Dress Coded: Middle School Fiction That Is All Too Real

Lynn: I picked up Dress Coded (Penguin/Putnam, 2020) because of its timely subject and I stayed because the outstanding writing completely captured me! What a terrific surprise! I read this in a day, not wanting to put it down. Carrie Firestone is a debut author and one I will be eagerly watching.

This IS a timely subject and a very important one – the treatment of girls and the clothes they wear. In Molly’s middle school, the dress code is used to humiliate and harass. It is applied inequitably and it’s used to place blame and body shame on young girls. Molly, an 8th grader, is small and slight and a late developer and she has largely gone unnoticed by Fingertips, the administrator who prowls the halls looking for dress code violations such as shorts shorter than the length of a girl’s fingertips, bare shoulders, or bra straps that show. When one of Molly’s friends is treated horribly, she decides to take a stand and starts Dress Coded—a podcast highlighting case after case of humiliation and shaming and the impact it has on girls. The podcast becomes widely followed and soon even high school girls start asking to tell their story of their experiences as middle schoolers. Molly, who is an average student, and who has felt invisible, discovers the power of her voice and her outrage at the treatment of so many. Throughout the course of the book, Molly’s confidence grows and she learns the steps of an organized protest seeking change and justice.

But this more than simply an “issue” story. There is a lot going on here that captured and held my attention. Molly’s family is really struggling as her 11th-grade brother, Danny, is mean and defiant, addicted to the nicotine in vaping, and selling vaping pods to younger kids. The parents’ focus is on Danny and their inability to deal with him and here again, Molly feels unseen.

This story is also a portrait of the power of friendships. Molly, a deeply empathetic girl, is sustained and supported by her relationships with her widening circle of friends. Firestone’s picture of middle school is spot on as is the dialog, relationships, and struggles of kids that age. Told in Molly’s first-person voice, the story also includes podcasts, school bulletins, phone calls, and letters. Crushes, bullies, racism, and more is also explored. The story is compelling, encouraging, and ultimately triumphant. I was cheering the whole way!

Cindy: Dress Coded is going to be a popular book in middle schools. Having worked in them for over three decades and having raised two daughters who attended them, this story raises important questions and issues for students and policymakers to explore together. One of my favorite lines of the book comes during the school board meeting when a junior boy approaches the mic and says that, “he is distracted by girls all day every day (everyone laughs), but it has nothing to do with the thickness of their shoulder straps or whether their shorts are longer than their fingertips. ‘That, my friends, is preposterous.'” Anyone who knows adolescents or remembers being one knows that body image is such an important issue along with so many other awkward parts of this age, for both sexes, but girls face additional scrutiny due to messages in our media, and in our policies. It’s way past time to start doing something about it. Viva la revolution!

The formatting of the book, as Lynn notes, makes this an appealing read for reluctant or busy teen readers. The subject is sure to grab their attention, and the brief chapters and ample white space will keep them turning the pages.

 

 

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