1.05.2009

Free To Be You and Me

















Free To Be You and Me, which along with the publication of Shel Silverstein's book of poetry Where the Sidewalk Ends, was a landmark event of my childhood. These were two books that every one I knew had read (or seen on television or heard the music from.) For those of you who missed out on this phenomena, Free To Be You and Me was first a kid's album from 1972 and was made into a television special that aired in March, 1974, the same day that the book, with added content, was published. Free To Be You and Me was possibly the first "life lessons" children's book written by a celebrity. Except this was definitely a group effort and some really cool people like Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Alan Alda, Carol Channing, Shel Silverstein and Harry Belafonte contributed their various talents to the project. Really, rather than the first "life lessons" book penned by a celebrity, this probably marked the first time that a bunch of people who had previously been entertainers for adults realized they could play for kids (instead of to kids) and find an enthusiastic audeince. This was also around the same time that Sesame Street, which first aired in November of 1969, began having guest celebrities on the show.

The main lesson of the album was tolerance. This lesson was expanded when the book was published. Authors like Judy Blume, who's poem The Pain and the Great One became a picture book and eventually inspired the chapter book series begun by Blume in 2007 with Soupy Saturdays with The Pain and the Great One. The canny children's (and, like Blume, adult author) Judith Viorst, who wrote the matchless Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, were brought on as were issues like divorce, personal autonomy vs. parental auhtority, war, loyalty and reverence for life. Above all else, there was a powerful thematic undercurrent telling kids that it's ok to abandon the rigid gender stereotypes of the past. The two pieces from the show/book that I remember most are the sketch with Marlo Thomas and Mel Brooks proving the voices of two Muppet-like baby puppets. The babies spend the whole sketch in a crib chatting with each other and trying to figure out what gender they are. The other story, William's Doll, by Charlotte Zolotow, really blew me away with its gentle telling of a profound story. William wants a doll. This was revolutionary in 1972 when the book was published. It may seem like no big deal now, but if you are a parent of a girl, maybe you know how hard it is to find infant/toddler clothes for girls that are not pink. If you are the parent of a little boy, you may be aware of how difficult it is to find boy's clothes that do not have sporting equipment and the like emblazoned on them. Don't get me started on the marketing of toys. Unless we are wealthy enough to shop exclusively for wooden toys, colorful play silks, genderless cloth dolls and clothes made from Swedish cotton for our children, we have to wander into Target from time to time, thus putting ourselves and our children at the mercy of the marketing industry and its gender biases. It is both difficult and expensive to fight this fight and, while I am sure there are many, many nostalgic parents out there buying their little ones the new edition of Free To Be You and Me, these are probably the same people buying Barbies and pink camouflage clothing for their girls and Bionicles and light sabers for their sons, who most likely are wearing "I Do My Own Stunts" t-shirts.

Whatever has actually changed or not on the ground floor of childhood (I am completely aware that there are numbers to prove that women have moved into many, many more areas of the work force than they occupied 35 years ago, but I also know that there are numbers to prove that working women do more housework than their male counterparts, on average) the original driving force behind the Free To Be You and Me event was Ms. Magazine. Letty Cottin-Pogrebin, founding editor of Ms. and co-creator of the magazine along with Gloria Steinem, collaborated closely with Marlo Thomas, who had the origianl idea for a record of songs and skits that promoted diversity rather than reinforcing traditional gender stereotypes. Always intended as a non-profit endeavor, Thomas made sure all proceeds went to the Ms Foundation for Women which eventually became the Free To Be Foundation. This foundation is still in existence and still dedicated to developing and marketing educational products that challenge stereotypes, fight discrimination and encourage individuality and all proceeds from the sale of the book still go to support this.

Speaking of the updated version, the new Free to Be You and Me is a beautiful book that remains a combination of stories, poems and songs, including sheet music for many of the songs as well as a CD with much of the original music. Updates include a change in Judith Viorst's story, "The Southpaw," about a girl who challenges her best friend, a boy, to let her play on his all boy baseball team. The story plays out in a series of photographed hand written notes. In the new edition, the notes are displayed as text messages and emails. I'm not sure this was entirely necessary as the target age group (5 - 10) probably isn't texting and emailing the way teens do. Maybe I am severely out of touch, though. Another change is the absence of the story, "How I Crossed the Street for the First Time All By Myself," by Herb Gardener and a poem by Sheldon Harnick titled, "Housework." The short story, narrated by fourth grader Jules Siegle describing his experience as a five year old, mimics JD Salinger's precocious child style of storytelling. It was probably removed from the new edition for an unsavory portrait of a mother who threatens to hit her child when he disobeys her and tells him to stop crying because he looks like an ugly little rat. Jules admits that, "when you get right down to it I wasn't a very good looking child." The other piece is a poem about how, when we are sometimes watching television we see commercials where a smiling, happy lady tries to tell us her "detergent or cleanser or cleaner or powder or paste or wax or bleach" is the best and we should buy it. But, we need to know that the lady is smiling as she cleans the house and talks about cleaning the house because she is an actress who is getting paid. "Nobody smiles doing housework," Harnick writes. Then he admonishes his readers to make sure, when you have a house of your own, to never do housework alone. I think this is a great message, especially in light of the fact that working mothers still do the bulk of housework and most children are still bombarded and brainwashed by television commercials.

On a final note, the new art work is a welcome change. Children's book art has evolved radically in the last 35 years that it is a treat to see the work of so many accomplished artists in this book. Besides the charming Peter H Reynold's who provides the cover art and a few interior pieces, Lynne Munsinger, Tony DiTerlizzi, Henry Cole, David Catrow, Le Uyen Pham, Jerry Pinkney and David Andreasen add color and magic to the new edition.

2 comments:

Kimberbates said...

Hey, you stole the "I do my own stunts" shirt from Nate! I had the free to be you and me record as a kid, and had no idea who any of these "stars" were. Both my sister and I just loved the music and the skits on the record! Remember record palyers?

Tanya said...

Ha! I have over 200 of those vinyl discs on the floor of my closet collecting dust...