For all intents and purposes Cookie magazine is not the kind of publication I read regularly (in that I make less that $250,000 a year). However, a year or so ago this periodical carried a story I hadn’t really heard before. It was a true story of two parents trying to figure out how to deal with their young son. The boy liked wearing dresses, and pretty much preferred to wear them all the time. They didn’t mind it in the home, but when he wanted to start wearing dresses to school the parental units weren’t sure how to handle the situation. In the end they talked it over with the school, then coached their son on how to deal with kids who made fun of him for his choices. It was a supportive article, one that could easily have gone in another direction had the child had less open and accepting parents. I think of this article when I think of Marcus Ewart and Rex Ray’s 10,000 Dresses. I know that there are boys out there who like to wear dresses, and I know that there are other kids out there who would find the practice strange and an excuse to be mean. And I know too that 10,000 Dresses could be seen as a picture book catering to only a very specific situation as a result. Yet if there is room on a library’s shelves for books for kids who want to be pilots, want to be gymnasts, and want to be president, how much more specialized is it to carry a book where kids want to wear dresses? Particularly boy-type kids? A need has now been filled.
It’s nighttime once again and you know what Bailey’s dreaming about? Dresses. Beautiful dresses hung with crystals or created out of the petals of lilies and roses. Dresses that show windows to other worlds. Gorgeous dresses, 10,000 in all, that are everything Bailey has always wanted. But when she asks her mom for a dress like the one in her dreams the answer is unsurprising. "Boys don’t wear dresses!" Bailey doesn’t feel much like a boy, but that appears to be besides the point. Father has a similar reaction too, and as for Bailey’s older brother it’s a miracle he doesn’t beat her up right then and there. It isn’t until Bailey meets an older girl living nearby with a complementary problem that things start looking up. She has the sewing skills, but she lacks dress ideas. Ideas that Bailey can provides. So she does and the two of them construct dresses hung with mirrors. The kinds of dresses that "show us ourselves."
I had a graduate student come up to my reference desk the other day asking for picture books where the characters acted out non-traditional gender roles. When this happens (and it happens more than you would think) I tend to begin with the stories that can be interpreted multiple ways, like The Story of Ferdinand. Then I pluck out The Paper Bag Princess, Elena’s Serenade, and William’s Doll. The piece de resistance is our very special copy of X: A Fabulous Child’s Story which you will not find circulating in just any library system, thank you very much. However, the book I most wanted to show off was 10,000 Dresses. My library system has not purchased it yet, and I was left trying to describe it in full, lush detail. The grad student was excited by its existence, and I doubt he’d be the only one. After all, it’s not every picture book that gets a quote from Isaac Mizrahi on the back that says, "I love this book! If I had read it growing up, I might have felt better about my dress-wearing habit."
Because when it comes to books for kids that touch on outsider issues like gay parenting or early flirtations with transvestitism, the pool from which to draw is pretty small. There’s not a lot of quality literature to choose from. Just at lot of so-so stuff. Either the books suffer from poor writing, or the execution of their art leaves something to be desired. The funny thing about 10,000 Dresses is that both the writing and the art work as a whole.
If you do not know what the story is about right off the bat, you’re going to be momentarily thrown. Bailey dreams of dresses. Fair enough. Bailey proceeds downstairs to discuss the matter with "her" mother. Fair enough. But when Bailey’s mother tells "her" that she can’t wear dresses because she’s a boy, that’s when you can expect the small children hearing this tale to furrow their brows and attempt to figure out this riddle. When is a girl not a girl but a boy? Apparently, when her mother says so. Bailey’s father gives his son/daughter a similar line, and I suppose we should just be grateful he doesn’t send Bailey off to boot camp or something. But I was very interested in Bailey’s older brother’s take. Had the response been the same line, I would have called the story unrealistic. So while I’m not happy that the brother’s reaction is, "That’s gross" and "Get out of here, before I kick you!" it sounds about right. I would have preferred more of a capper on the ending too, but Ewert displays a good feel for children’s storytelling, using repetition in a pleasing manner, and getting the right feel out of the words.
The art was interesting as well. Particularly when it comes to the reader’s perspective. At first I thought that Ray might place us in the position of the parents and older sibling. The first image we have of Mother is basically through her eyes. She’s cutting coupons in the kitchen, but the way Ray has positioned the shot, her arms are your arms. Her point of view, your point of view. It was an interesting initial choice and I was sorry not to see it maintained throughout the book. As it is, Ray chooses instead to place the reader low and behind the disapproving family members. Bailey is the only one visible and as for mom and dad, their heads are cut halfway off from behind. Most interestingly, when Bailey goes to speak to her brother the point of view dives even lower. We are seemingly around the big boys’ ankles, and the final shot of her brother is practically ankle height, a soccer ball looming huge in the reader’s eye.
There’s a fair amount of ingenuity at work here, though it’s clear that Ray only created three different facial expressions for Bailey. There’s a lot of repetition to the tale. Moreover, though the book doesn’t specify what the art is, it appears that Ray has combined what may be actual paper cutouts with computer manipulation. Often these cut papers are quite lovely, particularly when you’re looking at something like a dress made of lilies and roses. But the same look on Bailey’s face is going to be difficult for some people to get over. It just seems lazy to see the same expression over and over again. Often the story and the other artistic aspects make up for it, but just one or two additional faces could have made all the difference here.
In this particular case Bailey identifies himself as a girl, but I’d like to point out that a lot of male transvestites, in the words of Eddie Izzard, fancy girls. 10,000 Dresses therefore, is speaking directly to a small segment of its potential audience. An audience that may never even see or hear about this book because, when you think about it, purchasing decisions are in the hands of parents most of the time. But for some children, boys who like to wear dresses or girls who refuse, this book will speak to them. It will also speak to those children who know other kids who are a little bit different from everybody else. And to top it all off, it’s a pretty good story. 10,000 Dresses by dint of its subject matter is doomed to be relegated to "special" collections in libraries and bookstores, if indeed it is offered at all. Should you manage to get your hands on a copy, however, it’s worth your time. Could have used more facial expressions and maybe a wry final line, but that’s just my take. A necessary purchase for more than just the children’s literary grad students of the world.
- A piece was written about Mr. Ewert and this book in The San Francisco Chronicle.
- And an interview was conducted with him in EDGE Provincetown.
- Photos from a signing, including pictures of the elusive illustrator Rex Ray.