What’s in a Dress?

Some books come along at just the right time.  I read to kids Bridge Meadows, an intergenerational community supporting families adopting children from the foster care system,  I live there and serve as a mentor.  One of the boys here has, at age 5, had an identity revelation.  He says he is not a he or she, a boy or a girl.  He likes playing ball and drawing, he likes pink and wearing dresses.  His mother is supporting him in figuring out who he is on his own terms, so some days he wears pants and some days he wears dresses. 
As soon as she let him choose his own clothes, she noticed his behavior changed, he grew more confident, a part of him blossomed that he’d held tightly under control.  It was amazing to see.
Still, outside of his loving family and community, there isn’t a lot of support for a boy who wants to wear dresses.  There is outright disdain and worse.  It’s a worrisome situation.  
When his mother reached out to the community to explain their choices for her son, I’d recently read about the book Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress, by Chistine Baldacchino and illustrated by Isabelle Malenfant on the altogether exuberant blog Brain Pickings
I immediately got the book to share with him.  It’s a sweet and moving story of a complex boy who, in spite, of being teased, holds on to his love of a tangerine dress that he discovers in the dress-up center at school.  The dress reminds him of his mother’s hair, his cat, tigers and the sun.
Morris Micklewhite likes to paint, do puzzles and sing loud during circle time.  That’s all fine.  It’s his love of the tangerine dress that causes him trouble.  But it’s such a fantastic dress!
My young friend loved the dress, was upset at the bullying,
Malenfant’s illustration incorporate a lot of white space when the action is stark

It gets so bad that Morris eventually get sick with a tummy ache.
The mother’s worried look is so touching
But while he’s thinking things out, he begins to dream and finds his way to self-acceptance.
I love way the art is drawn as if by Morris
And his pride
When his friends won’t let him play with them, Morris creates his own rocket ship, one so cool that the other kids come to him to play.   The dress doesn’t matter, it’s Morris’s sense of adventure that draws the other kids to him.
My friend thought it was really cool to see a boy in storybook who was like him. “I’ve never seen a book like this before.  I like it.” The bullying made him mad, but he was so glad Morris kept wearing the dress.  
He wanted a closer look at all the picutres
I’ve been impressed at how my friend is so sure of his need to wear dresses at such a young age.  He’s teaching me a lot about when personality and identity start, if it isn’t pushed down by shame and shock.
I also read this book to a group of girls and boys.  When I showed it and read the title, one of the girls said, “But he’s a boy!”  As I read the book, though, and Morris started getting teased, the kids all commented about how mean that was.  The dress didn’t matter.  
We talked about what made something for a girl – dolls, pink, dresses—and something for a boy – action figures, beyblades, football.  We found no real reason why things are for girls or boys.  They all knew girls who were “tomboys,” but not boys who liked dresses.  They didn’t see any reason why boys shouldn’t wear dresses.  The girls felt good that they were able to wear whatever they wanted.  Why shouldn’t boys?  This is a great book to open a conversation about what bullying is, and how it hurts the person who is being bullied.  It shows that a person who is different is non-threatening, and often a lot of fun.
On another note, all the kids were impressed with the fun things that Morris Micklewhite got to do at school.  None of the children I’ve read the book to have painting stations, singing circles, or dress-up centers.  The author and illustrator of this book are Canadian.  It’s published by Groundwood Books/House of Anansi, a wonderful Canadian publisher.  (Look at their catalog here.)  It makes me wonder if there is  more emphasis on creativity in Canadian schools.  Hmmmm.
Chistine Baldacchino is a graphic artist and web designer with a background in early childhood education.  This is her first book. She lives with her husband in Toronto. Isabelle Malenfant has illustrated more than a dozen children’s books.  She lives with her family in Montreal.
Sometimes, these days, when I see young men in their very loose, long shirts and sagging trousers, I wonder why they don’t make a transition to tunics and dresses.  It’s only random cultural associations that make garments, colors, and styles seem male or female.  I now know several parents who are allowing their boys to wear dresses.  Will they face the same kind of bullying that they would have in the past?  Are we evolving a little bit out of our strict sense of what is appropriate dress? 

I think back to the furor it caused when women began to wear pants.  And in places on our beloved planet, pants are still illegal garments for women.  What a strange world.  But books like Morris Micklewhite envision a world a bit less strange, a little more colorful and kind.  I like that story.
Thanks for reading my blog.  If you’d like, leave a comment.