These two picture books came to my attention through the May discussion on the Cooperative Children’s Book Center listserv, which is focused on gender non-conformity.
Jacob’s New Dress by Sarah and Ian Hoffman and Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress by Christine Baldacchino both feature a main character who’s a preschool/early elementary school boy in love with a dress at the classroom dress-up center.
I love the sensory descriptions and dreamy quality of Morris’ world in Morris, published by House of Anansi Press. The tangerine dress in the play center reminds Morris of his mother’s hair, the sun and tigers. He loves the way it swish, swish, swishes when he walks and crinkle, crinkle, crinkles when he sits down. Morris starts the book absorbed in those sensations, tuning out the taunts of other boys and girls. That becomes harder as the days go by, until he fakes a stomach ache to avoid school.
Although his mother comforts him with books and apple juice, they don’t talk explicitly about dresses. Morris works through his feelings by painting a vivid dream he has of a riding an elephant in outerspace. By Monday, he’s ready to return to school and don the dress again proudly. The boys who initially exclude him are drawn into his play — tangerine dress and all — by the enticing prospect of joining a space safari.
In Jacob, published by Albert Whitman & Company, the main character has more allies than Morris, though at varying levels of certainty. When a classmate enrobed in an alligator costume tells Jacob to put on the knight armor because “That’s what the boy wears,” Emily jumps to Jacob’s defense. “Christopher, stop telling us what to do!” she says.
Jacob’s mother also affirms that boys can wear dresses — at least in the play center or for Halloween. When Jacob asks to get a dress to wear to school, she hesitates. Jacob creates a makeshift dress of a bath towel over his shorts and shirt, which Christopher tears off at recess. When Jacob asks his mom to help him make a real dress, she pauses again.
“The longer she didn’t answer, the less Jacob could breathe,” the Hoffmans write. Finally his mom agrees, and the air returns to Jacob’s little body. (I love the kid proportions of a big heads and small bodies in the illustrations.)
“There are all sorts of ways to be a boy,” Jacob’s mom ultimately asserts as they sew his purple and white creation.
Jacob arrives to school in the dress the next day, and Emily shares his delight. This time when Christopher teases, Jacob finds his voice: “Christopher, I made this dress, I’m proud of it, and I’m going to wear it!”
Morris has a similarly triumphant final declaration when classmate Becky chides him that “Boys don’t wear dresses.” Heading for his spaceship, he replies, “This boy does,” without looking back.
The focus on adult reactions in Jacob’s New Dress seems to direct it a bit more toward an adult audience than the imaginative tone through which acceptance for gender nonconformity is conveyed in Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress. Morris. Nonetheless, both books would make great additions to home bookshelves and early childhood classrooms. Hopefully they will encourage children of all genders with any clothing predilection to discover what they love, and to find their voices to express it like Jacob and Morris do.