I’ll ‘fess up – I don’t remember being aware of picture books as a child. I assume this is because my parents didn’t read to me. I must have been read to at school, and I do remember sitting cross-legged on a thin carpet looking up at teachers holding books, but I can’t recall what I was seeing. And though I was a voracious reader, what I mostly remember are words on the page, not pictures and most unhelpfully, not titles.
With such limited fodder, I’m allowing myself an exception to the requirements of this week’s issue and will highlight a movie I loved as a child: Free to Be, You and Me. This exception isn’t so very big since the movie was inspired a book which I now own: a wonderful collection of stories, poems, songs, and other vignettes for children. There’s also a CD recording, although I preferred to snap up a used album version soon after becoming a mom.
Marlo Thomas (along with many celebrities like Alan Alda, Harry Belafonte, Mel Brooks, Carol Channing, Shirley Jones and Diana Ross) created Free to Be, You and Me. On the back cover of the album, Thomas wrote:
Making records is not my usual business, but this is not a business project. It’s personal; as personal to me as my niece Dionne who started the whole thing. She wanted a bedtime story read to her, and I was saddened to find that all of her books did just that; put her and her mind to sleep. I started to look through stores and found, with few exceptions, shelf and shelf of books and records, for boys and girls, which charmingly dictated who and what they must be, colorfully directing new minds away from their own uniqueness.
… I found that many of my friends felt the same frustration for the children they loved, and happily donated their talents to this idea – an album of stories and songs to help girls and boys feel free to be who they are and who they want to be.
Marlo Thomas was one of the founders of Ms. magazine, and even as a girl, I recognized and drank in the messages of affirmation for girls. But what is lovely about this collection is that it features a world in which there is harmony between both boys and girls, where the interests of one group are not set against the other, but depicted as intertwined and interdependent, which of course they are in real life. There are no losers when equal respect and opportunity are afforded to the girls, nor when boys can be real people with feelings.
As a mother of three boys, I find myself loving these messages again albeit from a somewhat different perspective, since now my responsibility is to help my boys-and-future-men be like the ones I wish I’d known. While it’s easier now than it was in the ’70’s to find depictions of boys who respect girls as a matter of course, it can still be a challenge to find stories of boys who interact with girls while enjoying a full range of experience and emotion.
In these ways, Free to Be, You and Me is as relevant today as it was forty years ago. Here you’ll find Atalanta, a princess who defeats all prospective husbands in a running race except for John who finished in a tie with her. Although Atalanta’s father purports to give John the privilege to marry Atalanta, John respects her desire to see the world before she decides whether or not she will marry at all (we presume John’s actions prevent Atalanta from having to take on her daddy’s dictactorial ways).
Some stories are told memorably through song, and I distinctly remember William’s Doll (based on the this book), where a boy is teased for wanting to play with a doll, has a father who tries to steer him toward sports instead, and finally benefits from a grandmother who gives him a doll and shows everyone how to value William’s instinct to nurture. It’s Alright to Cry is sung by a man (Rosey Grier) and features many shots of crying faces (different ages, different races, both genders – I remember most a picture of a crying professional basketball player). I loved this song, because this message was nowhere else to be found in my world. And in the sweet, silky voice she is famed for, Diana Ross tells her male friend in When We Grow Up:
When we grow up, will I be pretty?
Will you be big and strong?
Will I wear dresses that show off my knees?
Will you wear trousers twice as long?
Well, I don’t care if I’m pretty at all.
And I don’t care if you never get tall.
I like what I look like, and you’re nice small.
We don’t have to change at all.
When I grow up, I’m gonna be happy and do what I like to do,
Like making noise and making faces and making friends like you.
And when we grow up, do you think we’ll see
That I’m still like you and you’re still like me?
I might be pretty; you might grow tall.
But we don’t have to change at all.
Then she speaks: I don’t want to change, see, ’cause I still want to be your friend, forever and ever and ever and ever and ever.
If I really listen to this song, basically I become misty-eyed. But that’s just me.
Except maybe it’s not. A while bac, my husband and I hosted a dinner party with a couple and their son. Free to Be, You and Me made it to the turntable and my husband stood blinking while the three women in the room belted out every word to the theme song. My husband may not quite know how or why, but I feel he’s likely benefitted from the generation of women and men who caught the Free to Be, You and Me wave when it first aired. My boys will benefit too, just more directly. Because I’m going to make them learn the words verbatim and sing them back to me on road trips and my birthday.