Kerri Mullen’s Eli’s New Clothes (2020) is a sweetly illustrated story about a young girl named Chloe and her relationship to her favorite dolls. Chloe loves Elizabeth, Vanessa, and Caroline. She enjoys dressing them up in beautiful clothes and playing tea party. Unbeknownst to Chloe, when she leaves for school, her dolls come to life. This adds a generous dash of whimsy to the story and serves as a unique vehicle to explore gender expression and identification while positioning a child, Chloe, in a quasi-parental role vis-à-vis her dolls.
Mullen, playing double duty as both writer and illustrator, captures the expressions of the dolls in delightful detail. When alone, the dolls talk amongst themselves, but one, Elizabeth, is clearly glum. Readers soon learn that the object of Elizabeth’s frustration is her frilly pink wardrobe. The other dolls quickly come to Elizabeth’s aid. They find comfy pants and a t-shirt to replace Elizabeth’s puffy sleeved dress and sparkly shoes, but Elizabeth is still dissatisfied. The t-shirt Vanessa and Caroline offer her is pink. Elizabeth confides that she really wants to wear boy clothes. Vanessa and Caroline get back to work. They find Elizabeth a blue shirt and baseball cap to wear while assuring the doll that Chloe will love her regardless of her clothes.
When Chloe arrives home from school, she sees her dolls sitting around the tea table and quickly notices Elizabeth’s new look. Chloe describes Elizabeth as handsome and excitedly declares that the doll looks like a boy. Then, Chloe decides to cut Elizabeth’s hair short. As she cuts Elizabeth’s hair, Chloe is inspired to rename the doll Eli. The transformed doll is then referred to by the masculine pronoun “he.” The text ends with Eli “beaming with happiness.”
Exploring transgender identification through a doll character contains possibilities and challenges. Most importantly, the doll has limited agency. Although Eli makes it clear that he wants to dress like a boy, he never actually says he identifies as a boy. Instead, it is Chloe, in her quasi-parental role, who takes it upon herself to extend Eli’s transformation beyond clothes by cutting his hair, changing his name, and reintroducing him to the world as a boy. Eli cannot respond to Chloe, since, at least when she is around, he remains an inanimate object. That being said, readers are subtly assured that Eli is happy at the end of the text when he is described as beaming.
In an author’s note, Mullen explains that most picture books that explore transgender charters focus on transgender girls. She was motivated to give transgender boys “the opportunity to relate to a character.” I don’t know how relatable this will be. I can see children, especially young children, appreciating the fantasy elements. I can also see people being more comfortable with this text than other, realistic picture books, that explore transgender identity more explicitly. In other words, this text does have a place on some bookshelves. For those interested in more realist representations of transgender boys, there are quite a few to check out: Maddox Lyons and Jessica Verdi’s I’m Not A Girl (2020), Dani Gabriel’s Sam! (2019), Erica Silverman’s Jack (Not Jackie) (2018).
This review is part of my “Snapshots of LGBTQ Kid Lit” project. I’m working on a book, The Transformative Potential of LGBTQ+ Children’s Picture Books, which is forthcoming with the University Press of Mississippi. Part of my research is identifying and interpreting English-language children’s picture books with LGBTQ+ content published in the US and Canada between 1979 and 2019. Follow my blog to follow my journey!