I am happy to review Christine Baldacchino’s debut children’s picture book today: Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress (2014, Groundwood Books). Illustrated by Isabelle Malenfant, this book tells the story of Morris, who loves to wear his tangerine dress.
Morris falls victim to school bullying when his classmates do not like that he wears a dress. They will not let him play in their toy spaceship. After suffering from tummy aches because of how he is treated, Morris decides to paint a picture of one of his dreams. This creative process gives him the confidence he needs to face his classmates. He returns to school where he builds his own spaceship and hangs his painting outside. Intrigued by Morris’s version of outer space, his classmates join him – realizing what astronauts wear is not the most important thing.
I have read several middle grades books about gender identify (e.g. Gracefully Grayson), and there are several other children’s picture books that address this issue as well (e.g. King and King). I’m happy that there are books like these for children and adults. Here is what I like about Morris Micklewhite:
(1) Morris is resilient. He does become quite upset at how his classmates are acting, but he preservers and is determined to create his own place in the world (or in outer space). Morris provides an example of a strong young boy who realizes he has to embrace fully who he is before others will. When his friend Becky tells him, “Boys don’t wear dresses,” he responds confidently, “This boy does.” I imagine some readers will question why it is Morris who has to change his outlook first and not the bullies; this can definitely be a topic of discussion.
(2) This book is set primarily in a school. Although we have made progress in regard to how we treat people who are experiencing gender identity issues, we still see an enormous amount of bullying in schools. Although the resolution happens quickly (it is a short children’s picture book), Baldacchino does a good job portraying the harsh realities of students who are bullied in school. It is heartbreaking to read about how Morris so enjoys school and then is hurt so badly there when classmates do not accept his decisions to wear the dress. This book shows the power of schools to be spaces of pain and hope.
(3) It’s an art book. You know I LOVE art books. After his dream, Morris gets out his brushes and smock and paints what he just dreamed about. I think the painting is a bit metaphorical, too. The painting represents how he wishes the world could be. He doesn’t really want to be on top of a big blue elephant wearing a tangerine dress. He wants to go into his school with his tangerine dress on and be accepted by his classmates.
Here’s what I did not like as much:
(1) Morris transforms a lot. He seems to be tasked with painting out his dream, building a new spaceship, and encouraging his friends to join him. There is a lot of onus on him to create respect for himself. And although I praised his resilience above, I also think we might dig deeper into reasons why Baldacchino did not have the bullies go through more of a transformation. Sadly, I think there is reason to believe that she paints a realistic picture of a situation like this. What then can we talk with our students and kids about in relation to our ability to accept those around us?
Let me know what you think of Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress in the comments below!