Children’s Book About a Boy In a Dress Under Fire at School

·Senior Editor

A children’s book about a little boy who likes wearing a dress is causing uproar in one American public school this week, where an angry father has declared the lesson of love and acceptance “against my beliefs as a Christian man.”

Lee Markham, the father of a third grader at Ada Elementary school in Ada, Michigan, became “immediately concerned” when he learned his child’s teacher read Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress to the class, he explained in an email to local news station WOOD-TV.

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This children’s book has raised at least one parent’s ire. (Image courtesy of Christine Baldacchino)

“After scouring the Internet, I found that the author is from Canada and takes up a cause under the guise of ‘anti-bullying,’” Markham wrote. “The book, however, is more about accepting someone who does not adhere to typical gender norms… I feel that my child, who is a Christian, had his first amendment rights violated. Parents were never contacted. This is definitely an issue that should be dealt with at home, and not in the school.”

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But district superintendent Daniel Behm told the news station that the school was simply responding to questions from students about the issue. “This book is not part of our typical curriculum, but it was chosen with the teacher and the counselor after some students kept raising questions about some people [who] dressed differently,” Behm said. He believed it was important to foster understanding at once, explaining, “When students ask a question, and teachers [are] sort of saying ‘well, let me get back with you after I write a letter to all the parents to see if I can answer that for you,’ I think that’s where it becomes, on a day-to-day practical level, a challenge.”

Noted Markham, who is a military vet who fought in Afghanistan, “My child said it began because one boy wears skirts and tights into school, and his parents encourage the behavior. The boy even told my son that ‘nobody is allowed to make fun of him, because he can wear whatever he wants to wear and everyone has to accept it.’ Obviously, there must be some coaching going on.” Markham also objected, as he told the television station, because “if any of these kids weren’t thinking about wearing dresses, they are now.”

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But that’s a common misconception about how kids and gender play actually works, Yukon Jenkins of the Transactive Gender Center in Portland, Ore., tells Yahoo Style. “Children as young as 3 know their gender identity. You are who you are,” she says. It’s whether you let your true self be seen or not that may be affected by a book like Morris Micklewhite. “It doesn’t change a child’s mind about who they are; it just creates a safe environment for a child to express it.”

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“Morris likes the color of the dress. It reminds him of tigers, the sun and his mother’s hair.” (Image courtesy of Christine Baldacchino)

Adds Lisa Kenney, executive director of Gender Spectrum, based in San Francisco, “The dad’s fear is understandable — gender isn’t likely something he’s had to give much thought to. We all tend to react from a place of fear to what is unfamiliar or unknown.” However, she tells Yahoo Style, “a school’s responsibility is to educate students, in age-appropriate ways, about issues they will experience in a diverse society. This school was trying to do just that. A child in the class was interested in wearing dresses. And if exposure alone to something made other kids want to mimic behavior, that would have been enough — kids in the class would have already wanted to wear dresses.”

This is not the first children’s book about gender fluidity that has been the subject of controversy. I Am Jazz, written by transgender teen Jazz Jennings and based on her life, has been fought and banned in schools in Maine and Wisconsin; similarly, in Texas, angry parents protested the inclusion of My Princess Boy, written by Cheryl Kilodavis and based on her young son, in the children’s section of their library.

Christine Baldacchino is the Toronto-based author of Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress, published in 2014 and kept in many schools and libraries across the U.S. She tells Yahoo Style she’s never quite seen this amount of backlash over her book, which she was inspired to write years ago when she was an early-childhood educator.

“There was a boy in one class who was positively enamored by this gold dress in the dress-up center,” Baldacchino recalls. “He would wear it everyday. One afternoon his mother showed up early to pick him up for a dentist appointment. She saw him in the dress and demanded that it be removed from the classroom to keep him from wearing it again. Every day, that boy would ask about the dress. ‘When was it coming back?’ ‘Was it being cleaned?’ ‘Was there a hole in it that needed to be fixed?’”

She continues, “After about two weeks, I guess he started to suspect that he was the reason the dress was no longer in the dress-up center — it was the only dress that had gone missing, after all. He said to me, ‘If you bring the dress back, I promise I won’t wear it.’ How do you respond to something like that? It broke my heart. He loved that dress so much that even if he couldn’t ever wear it again, he was willing to settle for just being able to see it everyday, to be near it. I was furious and frustrated because there was nothing I could do.” That’s when she realized she could write about the situation and hopefully help others gain more understanding and empathy.

Baldacchino believes the book is best for kids ages 3 to 8, though it’s been read to kids as old as 12. “It fosters different sorts of discussion — not just about gender identity, but also bullying, coping as a victim of bullying, accepting yourself, and eventually accepting that not everyone is going to get it, but that it doesn’t matter,” she says. “Be yourself. Always be yourself.”

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