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It’s OK to be OK: The subtle inspiration of Amy Krouse Rosenthal

(John J. Kim/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)

How many times have you told your child, “It’s OK to be OK”? Not great, not good, but … passable.

Not that often, I bet. If one extreme of parenting is automatic validation — the participant trophies and everyone’s-a-winner mentality — then the other is conditional approval, the idea that nothing is worth doing unless you can be the best at it.

Between these poles is Amy Krouse Rosenthal, whose valuable message of tolerance and experimentation runs through her inspiring body of children’s literature — a list that includes one of my favorites, “The OK Book.”

“Hi, how are you?” the tale begins. “I’m OK,” a stick figure in the shape of those letters tells us. “I like to try a lot of different things. I’m not great at all of them. But I enjoy them just the same.”

Rosenthal, who died of cancer this week at 51, wrote 28 children’s books, including “Duck! Rabbit!”, “Little Pea,” “I Wish You More,” “Plant a Kiss,” “Spoon,” “Exclamation Mark!” and most recently, “Holy Cow, I Sure Do Love You!” Each had an encouraging message: See where your imagination will lead you. Be yourself. Hope for the best for others. Spread joy. Try new things. Eat your veggies! Love.

Amy Krouse Rosenthal, best-selling author, dead at age 51

Laced with humor — and paired with simple but clever drawings by illustrators like Tom Lichtenheld, Peter H. Reynolds and Jen Corace — the books make their points with a wink and a smile.

Her OK stick figure, for instance, tilts over in a headstand, drops a pancake on its head, gets a kite stuck in a tree. But OK is okay. Hope — and self-confidence — never abate. “I’m an OK sledder,” OK says as it slips off a sled.

“One day, I’ll grow up to be really excellent at something,” says OK. “I don’t know what it is yet … but I’m sure having fun finding out. ”

Rosenthal isn’t telling your kids to aim low or accept a middling existence. She’s just reminding us of what often gets lost amid our obsession with success: the value of failure and the joy in simply trying something without the pressure of perfection. Being okay is not only necessary, it can be great. (OK sure looks happy!)

Rosenthal seems to have lived her life with the same sense of “que sera, sera.” A filmmaker, mother and memoirist, Rosenthal inspired millions with her social experiment “The Beckoning of Lovely.” In a June 2008 YouTube video called “17 Things I Made,” she summoned viewers to meet her at the Bean Sculpture in Millennium Park in Chicago on Aug. 8 at 8:08 p.m. “Come join me as we gather to make a cool 18th thing together,” she said. Hundreds of people showed up. People sang, did gymnastics, blew bubbles, kissed and made up, gave flowers to a stranger. . .whatever felt okay. The event was held three more times — on 9/9/09, 10/10/10 and 11/11/11.

“Figure it out as you go,” Rosenthal said in a 2010 speech. “If it were imperative to have all the answers before beginning, no one would start anything.” Drop a pancake, fall out of a handstand, slip off the sled. “It’s okay to not have it all worked out.”

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