Oliver Button Is a Sissy: A Sweet Vintage Celebration of Difference and the Courage to Withstand Stereotypes
An illustrated homage to those who brave the violence of our narrow cultural norms.
By Maria Popova
Childhood, as a cultural construct, is a fairly recent invention — it wasn’t until John Locke that we stopped seeing children as simpler, lesser versions of adults and granted them the dignity of a singular experience in a life-stage marked by enormous emotional complexity. Today, we recognize children’s reality as decidedly different from but not lesser than adults’ — an idea passionately defended by the great enchanters of children’s imagination. And from their singular vantage point of absolute sincerity, kids are able to call out the faults in our grownup reality — like the little boy who confronted Disney about their racial and gender stereotypes.
But childhood can also be a gruesome microcosm of our human capacity for cruelty — perhaps nowhere more so than in precisely that tyranny of stereotypes and the bullying it engenders.
In the 1979 gem Oliver Button Is a Sissy (public library) — a fine addition to the best LGBT children’s books — beloved children’s book author and illustrator Tomie dePaola (b. September 15, 1934) tells the story of a little boy who doesn’t enjoy doing all the boy-things expected of him and finds himself, like many kids have, bullied for preferring more creative and “feminine” pastimes.
The marvelous illustrations are reminiscent of early Maurice Sendak — incidentally, another gay man who was bullied for being an artsy “sissy” as a child — yet dePaola’s sensibility is unmistakably his own.
We meet little Oliver, who prefers drawing and reading and picking flowers to playing sports. And when he has to do the latter, he is decidedly bad at it — so bad that the team captain always bemoans being stuck with klutzy Oliver Button.
Oliver likes to play dress-up in the attic, so he can sing and dance and dream of being a star. Most of all, he likes to tap-dance.
But even his parents aren’t comfortable with Oliver’s difference, so when they finally agree to send him to Ms. Leah’s Dancing School, his father mumbles the self-conscious justification that it’s “for the exercise.”
At the dance school and at home, Oliver practices with joy. At school, he endures the boys’ constant teasing about his tap shoes — and when the girls leap to his defense, he is teased all the more for having to get help from the girls.
To make matters even more unambiguous and publicly humiliating, the bullies graffiti the school wall.
But Oliver isn’t discouraged. Instead, he does as Neil Gaiman counseled in his spectacular commencement address — when face with criticism and rejection, the only sensible response is to keep making art. He continues to practice, determined to dazzle at the upcoming school talent show.
When the big day comes, Oliver gives it his very best, tap-dancing up a storm. His final bow is followed by exuberant applause.
But when the winner is announced — baton-twirler Roxie Valentine — Oliver can barely hold back his tears.
The next day, he can’t bear the thought of going to class — but go he must. Crestfallen, he makes his way to school and is the last to go in when the bell rings. But then something miraculous happens — one of those small mercies that can change a life, an act that calls to mind George Saunders on the power of kindness. Having seen Oliver for who he really is, through the art he so loves, the boys have revised their graffiti.
Oliver’s story is closely based on dePaola’s own childhood experience — a gay man, he grew up in an era where he didn’t even know what “gay” meant and only felt a profound, aching sense of difference. He recounts:
I could spend hours drawing, and nobody ever asked me to play on their ball teams because I was so bad at it. But, like Oliver, I was a great tap dancer!
Fortunately for dePaola, and even more fortunately for us, he did what Oliver did — he just kept making art and went on to delight generations with his warm, wonderful, deeply assuring children’s books.
Complement the wholly wonderful Oliver Button Is a Sissy with children’s heartwarming responses to gender politics from the same era, then revisit Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress, a tender story about gender identity and acceptance.
Published August 7, 2015