Anti-Bullying Week: Robert Tregoning on celebrating self-expression and acceptance

This Anti-Bullying Week, author Robert Tregoning takes to the OUP Education blog to discuss the powerful and joyful themes of self-expression and acceptance in his picture book, The Dress in the Window.

A book about self-expression
The Dress in the Window is a book that celebrates self-expression and reminds us all to follow our hearts and be unashamedly ourselves. It’s a book about loving everything that makes you, you and loving other people for being exactly who they are.”

Teasing and name-calling
“Five year old me wanted so badly to twirl in a sparkling dress, but that childhood dream of mine, was laced with shame. From a young age I was affected by gender stereotypes. At the toy shop, I learned there was a pink aisle for my sister and a blue one for me. Fast food kid’s meals would come with a race car instead of a doll in a fabulous outfit and birthday cards, decorated with footballs, cricket bats and motor bikes, would serve as reminders of all the things I ‘should’ be interested in. At school, there was teasing and name-calling, all targeted at the feminine aspects of my personality. I can thankfully say that the bullying I experienced never became too severe however, this is most likely because as I grew up, I concealed and suppressed my true self, which only served to internalise and delay the suffering until later in my life, when I began to release the shame I’d bottled inside.”

A joyful alternative
“This experience has lead me to write for children. I hope to create stories that would have shown my younger self a joyful alternative. I’ve tried to think of any positive representation of unconventional gender expression or LGBTQ+ experiences of any kind in the books and media that I consumed during my primary school years and I really can’t. I have no doubt that there was representation out there but I was growing up in rural North East England, in the late 80s and 90s, attending a school complying with life-shattering section 28 regulations and I didn’t see myself reflected in the books I was reading. Thankfully, things have changed and there are some wonderful books out there now that centre and celebrate Queer experiences. I hope The Dress in the Window can stand proudly alongside them. These books crucially allow so many children to feel understood and less alone and also provide windows in to lives and experiences that may differ from the reader’s, sparking empathy and understanding.”

Writing the tale of boy meets dress

“Sitting down to write The Dress in the Window, I knew I wanted to write a story that challenged gender stereotypes and that it was vital no shame whatsoever appeared on the pages. I wanted to offer an alternative to the relentless stereotypes I had been surrounded by in childhood and which are still prevalent today. An alternative with no judgement at all but, being the theatrical person I am, I wanted the story to have some drama and where would that drama come from, if not from fighting against a stereotype? It was my husband Billy who remembered walking past a shop window every day on his way to school, in which would be displayed the most beautiful dresses. That image of a young boy, nose pressed to the glass, gazing at a glittering gown just out of reach seemed to sum up our childhood longings perfectly and then Billy said, “What if one day the dress was gone?” That was it, that was the drama I was looking for and so was born, this joyous tale of boy meets dress!”

Bursting with pride
“The Dress in the Window is illustrated by the wonderful, Pippa Curnick. Her illustrations truly allow the story to twirl from page to page and I was moved to tears the first time I saw her artwork. There is one image in particular, without giving too much away, that is so full of joy, it makes thirty seven year old me burst with pride and would have allowed five year old me to feel seen and feel good about myself. I hope readers of our book will take away the image of a beautiful boy in a beautiful dress along with the idea that anyone, no matter who they are, is free to feel the joy of twirling in a sparkling dress!”

The Dress in the Window by Robert Tregoning is available to buy in bookshops and online. RRP £7.99.

Photography of Robert Tregoning © Matt Crockett