Jacob and Sophie are back! The gender-creative children we met in Jacob’s New Dress and Jacob’s Room to Choose appear again in a third book of the series, as we’re introduced to a new character who uses “they” pronouns.
In Jacob’s School Play: Starring He, She, and They, by Sarah and Ian Hoffman (Magination Press), Jacob and Sophie are excited about their class play. When a classmate, Ari, tells the other children that they (Ari) use “they” pronouns, Jacob is puzzled. “They means two kids,” he says. Ari responds, “They can mean one kid.”
Jacob then asks if Ari is a boy or a girl. “There’s more than just boy and girl,” says Ari.
Jacob shares the lesson learned over the previous two books: “You could be a boy or a girl and still wear whatever you want. I do. Sophie does.” Ari responds, “So do I.” Jacob thinks about this.
The teacher then explains that “Some kids feel like boys. Some kids feel like girls. And some kids feel like both–or neither.” She says that “he, she, or they” can be used to talk about people.
Jacob is still trying to understand. He notes that boys can wear dresses and still be “he.” The teacher explains, “This isn’t about what you wear. This is about who you are. Inside.” She says that we can’t see that, so we have to trust what people tell us about themselves.
The children go on with preparations for the play, which is set at a farm. At the performance, Ari does a splendid job being the water—the clouds, the rain, and the pond, a plurality in one. Jacob delivers a sweet message about everyone in the class helping each other to grow in their own way. At the end, he hugs Ari and whispers to the teacher that he’s glad Ari is they, “because they know who they are.”
Chris Case’s watercolor illustrations, as in the previous books, capture the liveliness of the setting and the expressiveness of the children’s faces. Jacob, Ari, and the teacher are White; Sophie is Black, and the other children are of various skin tones.
It’s great to see this series continuing to explore some of the many aspects of gender identity and expression, and to do so here through the eyes of someone whose gender expression isn’t traditional, but who is still learning about gender identity. And even though the teacher does much of the explaining, Ari is also confident in who they are and in communicating this to Jacob. (For an additional spin on characters with various gender identities and expressions, check out Kyle Lukoff’s Max and the Talent Show, told from the perspective of a transgender boy helping his friend, a cisgender boy who likes to wear dresses, prepare for a talent show.)
The first book of the series, Jacob’s New Dress, was one of the most banned books of 2010-2019. While censorship is never a good thing, that at least means that the book was visible enough to attract attention. Let’s hope that all of the books in the series continue to be widely read, though with less condemnation, introducing even more children to concepts of both gender identity and expression.