(Originally published in Bay Windows, January 29, 2009.)
Beginning with the vibrant sunburst and smiling child on its cover, Marcus Ewert’s 10,000 Dresses is a joyous book about self-acceptance and identity. It is also the only children’s picture book that features an openly transgender protagonist, and does so with both sensitivity and celebration.
Young Bailey dreams of 10,000 beautiful dresses made of crystals, rainbows, flowers, and magical windows. “Boys don’t wear dresses,” her mother, father, and brother each tell her. Bailey replies, “But . . . I don’t feel like a boy,” to which her family responds, “Well, you are one, Bailey, and that’s that.”
It is only after meeting Laurel, an older girl who befriends Bailey over their shared love of dresses, that Bailey is able to see her creations come to life.
10,000 Dresses is the first children’s book from Ewert, whose writings have appeared in such works as the 2004 Lambda Literary Award-winning anthology I Do/I Don’t: Queers on Marriage (ed. Greg Wharton and Ian Philips). Ewert also created Piki and Poko, an animated cartoon airing on Logo, but aimed at an older audience.
The striking collage and paint illustrations by Rex Ray make 10,000 Dresses stand out in comparison to the many children’s books with uninspired or imitative art. Ray is an artist and graphic designer whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and who has created tour posters for the Rolling Stones, Patti Smith, R.E.M., Björk, U2, and Beck, among others. 10,000 Dresses is the first children’s book he has illustrated, however, taking on the challenge at the request of his friend Ewert.
Ewert says gender has always been of deep interest to him, although he does not identify as transgender. The first person he ever came out to was RuPaul, when the singer was a local performer in Ewert’s hometown of Atlanta in the 1980s. Ewert himself did “a ton of drag” in his 20s. “Transgender studies helped me make sense of a lot of stuff that didn’t make sense for me in my own life,” he observes.
More immediate inspirations for the book were the movie Ma Vie En Rose, about a transgender girl, and hearing an intersex person talk of wishing there could be a bunch of happy little intersex kids running around. “Transgender stuff and intersex stuff aren’t necessarily congruent,” Ewert notes, “but the hope and the dream that people can grow up without having their gender messed with and their identity messed with, and that they can be happy people, really moved me.”
Ewert did not, however, want to make “a one-note issue book.” He explains, “Although the gender stuff gets the lion’s share of the attention … it’s also equally the story about a young artist and what it’s like when you have these ideas and other people around you are saying, ‘that’s impractical, that’s not right or you.'”
An early influence that helped Ewert stay true to his artistic vision was the Caldecott Honor Book Frederick, by Leo Lionni, about a mouse who wants to be a poet but faces family skepticism until his poems inspire them through a cold winter. As a child, he identified with the tiny hero. “I think my whole identity has been built around that,” he reflects.
Supportive parents may, however, raise an eyebrow at the harsh reactions of Bailey’s family to her insistence that she is a girl and should forget about dresses. While her family’s responses unfortunately reflect the all-too-frequent reality of many transgender children’s lives, accepting parents may not want to present these negative images to their children who have not yet experienced such bias.
Ewert admits he is walking a fine line here between expressing common reactions and frightening some children who may be reading the book. He sees the scenes as an opportunity for discussion, however, chances for accepting parents to say, “Well, honey, I would never do this to you. I’m sorry this parent didn’t get it.” He adds that he has heard of transgender kids with supportive parents reading the book and responding, “I don’t get it. Why wouldn’t the parents accept that?” and says, “That’s a great reaction.”
Part of the issue, he explains, was the limited space of a picture book. He believes there is more to Bailey’s story. “In my mind, Bailey’s parents will totally come around,” he says. “Not instantaneously, but now that Bailey has an ally in Laurel. … I really would love to do a sequel and to show how things are a few months later in the household and that the parents are more accepting now. . . . They’re going to have to process a little bit, and they are going to be accepting.”
For parents, teachers, and others wanting more information and guidance about the transgender issues raised in 10,000 Dresses, Ewert recommends The Transgender Child: A Handbook for Families and Professionals, by Rachel Pepper and Stephanie Brill, as well as the some of the safe schools resources available through PFLAG.
For parents of transgender children, he also advises finding other families in a similar position, “to help normalize it for yourself.” One place to start is Trans Youth Family Allies, an organization founded by four mothers of transgender children.
Bailey may continue to inspire families in new ways with her bravery and artistic vision. “I love Bailey and want to do a whole lot more stories around her,” Ewert insists, “in part to answer some of the questions that I’ve heard from people, like, ‘What do all the other 10,000 dresses look like?'”