By Cyrisse Jaffee
While you — as a parent, teacher, grandparent, aunt, or uncle, etc. — decide on your child-rearing approach, let’s help kids feel that they belong, that they are competent, and that they have the courage and skills to succeed.
Susan Verde, “I Am” series. Illustrated by Peter Reynolds. (see list below) (Harry N. Abrams)
Derrick Barnes, I Am Every Good Thing. Illustrated by Gordon C. James. (Penguin, Random House 2020)
Patricia Miller, Remarkably You. Illustrated by Patrice Barton. (Harper 2019)
June Tate, What’s Sweeter. (HarperCollins, 2022)
Despite right-wing attacks on social emotional learning, the values often taught in a typical curriculum — empathy, problem-solving, cooperation, honesty, and so on — are also closely tied to a more traditional measure: academic success. In order for children to do well in school, they need to know how to understand and regulate their behavior, how to build and sustain relationships, and how to develop the confidence and resilience they will need to try new things.
People have different attitudes about kids’ self-esteem and what it means. Some may think parents and other adults are too “soft” on kids in an effort to make them constantly feel good about themselves. Why should everyone get a trophy? Shouldn’t there be winners and losers, as there are in “real life”? What about consequences for bad behavior? Others believe that previous generations have tried too hard to protect kids and their feelings so it’s time for some “tough love.”
Whatever you believe about self-esteem and how to achieve it, we all know adults who have poor self-esteem, and it usually makes them miserable. So while you — as a parent, teacher, grandparent, aunt, or uncle, etc. — decide on your child-rearing approach, let’s help kids feel that they belong, that they are competent, and that they have the courage and skills to succeed.
To that end, writer Susan Verde and illustrator Peter H. Reynolds have created a series of “I Am” books that focuses on kids’ self-image and self-confidence. There are seven books so far.
I Am Yoga (2015); I Am Peace: A Book of Mindfulness (2017); I Am Human: A Book of Empathy (2018); I Am Love: A Book of Compassion (2019); I Am One: A Book of Action (2020); I Am Courage: A Book of Resilience (2021); I Am Me: A Book of Authenticity (2022).
If you read the entire series, you’ll see that some of the same kid characters show up in more than one book, and they come in all colors and sizes. Most of the books come with notes for grown-ups, and exercises (physical and mental) to do. The text and illustrations follow a similar pattern and tone — encouraging, reassuring, and comforting. A few of the titles are a bit corny or overly simplistic.
However, the latest title, I Am Me, manages to achieve its goal without sanctimony and with a good deal of panache. While acknowledging that it’s not always easy to follow one’s own path, the book celebrates those who are “different,” and encourages them to “embrace that [you are] perfectly imperfect.” Add in a dose of body positivity and the message that “I can love anyone I choose,” and you’ve got a recipe that will reassure kids and surely enrage Ron DeSantis — that is, if he needs anything else to get angry about. (Predictably, one person on Amazon.com wrote: “I scoffed at the ‘I deserve to be celebrated by others’ messaging. Nah, I want to raise confident kids, not self absorbed [sic] narcissists.”)
Derrick Barnes’s book, I Am Every Good Thing, illustrated by Gordon C. James, also carries a strong message about empowerment — sometimes a little too strong. It would be a remarkable child who could feel so positive about himself (“I am every good thing that makes the world go round. You know — like gravity…”). Yet the lively, colorful, full-page spreads of a young African American boy doing things — studying, skateboarding, swimming, cuddling — are invigorating and help convey the message. You might just shake off your own self-doubt as you read this passionate proclamation aloud.
A slightly older entry into this genre is Remarkably You by Pat Zietlow Miller, illustrated by Patrice Barton (Harper 2019). Like I Am Me, the text — told in verse, this time — is a celebration of different kinds of kids: bold, loud, timid, shy, funny, bookish, and so on. Here the author encourages kids first to recognize their own talents and skills, and then use them to fix problems — or even change the world. No matter who you are, she says, “Don’t sit on the sidelines./Be part of the fray./Go after your passions a little each day” and “You can make a difference/In big ways/or small/You won’t know how much till you give it your all.” By combining self-esteem with engagement in the real world, the book nicely underscores the importance of both social-emotional development and building community. The illustrations are sweet without being too cutesy. The variety of children and situations shown may even help kids think about their own self-identity and give them a boost of confidence.
Finally, a new book by first-time author/illustrator June Tate, What’s Sweeter, does not exactly fit the self-esteem genre, but her lovely text and pictures will help children feel special and loved. Each spread features something that is sweet — a cuddly dog, a fire truck “getting a bath,” a letter from a friend, or “when something fits you just right.” In the end, nothing of course could be sweeter, she says, “except maybe you.” The childlike drawings wonderfully express joy, innocence, and an appreciation of the everyday delights that children experience. It’s a quiet book, perfect for bedtime, and, really, what could be sweeter than that?
Cyrisse Jaffee is a former children’s and YA librarian, a children’s book editor and book reviewer, and a creator of educational materials for WGBH. She holds a master’s degree in Library Science from Simmons College and lives in Newton, MA.
Susan Calkins says
I love this review of the “I Am” series. Educators, school librarians, parents, and (most important of all) kids need to have access to this type of literature. I appreciate the fact that you did not shy away from speaking out against misguided and downright damaging rhetoric that threatens our libraries and educational institutions.