I never thought much about children’s books until I had my first child. If asked, I would have guessed that they were largely sweet, with positive messages and morals.

Now that I’m a mom, I find myself constantly surprised by the books I come across. The creativity and beauty of some are astounding, as is the imagination used to inspire the same in young ones.

But I’ve also seen stories filled with incredible amounts of aggression, shaming, negativity, and other unkind ways of behaving and relating to others.

And unkind ways of relating to the self, as well.

For my son Lucas’s most recent birthday, he was given one such book… Giraffes Can’t Dance, by Giles Andreae and Guy Parker-Rees. Reading it with my little guy in my lap for the first time, my heart sank with every turning of the page.

The story is about a giraffe named Gerald, who lives in Africa. Every year there’s a jungle dance where all the animals strut their stuff. Gerald wants so badly to dance, but everyone tells him how awful he is, and they laugh at him as he stands stock still on the dance floor with all eyes upon him.

As he goes off to cry by himself– yes, this is a kid’s book!– a cricket teaches him that “we all can dance when we find music that we love.” This is a great sentiment of course, and seeing Gerald find his footing by listening to the music of the wind and the swaying grass is sweet.

When Gerald returns to the dance to share his newfound ability, all of the other animals are amazed… they applaud and cheer, proclaiming him the best dancer they’ve ever seen. Now, they want to be around him. Now, they want to be his friend.

I realize that because of my work with self-expression and esteem, I am sensitive to how we talk about and relate to our voices, our abilities, and ourselves. Given the ‘happy ending’, perhaps people don’t notice the book’s inherent problems (case in point: it has Amazon’s highest rating, with parents and caretakers raving about how much they love this ‘sweet and uplifting’ read).

But that’s precisely why I’m concerned. Not noticing the messages of a book doesn’t preclude us from being affected by them. Indeed, the storyline echoes all-too-common issues in the music business and elsewhere in life: Are you talented? Do you look good? Do you perform well? Great! You’ll be liked, admired, and successful. Not talented? Scared to share or stand up for yourself? Nervous about stepping into the ring? Don’t even bother, lest you be laughed at or ignored.

My heart lightened as Lucas, still on my lap, and I read through another book he’d been given for his birthday, What Do You Do With An Idea? It’s a story that teaches rather than shames; one that inspires rather than creates fear and doubt. Here are a few lines from Lucas’s (and my) new favorite book:

One day I had an idea.
“Where did it come from? Why is it here?” I wondered,
“What do you do with an idea?”
At first, I didn’t think much of it. It seemed kind of strange and fragile.
But it followed me.
I worried what others would think.
But there was something magical about my idea.
I felt better and happier when it was around.
My idea grew and grew. And so did my love for it.
It encouraged me to think big… and then, to think bigger.
Then one day, something amazing happened. My idea changed right before my eyes.
It spread its wings, took flight, and burst into the sky.
I don’t know how to describe it, but it went from being here to being everywhere.
It wasn’t just a part of me anymore… it was now a part of everything.
And then, I realized what you do with an idea…
You change the world.

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