Gender-nonconforming children. That’s how Sarah Hoffman, co-author of Jacob’s New Dress, written with her husband Ian Hoffman and illustrated by Chris Case, summarizes the topic of this new picture book, which will be on bookshelves this week. Sarah has previously written about this for adults. Over at Salon, she spins it with spunk, calling her son’s attraction to “feminine” things a “freaky gender mash-up.” (This is an article well worth reading, where Hoffman nails the real issue at hand, manifested primarily by what she calls Random Moms across America telling her that her son must be gay, with her appropriately biting closing: “[T]he problem ain’t Barbies. It’s bullies.” To that I say, not at all like the nearly 42-year-old grown-up that I am: “AW SNAP.”)
But guess what? There’s not one new picture book about boys who likes to wear dresses. There are two. Coming in May is Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress, written by Christine Baldacchino and illustrated by Isabelle Malenfant.
Both stories follow similar paths: Each features a young boy who likes to wear dresses, is bullied for it at school, talks to his parents about it and then has to decide how to react. Both books do a good job of humanizing the protagonists. By this I mean that they don’t immediately launch into the issue at hand—that the boys like things for which they get mocked on the playground. Instead, we learn, for one, that Morris Micklewhite likes Sundays the best, because his mother makes pancakes on those days. Also, he has a cat he loves, named Moo, and he loves puzzles.
Books like this are what many people would call message-driven. The Hoffmans’ book even closes with a note from the two of them about raising a gender-nonconforming child, includes a note from an advocate for gender and sexuality education, and has a slogan of sorts on the back cover: “There are lots of different ways to be a boy.” But the three authors could have easily and clumsily jumped right to the message instead of making us care about the boys.
There are lots of boys in this world who like to wear dresses and grow up to be men who do not like to wear dresses. In the Hoffmans’ book, that could very well be the case for Jacob. They even write in the book’s closing note: “We don’t know whether or not a particular child will ‘grow out’ of it,” adding that it’s too early to determine if young children who buck traditional gender roles in such a manner will grow up to be gay, straight, bisexual or transgender.
However, Morris Micklewhite takes it a step or two further. It turns out that his favorite shoes in the dress-up center at school—along with the beautiful tangerine dress that reminds him of his mother’s hair, tigers, and the sun—are the shoes that go “click, click, click across the floor.” His mother also paints his fingernails. Two girls notice on the playground and follow him, calling him “Pinky Fingers!” In a drawing he makes, he depicts himself in that favorite tangerine dress, but also with what could be make-up on his face. Unlike Jacob, Morris thus far likes more than one thing typically ascribed to girls—though, I should add, Jacob also wants to altogether be the princess in the dress-up corner at school, not just wear her dress.
Morris’ mother is mostly quiet on the matter but gives him solid, silent support. When he pretends to be sick to avoid the cruelty at school, his mother lets him play hooky. (Father is absent in this story.) Jacob’s parents, on the other hand, seem at times to struggle with his penchant for wearing dresses, as would most likely be the case for many parents. Ultimately, they support him, but the first time he asks his parents about wearing a dress to school, they pause awkwardly, frowning.
But when Jacob comes home one day, trying to hold back tears, and asks his mother if she can help him “make a real dress” (he had previously been wearing a makeshift one in the form of a giant bath towel at school), the Hoffmans write: “Mom didn’t answer. The longer she didn’t answer, the less Jacob could breathe.” I love this moment. It’s honest. It’s powerful. It perfectly captures how very much young children need their parents’ support, especially for such emotionally exhausting challenges like this.
And that’s when she decides to help him make a new dress. When his father sees it, he tells him that it’s not what he would personally wear, but “you look great.” Jacob’s teacher even tells the class that there was once a time when it was taboo for girls to wear pants.
Each book includes these supportive adults, who empower the boys. Each also ends on notes of pride, both protagonists accepting who they are and disregarding the taunts—even, in Morris’ case, making friends with those who jeer. These are very tidy endings, perhaps hard to swallow for victims of bullying. But I also think these are books meant for the discussion of tolerance, and it seems they are directed—as the Kirkus review for Jacob’s New Dress notes—at parents and teachers, not just children.
Both books are a good way to start the conversation.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.