume. One day, he asked us for a dress that he could wear “for real.” Sam knew that kids at school would make fun of him, but he wanted to wear a dress more than he wanted not to be teased. After that day, he started wearing a dress to school every day.
Sam was the only dress-wearing boy in our community, but we knew he wasn’t the only dress-wearing boy in the world. So we looked for books where Sam could see other kids who were like him. And we discovered there were none! Our desire to help our son see himself reflected in a book inspired us to write one. That was Jacob’s New Dress, which is about a little boy who likes something that’s outside of typical gender roles. Just like a little girl in pants would have been 100 years ago.
Among the unexpected things we discovered while raising a gender nonconforming son was the challenge of public bathrooms. It wasn’t safe to send Sam by himself into any public bathroom, including playgrounds, stores, restaurants—even his own school! Talking with the parents of other kids like Sam, we learned their kids were suffering the same as ours. It looked like the world needed a book about bathrooms, so we got back to work. Our second book, Jacob’s Room To Choose, tackles the subject of kids being allowed to use the bathroom that’s right for them, whatever their gender.
Our third book, Jacob’s School Play: Starring He, She, and They! (which came out in May of this year), is about the next subject we wanted to talk about: pronouns!
Title: Jacob’s School Play: Starring He, She, and They
Author: Sarah Hoffman and Ian Hoffman
Illustrator: Chris Case
Publisher: Magination Press
Published: May 4, 2021
Format: Picture Book
Fans of the series will see familiar faces like Jacob, Sophie, and Ms. Reeves, but in Jacob’s School Play we meet a new character named Ari, who uses they/them pronouns. Throughout the book, you present identity in such a beautifully simple way, with an emphasis on trusting people’s ability to correctly identify themselves. What was the research process like for Jacob’s School Play? How did you land on this honest and simple representation of pronoun options?
Our research process was messy, broad, and open-ended. We knew what we wanted to write about—pronouns. We also knew that pronouns are in flux and there aren’t many settled rules. So we decided to have a lot of conversations with people—many of them strangers—about potentially uncomfortable topics. Basically we said, “Hey, our kid’s gender nonconforming, and we know what our world is like. But we don’t know anything about you or your world. Do you mind if we ask?” That led to a lot of unexpected and enlightening discussions. There are a lot of people who don’t fit into the boxes society has created.
Eventually we took what we’d learned and turned it into a story. Which was its own messy, broad, and open-ended process. At some point in the writing we started to think about the kind of questions that Jacob would have. Then we thought about how his teacher would respond. Imagining the conversation between those two characters led to a simple explanation of pronouns options. You can explain most topics to a curious 5-year old, if you can distill them down to their essence.
I really like that the focus of the series shifted from learning about Jacob to Jacob learning about other children’s perspectives in Jacob’s School Play. Was it difficult as writers to shift the focus away from Jacob’s experiences toward Jacob’s education around other children’s perspectives?
Now that the book is finished, it seems like a natural and obvious progression. During the writing, it took a while to figure out what we were trying to say, how to say it, and from whose point of view. Writing is just as messy as real life. Surprise!
In the big picture, we’re interested in building a culture of kindness. We hope that when our books are taught, it’s not just to support the kids who are different. We hope our books allow the kids who don’t see themselves reflected in the book to think, “Oh, look. There’s another way of being a kid.” We’re trying to open the doors to new perspectives.
What is the most important message you want young readers to take away from Jacob’s School Play?
The message of all our books is: there’s all sorts of ways to be a kid. So be yourself, be open to new ideas, and don’t hurt anybody else.
Kids are very accepting of new ideas. We’ve noticed that kids are very comfortable with ideas about gender and pronouns. It’s usually the adults who are struggling.
Jacob’s New Dress is one of the American Library Association’s most banned titles of the decade. How does it make you feel to know that there are folks out there who are attempting to ban the books you’re creating?
How does it make us feel? Like we’re doing the work that needs to be done.
We raised a gender non-conforming boy. We are well aware there are people who are uncomfortable that kids like our son exist. We also know that in unsupportive environments, LGBTQ+ kids are teased, ostracized, bullied, and brutalized. We want to try to prevent these behaviors—before they start—by building a culture that tolerates, values, and celebrates difference.
If our book is getting banned, that means people are actually seeing it in libraries and schools. For every adult trying to ban it, there are even more kids reading it. Those kids are getting the message that it’s ok to be like Jacob, or Sophie, or Ari. There’s nothing we could be prouder of then throwing a lifeline to child who needs it.
What’s one piece of advice you would give to parents of gender non-conforming children?
First, find support—for both yourselves and your children. Join a support group of like-minded parents; 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. 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). 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 else about the many forms of gender 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—regular people who stood up to bias against them and changed the world. Tell your child that the world will change. That it is changing. And that they are helping to change it, just by being themselves.
And 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 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.
As a married couple and co-authors, how is it writing with each other? What does a typical workday look like, and how does your creative process work together?
We are very, very lucky to work together. We have the same core values, but very different skills. Sarah thinks fast and big-picture. Ian thinks slowly and resonates with the details. Once we figured out how to interact over work—as opposed to as a couple—we saw that our complimentary skills brought a lot of depth to our work life.
Our writing process is like our parenting process is like our life process—we don’t really separate them. One of us has an idea, and we talk it over to see if it’s a good one. If it is, then someone starts the project. With writing, one of us will generate a first draft, then turn it over to the other for editing/comments/revision. Then it goes back and forth between us until it’s ready. Nowadays we have two very insightful teenagers in our house, and we seek out their opinions. They’re an unexpected bonus!
What should we expect to see from you in the future? Are there more adventures for Jacob on the horizon?
Yes, there are! Right now we’re working on a book about holidays. Jacob and his friends are such a great crew, we feel like they’re ready to handle another broad, messy, open-ended topic that’s rich in meaning.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with readers of this blog?
We just want to thank you for the work that you do to bring inclusive and engaging books to kids. We love the positive energy you bring to the field. Thank you for including us!
Thank you both so much for your time, and for creating books that radiate warmth, love, and inclusion.