“One of Us” – Book Review and Interview with Lyn Mikel Brown

"One of Us" by Peggy Moss, Illustrated by Penny Weber

On June 1 Peggy Moss’ engaging new children’s book “One of Us” will be published to the delight of parents and educators everywhere. It is a story about fitting in, standing out, and being yourself. Navigating elementary aged friendships and trying to figure out as a kid who you are can be awkward.  The message of “One of Us” will leave with you and your child as you read together is to “bravely be you”.

The story is centered around a girl named Roberta. She is new to the school and spends her first day trying to determine where she fits in. Roberta has a successful first day at school as she moves in and out of several social circles and finally finds the one that accepts for just the way she is. Hair styles, monkey bar ability, choice of footwear, and even the menu inside the students’ lunch boxes determine who is friends with whom. Roberta makes this all for nonsense and opts to sit by herself, only to find, she isn’t alone.

The day the advance copy arrived in my mailbox was exciting. I’ll admit I’ve never seen an advance copy of a book and when I opened the package, I felt like I was holding someone’s newborn. I’m sure Peggy Moss and Penny Weber would agree that I was. I fell in love with the story on my first read. Then I went back to really study the story line. A third “read” allowed me to soak in the rich illustrations that accompany this tale of self-acceptance and acceptance of others. I highly recommend this book for families of grade school aged children, but I will say my preschooler understood much of the story and really enjoyed the artwork.

Robert and Anna discuss being different from each other. "One of Us"

These days it is difficult to raise a child who believes in authenticity and being true to oneself. Media influence and peer pressure, especially during upper elementary and middle school years, is intense. Parents can consider “One of Us’ as an excellent tool and conversation starter with their children. Here to talk more about that is our special guest Lyn Mikel Brown.

Lyn Mikel Brown, Ed.D. is a professor at Colby College in Maine; an expert on gender, girls’ development, and media literacy; co-author with Sharon Lamb of two of our favorite books “Packaging Girlhood” and “Packaging Boyhood”; a popular speaker and activist; and a mom. We did a little happy dance when Lyn agreed to share with us her insights here on the importance of the message “One of Us” delivers to parents and students.

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1. Hi Lyn, thank you for taking the time to talk to us today. I’m really excited about “One of Us” because the story and the illustrations do a wonderful job of showing kids it is okay to be different, and that there are so many ways we are different from each other. Why is it so important for boys and girls to be allowed to explore various interests and become involved in a wide array of activities as they grow  up?

Thanks so much Melissa.  Happy to be here.  I’m a big fan of Pigtail Pals!

It’s important to offer children to a wide range of options quite simply because we don’t yet know what they’ll be excited by, or want to pursue and explore on their own. This is the gift we can give them as parents; the ability to discover and choose what they love.  It’s also really good for them. We know from research that children’s brains are impacted by the opportunities for exploration and engagement they’re given—so the best thing we can do as parents to stimulate their minds and interests is to give them a rich array of possibilities.  We also know that media limits those options, by telling girls and boys way before they know what they like or can express their own interests, what being a girl or boy SHOULD be about.  It does children a real disservice to be channeled down such narrow and limiting pathways at a young age.

2. I thought it was both subtle and powerful that Peggy Moss’ story includes girls that liked car racing and baseball over ballet; boys that liked origami and flower lunch boxes. As the parent of a girl who loves dinosaurs and jellyfish, I find it difficult to get gender-neutral toys and books and clothes for her. What are some easy steps parents can take to encourage their kids to break out of binary gender stereotypes assigned to them by marketers and the media?

We all find it difficult!  That’s because marketers and media deem it cost-effective to sell products using gender stereotypes.  If you can sell little girls on pink, princess, shopaholic fashionistas and boys on over the top violence, superheroes, risk taking and winning, it becomes easy to market to them.  Media also operate on the assumption that girls will watch or read about boys but boys will not watch or read about girls.  In fact, research tells us that if the stories are interesting, gender isn’t a big deal for boys or girls.  Boys loved Dora The Explorer, for example.  It’s only when Diego was introduced and Dora started selling pink princess stuff that boys got the coded message that Dora wasn’t’ for them.

Clearly it’s important to keep an eye out for books like One of Us.  You can also help your child do more than just accept what the media hands them.  Even when they’re as young as four or five, you can develop a vocabulary that will set the conversational stage for years to come.  What better way to introduce the word “stereotype” to your daughter or son than by walking through the girls’ and boys’ departments of any clothing store, or the “blue” and “pink” aisles of any toy store?  Model a way of seeing and talking about the different choices presented to your children.  If you question, they’ll question.  For example, you might ask if he or she can imagine another way a movie, TV show, or book could end? Ask her to imagine stories other than romance, shopping sprees, or saved by the prince versions she’ll see over and over.  Ask him to imagine stories other than superheroes or guys that need to fight to teach someone somewhere a lesson.  Help your children notice when their world is becoming smaller and more limited, so they can step back and say, “That’s silly. That’s a stereotype.  Real girls and boys aren’t always like that.”

And speaking of introducing them to a world of possibilities, how about increasing the time you spend trying new activities that challenge your child’s imagination.  Seek mind-opening books, TV shows, and music that aren’t marketed to “boys” or “girls” but to all kids.  Offer girls and boys the possibility of action without violence, pretty without sexy, and also, the full rainbow of colors!

3. In this story, the main character Roberta is new to her elementary school and tries to makes friends while also trying to stay true to who she knows she is. I found her character to be confused and confident at the same time. I view self-confidence as a muscle you have to exercise. You founded an organization, Hardy Girls Healthy Women (HGHW) with this same ideal: to create strong and healthy girls by developing safe places to explore life and push the limits. Tell me more about HGHW and how we need to train our girls to be strong and confident.

Thanks so much for asking.  I think of Hardy Girls Healthy Women as “the little nonprofit that could.”   We’re committed to workingwith girls to change the culture in which girls are growing. Whether it’s our elementary Adventure Girls program, our middle school Girls Coalition Groups, or our Powered By Girl media literacy and social action project for teens, we provide the scaffolding and the platform for girls to do their best social change work. We connect girls with the people and resources that help them transform their surroundings into safe havens; and we empower them with knowledge, critical thinking skills, and a platform for activism. As an organization, we have spent the last ten years finding out what happens when you really listen to girls and take them seriously, when you empower them instead of treating them like victims, and when you work side by side with them to challenge media messages that pit girls against one another, promote unrealistic body and beauty ideals, and sexualize girls from a very young age. Our mantra:  Girls aren’t the problem, they’re the solution!

4. I am a huge fan of your research and the books you have written. Before I launched Pigtail Pals, I had made lots of observations about the state of childhood, and then I read ‘Packaging Girlhood’ and it was like finding my Holy Grail. What was a message from your parents or lesson during your girlhood that led you to become who you are today?

I grew up working class in a small town in “downeast” Maine.  My parents valued relationships, humor, and a sense of place. They didn’t limit themselves and they didn’t judge or box in other people.  That had a big impact on me.  But maybe even more than that, they never saw me as anything but smart and capable.  My dad never went to college, and so maybe I was his chance.  But it never felt that way.  It just felt like confidence in me and support for what I was passionate about.

5. I found “One of Us” to be brilliant. The story was written perfectly for grade school kiddos to relate, the illustrations are delicious, and the representation of diversity warmed me over. It broke down racial barriers, gender barriers, and had a strong girl at the center who didn’t need a boy to solve her problem. My favorite part was towards the end, at the lunch table, when Roberta tells her new friends “But we aren’t the same” and her pal Anna reassures her, “That’s the best part.”  What was an image or message from the book that stuck out for you?

I’ve loved all of Peggy’s books, but this one is truly special. My favorite point is when Roberta recites just “what” she is.  I really feel her in that moment.  Her expression and stance say it all:  I’m done playing around.  Like it or not, this is me.  I am who I am.   One of Us is an invitation to children to embrace their quirky originality and to find the people in their lives who can appreciate their unique, joyful, and infinitely interesting selves.

I would like to thank Peggy Moss and Tilbury House Publishers for inviting Pigtail Pals to be a part of the book tour and launch. We are proud to participate and wish Peggy much success with her wonderful book! Thank you to Lyn Mikel Brown for your insightful answers for our readers.

Catch us on twitter on June 1st for a book party. Follow the #bravelybeyou  hashtag for more info! We’ll update you with more info as the date approaches.