Monday, December 7, 2015

Books We Love: "Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress" by Christine Baldacchino

There is something about seeing a gorgeously illustrated book artfully displayed in my local bookstore: I can't resist. And it didn't hurt, with Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress, that I was feeling guilty. Before Jack was born, I said I would offer him all the options, regardless of gender. He would get girls' and boys' toys in equal measure, and that included girls' clothes in the dress-up box. But when it came down to it, the best I could do was a play kitchen and one of my old purses (which, by the way, Jack loves).

So I bought a book about a boy who wears a dress.

My desire to give Jack "girl things" to play with does not come from some crazy liberal desire to make him transgender or some crazy feminist desire to emasculate him. All I want is for him to feel that feminine items, whether they be dresses or dolls or tea sets, are as valid--and valued--as superheroes, trucks, and dinosaurs. This, I believe, is the beginning of truly valuing women and all the emotions, jobs, and pastimes that are labeled feminine. It's not just about wearing a dress or carrying a purse; it's about erasing gender stereotypes. (But I digress. There will be much, much more on this another day.) However, I think my fear of what my husband or other family members would say or think kept me from going as far as I wanted. Morris Micklewhite gave me a way to share something with Jack that I couldn't quite accomplish in real life.

The book is not explicitly about a transgender child. (If that's what you're looking for, here's a good list.) Morris has reasons for liking the dress and high heels from his classroom's dress-up box: the dress is the color of his mother's hair and makes a swishing sound when he walks, and the heels create a satisfying click with each step. He never expresses a desire to be a girl. He still loves stereotypically boy things, like spaceships. For him liking both dresses and spaceships is completely logical.

But his classmates don't see how these things can coexist. "Astronauts don't wear dresses," the other boys in his class tell him. The girls are just as harsh: "You can't wear it! You're a boy!" When the girls see that Morris's mother has painted his fingernails, they chase him around the playground shouting, "Pinky fingers!" And when he sits down to eat his snack with the boys, they all scoot away, saying, "We don't want you to turn us into girls."

Jack has started to sound like Morris's classmates. More than once he's told me, "I don't like girls" or "That's for girls." I will write about how I have dealt with this in greater detail later, but for now I will just say that it hurts my heart when he says these things. It hurts most because I know he doesn't mean them. He has friends who are girls and he loves them. But the world is quickly teaching him, despite my best efforts, that he needs to belong to a certain group, that he must identify with that group if he wants to feel accepted. And identifying with that group means denigrating another.

But really, who wants their child to hurt the way Morris does? Don't we all want our children to feel like they belong? After the snack-time shunning, Morris pretends to be sick so he can miss school the next day. At home with his mother, he feels safe and happy. He escapes into his make-believe world where all of his favorite things--rocket ships, his pet cat, elephants, and the tangerine dress--can play happily together. He creates a gorgeous painting of a space jungle with him in the tangerine dress sitting atop a blue elephant. His pet cat is even wearing a space helmet. He goes back to school with a newfound confidence. Because the boys tell him he can't ride in their spaceship, he makes his own and hangs his painting on the front. The boys are curious. "Are there really elephants in space?" they ask. Morris, who would never think of treating these boys the way they treated him, invites them into his ship to join him on his adventure.

This seems too simple. Too easy. Yes, it's a children's book, so it's going to be simple, but as an adult, I can see so many places where this story could go wrong. For instance, where is Morris's father? Absent fathers in children's stories are pretty common, but in this story, I can just see a certain type of psychologist homing in on Morris's relationship with his mother: Are they too close? Is he overly dependent on her because his father left? Does he just need someone to teach him how to "be a man"? And where is the teacher in all this? I imagine he or she is okay with Morris wearing the dress, because we never see the teacher tell him he can't. But I can see many scenarios in which the teacher, or another adult, would step in and tell him dresses are for girls and he needs to take it off.

But thinking about this story with an adult mind is not the point. I'm glad the book's story is less complicated than real life. The book shows us what would happen if adults and society and advertisements stopped telling our children who they should be. If they got to decide, they would play with the kid with the best imagination, no matter what he was wearing.

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