Taking Our Cue from Them

June 17, 2021 § Leave a comment

Is that a naked boy on the cover? Why, yes. Are you mostly just posting about books with neon pink themes this year? Um, maybe.

For me, the biggest challenge of parenting continues to be taking the lead from my kids—and not the other way around. It’s seems simple enough—to guide, not instruct; to support, not push; to listen more and talk less—but it becomes intensely complicated when my own biases, fears, and failures get in the way of seeing my kids for who they are in the moment. Labels are comforting; they help us feel like we’re making sense of the chaos and uncertainty that is our children’s becoming. Look, he’s good at swimming—yes, swimming is his sport! He’s got brains, but she’s got compassion. He’ll never agree to that—he hated it last year. Wait, you want to wear a dress? I thought you hated dresses!  

Being a parent can feel a lot like being tied to the end of a yo-yo that someone else is operating, and the whiplash isn’t always pleasant. But when we manage to extricate ourselves from that emotional tether, when we take a step back and observe the messy evolution unfold, we make space for wonder, joy, and acceptance—on both sides.

Upholding traditional gender roles is a trap most of us parents fall into at one time or another (regardless of how many feminist classes we took in college). It starts when our babes are in utero, as we fantasize about the mother-daughter shopping trips or decorate the nursery in a baseball theme, and it continues each time we measure our child against others of the same gender. Shyness in girls is sweet, but shyness in boys might be a sign of weakness. A boy who shows an interest in math confirms what everyone expected, but a girl who shows an interest in math is intriguingas long as she’s not a dork, because then she’ll struggle socially. It’s OK for her to pick dance as a sport, but he needs a “real” workout. And so the dialogue goes, even if we never utter the words aloud.

And a boy who likes pink? Who wears make-up? What does that imply? What does that signal about the future?

Must it mean anything?

I’m thirteen years into this parenting gig, and the only thing I know for certain is that kids change. They change their minds, their habits, their styles. Sometimes it’s awesome, and sometimes it’s nerve-wracking. Sometimes, it’s along traditional gender lines, and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s a signal of what’s to come, but just as often, it’s not. Most of the time, it has nothing to do with us, though how we react can be everything.

The supremely talented Peter Brown—creator of picture book favorites like Mr. Tiger Goes Wild, My Teacher is a Monster (No, I Am Not), and Creepy Carrots, and author of the equally brilliant chapter series The Wild Robot —has a new picture book out, and it brings the biggest smile to my face every time I read it. It’s also his most personal book to date, based on an incident when Brown was five years old and got into his mother’s make-up drawer. In many ways, it’s a tribute to his mother, whom he credits as being ahead of her time in her ability to validate who he was at every changing moment.

Fred Gets Dressed (Ages 2-6) may be a simple story about self-expression, but its execution is anything but ordinary. Design reigns, characters glow, and nakedness abounds. There’s the supportive mother, joined by a father who plays a small but mighty role. There’s a warm, inviting home, with books, dog, plants, and oversized throw pillows. But at the center of the story, stealing the show, is Fred. Fred is pure exuberance. Fred is that kid whose unbridled enthusiasm you want to bottle. Fred is that kid who prefers to air-dry au naturel (and who doesn’t, really?).

Fred is a boy who, on a whim, dresses up in his mom’s clothes and make-up. And because of his parents’ reaction, there’s no labeling, there’s no foreshadowing, there’s no shame. He’s simply allowed the freedom that comes with non-traditional gender roles. And his beaming smile says it all.

Peter Brown digital art has always had a kind of retro flatness about it, big on angles and shapes and white space. For Fred Gets Dressed, he embraces a limited palette—all the art is created using hot pink, lime green, black, and white—and the pages positively buzz with energy. This, of course, is Fred’s infectious energy, which he channels for the first eight pages into streaking buck-naked through every room in the house. He bounds off chairs, cartwheels down hallways, dances on beds, and crawls on the floor with the dog. His parents sit idly by, smiles on their faces, noses in their books.

Eventually, Fred finds himself in his parents’ bedroom, where he stops in front of their closet. He ponders getting dressed and thinks first about the kind of clothes Dad wears. But when he selects a shirt, tie, and dress shoes, they don’t feel good.

Fred then ponders Mom’s side of the closet, rich in pattern and hue. He has no trouble finding a hot pink top-turned-dress, scarf, and wedge heels that delight him. “But he is not finished yet.”

Wobbling over to his mother’s dressing table, he thinks about hair and jewelry and make-up. The pearl necklace is obvious, but he’s less sure what to do with the lipstick tube. As anyone with small children can attest, the temptation to make a mark outweighs any regard for consequence, so Fred begins to apply neon lipstick…to his cheek.

The moment Fred’s parents enter the room, taking him by surprise, is the moment we hold our breath on his behalf. We experience Fred’s exposure in the way he stands apart from his parents, his shoulders squared toward them, his hands by his side in a gesture that mirrors them. There is no text, because the silence says it all.

Then, all three smile, and the tension of the moment evaporates, replaced not only with sweet relief but with the fun of collaboration. Fred’s Mom kicks into high gear, helping Fred with his make-up while also applying some to her own face. Dad gets in on the action, too, donning some necklaces and a pair of lime green shades. Even the dog gets a neon bow. And Fred’s smile only grows bigger.

“Now Fred is dressed,” we are told, and indeed he is. Cloaked not simply in clothes, but in the affection of his parents. In the knowledge that they will take their cue from what delights him—with no strings or expectations or pressures attached.


Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox 3-4 times a month. Plus, follow me on Instagram (@thebookmommy), where I’m most active these days, posting reviews and updates on what my kids are reading, or Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) and Twitter (@thebookmommy).

Published by Little, Brown and Company. All opinions are my own. As an Amazon Associate I earn a small kickback from qualifying purchases through the links above, although I prefer we shop local and support our communities when we can. If you’re in the Alexandria area, please consider shopping at the beautiful Old Town Books, where I assist with the kids’ buying! In fact, I have a blog post up right now on the OTB blog with a round-up of recent favorites for Pride month, including board books, picture books, middle-grade books, and YA.

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