I love good nonfiction picture books, but I don’t purchase a lot of them–I’m writing fiction, and so most of my book budget goes toward good examples of that genre. Every now and then, though, I come across a nonfiction book I can’t leave at the store.

Keith Negley’s Mary Wears What She Wants was one of those–telling, as it does, a snippet of the life of Mary Edwards Walker. The title caught my eye–because it focuses on the fact that Mary is doing what she wants to do, as opposed to the fact that she is wearing pants instead of dresses. As soon as I pulled the book off the shelves, the art caught and held me. Look at that cover–I loved Mary as soon as I saw it. She strides along, head held high, looking straight ahead & not giving the naysayers a speck of her attention. And you could pull me into a debate about her facial expression, but I think she’s wearing a very small smile of determination and freedom.

This book seems, to me, a wonderful example of words and art supporting each other. Negley is a writer-illustrator, so maybe it’s a bit easier to leave yourself room for art, but I’m guessing it’s just different. Still, however it is all working inside his head, Negley weaves together text and illustrations magically. Some places, he uses gorgeously concrete words with sparse illustrations, like this page early on, where Mary and other girls face all the problems that come with wearing a dress. (I apologize for what my phone camera does to the font–it’s nice and sharp in the book!)

Mary 3a

In other places, he flips the balance completely, filling a page or two with art and just a few words. The sentence on the spread below–“It was kind of a big deal.”–is essentially a mike drop (even though the story continues when you turn the page.)

mary 4

And the story has tension. Despite the look on Mary’s face–and the certainty she has about there being no reason she shouldn’t wear pants–Mary does worry and she is a bit afraid. Mary meets every obstacle head-on, with force and power. I think, though, that–as you read–it becomes clear Mary would be happier if she didn’t always have to be fighting.

Obviously, I think every child needs this book–no matter what gender they identify with, no matter if they are happy or not wearing the clothes people give them. It’s a book about crossing boundaries, opening eyes, and resetting “truths.” Mary Wears What She Wants sets as a standard the right to think for yourself and make your own choices. And shows a path for doing just that.




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