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You Can Be You with Lesléa Newman and Maya Gonzalez

Lesléa Newman and Maya Christina Gonzalez share I Can Be... Me!, a joyful picture book celebration of individuality, uniqueness, and children's freedom to express themselves while engaging in whatever kinds of play they choose.

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[2:32] Introduction


Matthew: Welcome to the Children’s Book Podcast. I’m Matthew.


I am a teacher, a librarian, and … duh duh duh daahhhh! …a fan of kids. And, like many, many of the adults in your life, I am rooting for this person you are growing into. Discovering things you like. Figuring out what you’re good at and what lights you up. Exploring what new knowledge and experiences you’ll lean into as you continue to grow.


These ideas are woven so beautifully into the picture book we’re talking about today, because, as Lesléa and Maya, the book creators, affirm and celebrate throughout the story, you can be you!



[3:23] Book Summary


Matthew: I Can Be... Me! by Lesléa Newman and Maya Christina Gonzalez


From bestselling author Lesléa Newman -- a joyful picture book celebration of individuality, uniqueness, and children's freedom to express themselves while engaging in whatever kinds of play they choose.


I can be everything I want to be, I can be all of magnificent me!


In this lighthearted story, a group of six, colorfully clad children exuberantly explore -- through play -- the many ways they can be themselves. They are free to embrace all kinds of activities, reveling in the fun of trying new things and discovering new ways of being. They can shoot baskets, dance around a room, weave ribbons through their hair, swim like a mermaid, and more. There is no right way or wrong way. There are no binary expectations. Children explore their individuality through whatever kinds of play appeal to them.


With lively, gender-neutral rhyming verses and fun, gender-bending images, author Lesléa Newman and illustrator Maya Christina Gonzalez invite young readers into a space where creativity and acceptance are enjoyed by all, and where each child will be inspired to say, "I can be... me!"




[4:55] Meet Our Guests: Lesléa Newman and Maya Gonzalez


Lesléa: Hi everybody. My name is Lesléa Newman and I am a children's book writer and I am also a poet and an animal lover.

And I am the author of I Can Be... Me!.


Maya: Hi, my name's Maya Gonzalez and I am the illustrator of I Can Be... Me! with Lesléa Newman's words.


And I am… Hmm… many things. I am an artist, an author, a publisher, uh, sewer, a crocheter, an animal lover like Lesléa. And I love to talk about nature and gender a lot.



[5:36] Growing Up and Into Interests Since Childhood


Matthew: Listeners, did you know that the things you love right now, today, and the things that you love to do, right now, today, might be things you end up doing your whole life long?


Let’s hear from my favorite almost-3rd grader.


Julia: Hi. I’m Julia. I’m 8 years old.


Matthew: Jules, can you please use some “I am…” statements to tell us about who you are and what interests you?


Julia: I am a girl. I am a very good artist. I’m very kind. I’m very loving. There’s a lot of things.


Matthew: I agree. You are made up of lots and lots of different things!


Lesléa? Maya? What about you? What things were you drawn to as a kid?


Lesléa: So my very favorite thing to do when I was a child was hang out and play with my dog, Angus. Angus was a complete Toto lookalike from the Wizard of Oz, and he was the best dog in the world. His birthday's coming up. He would be, I think about 57 if he was still alive. So he is long gone. But you can make any member of my family cry if you just say the word “Angus”. Very beloved.


And other than that, you know, I really loved art. Maya, I don't think you knew this about me. I loved doing collage and I would go to the beach, I lived close to the beach in New York and collect all these shells and then make little sculptures out of them, and I still have a couple.


Maya: You know, I was obsessed with art. I literally wanted to be Michelangelo. I studied Michelangelo, the Sistine Chapel, all of their paintings, and I was like kind of obsessed with being that.


And then there was crafts and then there was writing. And so what I started finding was that I liked everything that was creative. And so I kind of spread it out.


And I, when I was about like, I think I was like a teen, a young teen, I had been super obsessed with art, like I had my own cartoon that I had created. I had reams of paper of all these characters I had created, and then I was like, “Oh, art's gonna take over my life if I stay with art. I'm gonna have to do something else.”


And for some bizarre reason, I went toward writing and then I focused on writing really intensely for a really long time until my voice vanished. And I couldn't write anymore. And then I had art waiting for me. So I think as I've kind of gone back and forth and let them fold into each other over time.


Now I write and make art and publish. So that always, I think that I was heading in that direction in some way. And Michelangelo was sort of the beacon of light that sort of drove me on for some reason.


Matthew: Did you think in that way, as a child that, “As I grow up, I just wanna keep doing this. I wanna find a way to just keep doing this my whole life?”


Maya: I, I really did. And, and that's the funny thing, is that I was afraid at some point that art would literally take over my life. And I was just like, “Oh, how do I, um, kind of move in and out of that?” Because art and creativity is such a powerful teacher and it can feel like it just sort of like waves through you and I don't know. I just like, I wanted to fathom that in some way.


That's, I think that's what most of my life has been about is understanding that creative force.


Matthew: Ah, I think it's really interesting to hear you be aware of the hold that that could have taken on you or does take on you and just sort of, I guess, dance with it your entire life. That's really interesting.


Lesléa: Well, you now, it's so funny because I left out the most obvious thing, which as a child, of course, I loved to read and to write, so I guess I just thought that was so obvious I didn't even have to mention it, but that was my thing, you know? I was under the blankets with the flashlight and not a phone flashlight cause we didn't have that back then, but an actual flashlight with big batteries. And I would read, um, under the blankets with my dog.


And I loved the library. So yes, when I was from a very early age, I knew all I wanted to do was be a writer. And I would go to the library and I would look at a book and I would turn it over and see the author photo on the back cover and think, “Oh, what, what's it gonna be like when I have a photo, you know, in, in the back cover of a book?” And I would look at the alphabetical books and I thought, “Now who am I gonna be between when I'm published in a famous author?”

So, yeah, that's all I wanted to do ever.



[10:19] Doing Things You Love


Julia: When I grow up I want to be an artist, a singer, or a dancer.


Matthew: Why do you want to do one of those things?


Julia: Because I’m really good at all of them.


Matthew: [chuckles] Does it feel good to do things that you’re good at?


Julia: Yeah. It feels good to do things that I’m good at.


Matthew: [chuckles] Does it feel good to do things that you’re good at?


Lesléa: And you know, I have really kept that as my true north and worked really hard and got there. So one thing I always tell kids is if there's something you love, like Maya was talking about how much she loves art, if you love sports, if you love dance, if you love cooking, whatever it is, you can do that your whole life. And it can be a really good friend to you, whether it becomes your profession or not. But if you love something, it's great to just explore that forever.



[11:04] What Inspired You to Write This Book?


Matthew: I know that many or most of you have not yet seen this book, and yet I think that the way you’re getting to know the author and the illustrator probably gives you a really good sense of the heart of the story and how it was made.


Let’s hear from Lesléa about how I Can Be… Me! first came to be.


Lesléa: So it's a very personal story because Maya and Kyle Lukoff and I were on a panel sponsored by Lee & Low. We were talking about gender. So Maya has this wonderful book called Call Me Tree, and Kyle has a book When Aiden Became a Brother, and I have a book, Sparkle Boy. And that's what we were all talking about. And I learned so much from Kyle and Maya that I decided I was gonna try and put all of that into a book somehow.

So what happens for me is often is things just sort of get dumped into my head and I pull a string, like a salad spinner and then something else comes out. So that was kind of my process for this book, but I had two thoughts: One is a quote by Oscar Wilde, which is “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.” And I've always loved that quote. And the other is this question that I pose to myself constantly, which is, “If you had nothing to conform to and nothing to rebel against, who would you be?” Right? So if you take all those expectations away and just let your true north, I'll say again, or your authentic self emerge, who would that person be?


And that's what I was trying to do in this book, create a safe space for kids to explore that, which Maya complimented so gorgeously with her illustrations.


Maya: Well, you know, probably like Les Leah, I have had the opportunity to quite literally play with thousands of kids. And I think that the ones that are the, you know, the kids that don't fit in, the kids that are, you know, they're kind of non-conforming in multiple ways. Those are the ones that are always drawn to me and I'm always drawn to as well. And so those are the ones that stay caught in my memory.


I live around a lot of kids too. And I, I have a kid and of course my kid's in the book. And I think for me as a parent, so often I'm wanting to create those spaces, like Lesléa was referencing, I quite literally created a, a gate to go through and a pink forest and you know, this backyard kind of scene that the kids get to just completely play in freely. And wanted that inside/outside reflection that not only do the kids get to buck what I call the girl-boy lie, like any kind of projections about what you're supposed to do, how you're supposed to look, that you just really release those.


And that this space is, that. The space of the book, too, is a place where you can also release those and you can just like grow into whatever feels right to you from that deeper, authentic, more nature-based place. Right?


And that was not only what I wanted to convey to all kids, of course, but like super wanting to give, convey to my kid, you know that this is home no matter who you are. Right? That me-ness, like you were saying, that me-ness is really the essence, the infinity of nature and that, you know, how do you convey that in art?


You do it very playfully.


Matthew: There's so much roundness to your art that it often, to me feels like cascading from one piece to another. It just feels, there's a movement, there's a, my eyes sort of cascade over the page. It's really… It is very joyful. It is very playful.


Maya: It is sweet because, um, the two influences I mentioned Michelangelo, right? And those, those, the Sistine Chapel. And that movement. That was really powerful to me to always see.


But who impacted me probably next was Diego Rivera, who painted all of Mexican history, right? And these really moving scenarios and just showing the sweep of everything at once.


And so, because I look so much at that and study that so closely, I always want my books to almost feel like an ongoing mural. And a lot of times my art is compared to murals because I think of that vibe.



[15:36] BREAK


[15:49] Reading Aloud From I Can Be…Me!


Matthew: Here is author Lesléa Newman reading an excerpt from I Can Be… Me!, followed by an illustration exploration with artist Maya Gonzalez.


Lesléa: So the book starts,



I can be everything I want to be.

I can be all of magnificent me.

I can put on old blue jeans and dig in the dirt,

or paint my nail silver and pose in a skirt.


So there's all these activities these children are doing, and then in the middle of the book, we switch gears a little bit.


I can dance around the room when I'm filled with delight

or ask for a hug when I'm trembling with fright.


So we also have emotional choices in the book. And this is one of my favorite spreads, Maya. I dunno if you wanna talk about this particular spread, but it's just so lusciously purple.


Maya: It's so funny that you picked that one out because my fantasy was that it was like a prom. Right, that it was this, this dance that these kids had put on. So it's kind of like a non-binary prom, right? And they all have their purple on and they're all out with the stars. You know, the can or what are those lanterns? And so I wanted to give sort of that imagination, like they all had tuxedos on kind of thing.


And then of course, this has the spider in it. And, uh, so that was the little thing about the fear, like jumping into somebody's arms, you know, even my kid gets scared of spiders. Like, spiders are super cool. Why are you afraid?


Lesléa: Well, in this particular fi spider is really super cool because it's got a lot of eyes.


Maya: I looked at spiders and they're so cool. If you get like super microscopic spider images, you can actually see all these eyes on their head. It's really awesome.


Lesléa: Wow!


Well, you know, I've looked at this book, you know, many, many, many times, but I still keep seeing more. So, for example, besides the wonderful children in the book, there are all these animals who I love. And there's this dog who's so joyful and the dog has a collar, and on that collar is a key. And I recently noticed that there's the, the key disappears, and then later on in the book, there is a child holding out the key to the dog.

So there's this whole little sub-story about this dog had this key. The key got lost. This child found the key is giving it back to the dog. And that's like a whole book in and of itself right there. And there's no text that describes that. So that was just Maya's pure genius. So she just decided to put that in and I love that.


And I'm sure I could find something else I have never seen, if I look close enough, which I'm going to.



[18:32] Supporting Others In Being Themselves


Matthew: Listeners, readers, as you look closely in the book, I hope that you see yourself. Lots and lots of times. I hope you see your classmates and your friends. I hope you see kids who maybe don’t look like you, but that you would be excited to meet.


There are pressures that this world puts on us to conform, to stay in the lines, to look and behave like everyone else looks and behaves. And so I asked Maya and Lesléa why. What holds us back from being ourselves? And how can we help support and make a clear path for people to show up in the world the way that they want to show up in the world.


Maya: I think this was such a great question and this was the one that really stopped me. I was just like, I wanted to pause and pay attention to it, actually.


And when I think about it, and I think specifically in relation to this book, because I think this book touches on that obviously is, is I'm gonna go back to that girl-boy lie. All of these ideas and pressure that so much of us feel we're supposed to fit in. If we're gonna be good, we're going to, even if we're gonna be successful, right, then we have to perform along this certain line.


And I think for those of us who don't naturally do that, how do we find that courage and that strength and that connection and power?


And Lesléa was mentioning how there's all these animals in the book and like what I teach, uh, in, in my other life is, is the gender wheel. And it's this way to look at nature., first and foremost, in all of its amazing diversity and how that functions and how that actually is the power of nature. And that when I started seeing myself as an adult, as a part of that diversity, as a part of that power of nature, I started feeling really good. I started feeling like I belong, like this is my world. Like the woods are mine. Like the sky is mine. And that's what I want my kid to have.


And so in teaching my child these things, what I've seen is that the level of freedom and creativity and power that they function with is off the charts compared to what I grew up with. And that was my hope and my goal. And so that's why there's all these layers in the book, right? To bring that conversation up. And allow us to be like, “Hey, I am powerful exactly how I am. That me-ness. Right?


Lesléa: So I grew up. A long time ago in a very, very traditional household, in a time where there were really rigid gender expectations and just really rigid expectations in general. For everything from appearance, like, I wasn't supposed to have curly hair, you know, straight hair was the, the better hair. And I had to like, you know, try to conform to that, which, you know, I like to say, “Even my hair is not straight.” I mean, I just can't pull it off, you know?


I was supposed to be thinner, was always on these diets. So everything from my appearance to, I was supposed to grow up and marry a man. And have children, and neither of which I did and my career for what it was worth, wasn't really worth anything because it was expected that I would marry a man who would be the breadwinner and support me, so it didn't really matter what I did. So it was kind of a weird way to just kind of encourage me to write because it didn't really matter, which is kind of an odd thing.


But, um, so all of that really delayed my discovering, really, who I was because there was so much to fight against all those expectations that was so oppressive and I really had to break away from all that. And you know, I'm a pretty stubborn and determined person, and I come by that, honestly.


I was very close with my maternal grandmother who lived to be 99. And she was an immigrant. She came here from what she called the Old Country, which sometimes was Poland, sometimes was Russia, depending on where the czar drew the border that day. That's what she would say to me. And so you really have to have a strong spirit to survive, that kind of thing. And so her little motto was “Just because they say no to me, you think I'm finished?”


So that's how I grew up. And, um, I just learned to assert myself and to become myself, even if it meant dis pleasing people who I really loved and who, whose approval I sought. But it was just not worth the price of not being myself.


And so today, you know, as an adult, I think and hope I don't act that way. I have a very beloved nephew and he is very different than I am. And I'm just delighted to discover who he is. He lives in like this totally different world. He's very cerebral. He's very much about facts and it, you know, it's, it's kind of not my groove, but I love him. So if that's his groove, I'm gonna encourage that and I'm going to interact with him around that.

And that's what I think nurtures and supports and love other people is to just let them, well not let them because we don't have the power to let other people, but just appreciate who they are without dumping expectation upon them. And celebrating that.



[24:29] A Message From Lesléa Newman and Maya Gonzalez


Matthew: It is that time: when we say goodbye for now to Lesléa and to Maya. I am grateful to them for reminding us about the importance of following what we love and living as we are. I know I’ll be thinking about what Maya calls the “Girl-Boy Lie” for some time. And I especially love how they each see the kids in their own lives.


As I prepare my library for the next time it is full of children, and as you prepare for whatever is coming next in your day, I asked Lesléa and Maya if they had a message they would like me to share with all of you.


Lesléa: Yes, please tell the children that each of them is special and important and has a place in this world and the entire world would be incomplete without any one of them in it.


Maya: You know what I would encourage kids to do is if there's something that they think they're not supposed to do in the world, like a way that they're not supposed to behave, something, they're not supposed to wear something, they're not supposed to like to kind of press into that and be like, “Oh, you know what? I'm not gonna buy this, this lie this time. I'm gonna actually press into this and I'm going to play with whatever this toy is that I'm not allowed this outfit, this idea, this color.”

And, and then tie that big back into what Lesléa was saying, is that that thing, doing that thing and listening to that part of theirself is actually nature flowing through them and reminding all of us, right, that they're part of infinity and they belong. And that, like Lesléa said, we cannot be whole without them. So, do that thing. Press in. See where you go. Cuz that's just gonna bring all of us into this greater flow of nature.



[26:37] Closing


Matthew: The Children’s Book Podcast is written, edited, and produced by me, Matthew Winner.


Follow the show wherever podcasts are found, and leave us a rating or review when you do. That helps us out a whole lot because it helps the show get discovered by and recommended to new listeners.


Lesléa? Maya? Where can listeners find you?


Lesléa: So you can go to my website. Which lesleakids.com. L-E-S-L-E-A-K-I-D-S.com.


Maya: You can find me two places. One is mayagonzalez.com and there you can see not only my books, but also my fine art. Or Reflection Press, which is the press I co-founded with my partner. And you can see all the amazing books that we make that tie gender and nature together.


Matthew: Visit matthewcwinner.com for a full transcript of this episode plus some questions that you can use as you think about this episode.


You can also reach out and let me know your “I am” statements. How do you describe yourself today.


Write to me or send me a message at matthewmakespods@gmail.com. That’s M-A-T-T-H-E-W M-A-K-E-S P-O-D-S at gmail dot com.


Our podcast logo was created by Duke Stebbins (https://stebs.design/).


Our music is by Podington Bear.


Podcast hosting by Libsyn.


You can support the show and buy me a coffee at www.matthewcwinner.com.


And always, don’t forget to check out the Reading Culture Podcast with Jordan Bookey, from Beanstack, if you are a fellow teacher or librarian. It’s the perfect podcast to explore building a stronger culture of reading in our communities. Available wherever podcasts are found.


Be well. And read on.


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