All kids should feel safe and happy to just be who they are.

While this seems like something that people should want everyone to experience, sadly there are many students who must hide who they really are in fear of societal judgement and mistreatment.

Nobody should have to pretend to be something that they are not just to avoid ridicule.

I grew up as a boy who didn’t like the things boys “stereotypically” liked. I was a theater lover…a music kid. Sadly, this was something that set me up for taunting and teasing by many of my male classmates. I learned to not talk about my hobbies in public. I learned that it was important to know just enough about the current state of sports that I could add to lunchroom conversations so as to not subject myself to the name-calling that I knew could follow. Of course, I was shoved in the hallways by “jocks” who muttered things under their breath as they slammed me into lockers. I didn’t ever criticize their interests, why did they chastise me for mine? Even more disturbing, one of the bullies was a teacher. A teacher who loved to taunt me when he had the opportunity both in front of the class and when others weren’t around.

I was lucky though, I had a family who supported my interests and a circle of friends who liked me for who I was…and when I went to college, I found my people. People who appreciated my interests, appreciated my talents, appreciated ME!
Now imagine the children who aren’t so fortunate. The children who try desperately to hide a particular disorder. The children who are unsure of (or hiding) their orientation. The children who feel that they are living in the wrong body. Constant pretending. Constant hiding. Constant shame. This is why it is imperative that we empower ALL kids to be free to be themselves. Children should never have to pretend to be something that they are not. All kids should be accepted and celebrated for who they are!

Be Who You Are book cover

This celebration of individuality and uniqueness is beautifully depicted in Todd Parr’s Be Who You Are (Little, Brown Books 2016). In this book, Todd encourages kids to be confident, be brave, stand up for themselves, share their feelings, wear clothes that make them feel good, be proud of where they come from…to just be who they are.

Todd, a constant advocate for ALL kids, recently took the time to answer a few questions for me.

Me: As an author, why was sharing the message “Just Be Who You Are” so important to you?

Todd: Because I spent a number of my school years trying to be like everyone else. I just wanted to fit in which made me even more awkward. Finally, I realized it was just easier to be who I was. That’s when I noticed that the people that were my friends are because they liked me for who I was.

Me: What motivates you to keep writing books that celebrate ALL PEOPLE?

Todd: This is something I have always believed in. I want everyone to feel that they are special and important just because of being who they are.

Me: What do you hope your readers take from reading your books?

Todd: Confidence, compassion, love, understanding, kindness, and inspiration.

Todd has written several other books that champion the empowerment of students to be themselves and be proud of who they are: It’s Okay to be Different, The Family Book, The Feelings Book and many more.

Lily and Dunkin book cover

In her book, Lily and Dunkin (Penguin Random House, 2016), author Donna Gephart shares a dual narrative about two brave young people who do not feel like they fit into the world around them. Lily Jo McGrother (born Timothy McGrother) is an eighth grade, transgender girl and Dunkin Dorfman (birth name Norbert Dorfman) is a boy with bipolar disorder. Upon meeting one day, Lily and Dunkin forge a new friendship, and together they struggle with being true to who they really are and all that goes with not fitting in to non-accepting family and society. Donna Gephart creates a story that is raw, real and brimming with kindness, compassion and acceptance.

Donna, graciously agreed to answer a few questions about Lily and Dunkin.

Me: As a writer, where do you gain your motivation? What drives you to keep producing such powerful stories?

Donna: As a writer, injustice often tugs at my heart. My stories are a way to re-write reality and create a world that is more fair, just and kind. I want to offer books to young readers that offer companionship, solace and a feeling that they’re not alone in the world. I hope my books provide an emotional roadmap for that challenging journey from childhood to adulthood with some entertainment along the way.

Me: What was your inspiration for Lily and Dunkin?

Donna: I saw a documentary about a transgender girl and it moved me deeply. I could not stop thinking about her, so I knew I had to write about her. I think about her still and hope she’s doing well. The other character in my book was based on our son, who deals with bipolar disorder. He asked me to write about the illness to help reduce shame and stigma. The best six words I’ve ever heard were after our son read a copy of Lily and Dunkin and said, “I’m so proud of you, Mom.”

Me: What do you want readers to take away from Lily and Dunkin?

Donna: I hope my book opens hearts and minds. I hope readers feel more comfortable with difference and embrace it. I hope it helps people grow in understanding and empathy. I hope it helps make the world a kinder, gentler place so we are all free to be our unique and wonder-filled selves.

Me: The current climate of our country is not one of acceptance. What do you say to the “Lilys” and the “Dunkins” who are out there?

Donna: I want to tell them they are not alone, that there are deeply caring communities out there, waiting to welcome them with open arms. I want to tell them they are beautiful just as they are. I want to tell them I’m sorry for those who don’t understand or are small-minded and cruel. They deserve so much better.

(My publisher created a 16-page, full-color reading guide with resources and ideas for educators and school counselors, and I’d be happy to email it to anyone who requests it.

ALL students deserve to be accepted and loved for who they are. Through books like Just Be Who You Are and Lily and Dunkin, some students will have the opportunity to see themselves in a book; to see that they are not alone. Other students will learn a bit more about empathy for those who are different from them. Something that is much needed today. As parents and educators, these books can be a catalyst for important, meaningful discussions about empowerment, compassion and acceptance. Hopefully, ALL people will learn that it’s okay to just be who you are!