The author will look back at the book’s legacy this fall on “Be Who You Are Day,” which is slated for Thursday. The annual Parr-designed event invites kids across the country to express and celebrate their uniqueness.
As someone who felt decidedly uncelebrated for the ways I didn’t fit in while growing up in the ’80s — queer, congenitally uncool, zit-speckled — I’ll be rooting for everyone taking part in this self-affirming affair. But, in truth, I’ve always felt unsettled by the binary formulation of “It’s Okay to Be Different.” All I hear in that construction is that it’s not okay to be different. Why else would you need to assure me that it is?
Don’t get me wrong: As a woman in a same-sex marriage and the non-biological mom of a 5-year-old daughter, I have given Parr’s books front-and-center status on our shelves. We’ve read through them so many times that they’re stained and frayed and creased and cracked in the manner of all literary works worthy of countless reads. They’ve helped us affirm our queer home and quell the loneliness born of not fitting in.
In earlier stages of our daughter’s development, when she pined for a paternal presence — “Who’s my daddy?” — or had to confront confusion about our family from other kids — “You can’t have two mommies!” — Parr’s books provided a beautiful response to the tyranny of heteronormativity. But as she nears the end of kindergarten, I’ve begun to wonder: Is she processing “It’s Okay to Be Different” the same way I am?
“There is a fair amount of research with preschool-aged kids — 3, 4 and 5 — that suggests they do have cognitive resources to make inferences like that. They can think about what a speaker could have said but chose not to say,” says Mahesh Srinivasan, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley who studies linguistic and cognitive development. “Imagine a statement like, ‘Boys are good at computer programming,’ ” he says. “Preschoolers will make an inference that if a speaker says something about one group, then the same statement doesn’t apply to another group.”
Context can inform such inferences, says psychoanalyst Kerry Kelly Novick, who specializes in children and adolescents. “It’s important to remember that little children don’t read the book all by themselves in a vacuum,” she says. “We have to take into account the context: Who’s reading it to them? How are they framing or introducing the book? How are they talking about it before, during and after?” Parents can use the book as the starting point for a more nuanced conversation.
Kelly Novick notes that Parr universalizes the experience of being different. Lauding the author’s “perfect sense of silly,” she points to a sequence that spotlights fun character quirks — “It’s okay to wear a bone in your hair” and “It’s okay to eat macaroni and cheese in the bathtub” — that don’t have obvious opposites.
That’s key, according to Srinivasan. The book’s emphasis on the fact that “everyone by virtue of being an individual is different in their own unique way” allows it to avoid the unintentional marginalization of certain groups, he says.
I recently asked Parr whether the world is ready for a bolder formulation — such as our family credo, “Being different is your superpower.” He points out that even in 2001, “It’s Okay to Be Different” was ahead of its time. “It was initially placed in the self-help section of Borders,” says Parr, whose voice holds the same fun, warmth and generosity of spirit found in his books. “It took a few years for it to land in the kid’s picture-book section.”
Today, against the backdrop of the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, police brutality, anti-Asian hate crimes and transphobic legislation, educators and parents the world over understand how critical it is to instill an ethos of tolerance and mutual respect as early as possible. “It’s Okay to Be Different,” which has sold over a million copies, speaks to that need.
“It’s a testament to the need to start a dialogue that helps kids understand what is going on,” Parrs says, noting increased interest in his books and a concurrent uptick in sales. “People are now willing to acknowledge and embrace the fact that you need to introduce these ideas and concepts to very young kids.”
Parr may joke that he draws like a 6-year-old, but he strongly believes that the book’s power lies in its simplicity. “Sometimes,” he says, “just a few words and simple pictures help us understand something easier than a bunch of complex ones.”
Stephanie Fairyington is a New York City-based journalist who writes on parenting, gender and sexuality.
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