MORRIS MICKLEWHITE AND THE TANGERINE DRESS
Written and Illustrated by Christine Baldacchino
(Groundwood Books, 2014)
Written by Marcus Ewert
Illustrated by Rex Ray
(Seven Stories Press, 2008)
There are books that make me wish I weren’t taking a leave of absence as an elementary school principal. There are funny ones I long to read to a group of eager kindergarteners or a room of resistant grade sevens. There are captivating picture books with a-ha moments that require an immediate second read to marvel over how the author surprised the audience. And then there are the teachable books, the ones with insights that build awareness and transform the reader with new understandings. Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress and 10,000 Dresses are two books I’d like to workshop, with staff, with students, with parents. Fictional characters like Morris and Bailey can make the lives of many real people a little easier.
First up, Morris. He lives with mother Moira and his cat Moo. (Yes, the alliteration is a little heavy at the get-go.) Morris is one of those youngsters who likes many things. “Mondays are great,” we are told, “because on Mondays, Morris goes to school.” So many of the things he likes happen there. What Morris likes most is center time, when he chooses to play dress-up. That’s when he gets to wear the tangerine dress which “reminds him of tigers, the sun and his mother’s hair.” He loves the swishes and crinkles he hears while moving in the dress and the click, click, clicks from the shoes he wears with it. But, “[s]ometimes the boys make fun of Morris. Sometimes the girls do, too.” Soon Morris doesn’t want to go to school.
On the title page of 10,000 Dresses, we see Bailey, smiling and wearing a simple white t-shirt and underwear. The message: this is a boy. But the story opens, perhaps jarringly with, “Every night Bailey dreamed about dresses.” There’s some awkward language about a stairway in a “red Valentine castle” that had me frowning, but this is more of a message book than a literary marvel. Bailey’s dreams involve dresses of rainbow-flashing crystals and lilies, roses and honeysuckles. Her dreams are instantly dashed by her parents. (Yes, this 2008 book uses preferred pronouns of she and her for Bailey.) “You’re a boy,” his mom says. “Boys don’t wear dresses!”
And Bailey’s response is heartbreaking: “But...I don’t feel like a boy.”
There have always been Morrises and Baileys. But, in my day, they would have to change. They would have to don and dream of dresses in secret. Either that or the bullying would be relentless, stretching from kindergarten to the great beyond. Morris would be mocked as “Margaret.” “Melissa.” Or the much-maligned, all-purpose sissy taunt: “Nancy.” But we’re in a time now when most would recognize that it’s everyone else that needs to adjust. Morris is just being Morris. Bailey can be whoever she wants. Why should anyone have a problem with that?
Sadly, they still do. As early as kindergarten, boys know to avoid pinks and purples and to leave the dolls alone in the play centers...unless they are being used to fire out of a make-believe cannon. Gender roles are established, whether it’s due to nature, nurture or a combination.
A colleague of mine shared how she refused to buy toy guns or other weaponry for her two boys and yet, even before they learned to wave, they were using their thumb and index finger to form a quick-draw gun. Bang! Bang! As I shopped for my cousin’s baby shower this summer, I was dismayed that so much, from cards to gift bags to stuffed animals, came in pink or blue. Baby Jack’s nursery is painted green and adorned with gray whales, crabs and octopuses. (Side note: turns out octopi is an “improper plural”.) I am further reminded of a fascinating New York Times article about trying to reverse gender roles and also teach gender neutrality: “In Sweden’s Preschools, Boy Learn to Dance and Girls Learn to Yell”.
Some may indeed be entrenched in their typical male or female gender identification. The point is to open their eyes to the fact it’s okay for others to express themselves differently and to open the door for others to explore a more fluid or less typical gender identity.
These are important books to read and discuss with children, perhaps more than once over a period of years. Despite greater awareness of Morris and Bailey, gender-role and gender-identity defying boys remain a minority. It is easy for peers to find their behaviors and preferences queer, in the “odd” sense of the word. If a child’s first reaction—i.e., a boy wearing a dress is odd—is not elicited and accepted, then the opportunity for transformational learning decreases. A child may listen to the story and go away unchanged, still reacting critically when he or she observes another child acting outside of gender norms. Ridicule may go underground. Then it’s a burden for the targeted child to have to muster the courage to report or to have bear in on his own. Books like these seek to increase awareness and acceptance to reduce burdens. They also provide safe reference points for parents, teachers and children. “Remember when we read that book about Morris and the orange dress...?”
Both books are worth reading, perhaps a week or a month apart. (Pull out the first book to read another time after the later reading of the second book.) It helps kids to know that Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress (or 10,000 Dresses) isn’t some one-off book. There are positive traits about both characters that should be elicited from the reading audience. The boys-wearing-dresses images may be vivid takeaways but there is more to admire about Morris and Bailey.