Children's books about bodies and bodily joy
Spotlight On: Bodies and bodily joy
A few months ago, my 8yo came home from somewhere with an origami fortune teller — those star-shaped paper creations ubiquitous to elementary school, where you stick your fingers into the crevices, move them around a number of times, and land on a triangle that will predict your future.
I was near her in the same room as she was toying with it, but not involved, barely even listening when she did the fancy finger-work required and opened her fortune — but I paid attention when she started reading aloud.
“You will be loved,” she read off the paper she’d created.
A beat of silence.
I stole a peek at her as she looked down into the folds. And suddenly she shrugged.
“I’m already loved,” she said, before tossing it down and returning to whatever play she had paused in order to prognosticate.
I sat there for a few seconds completely stunned, before I felt a tsunami of realization and gratitude hit me full on: we’re doing something right. That, and thank you, thank you, thank you, powers greater than myself, for whatever we have done that led to this child, believing this, saying this out loud to herself. It’s certainly not the only thing I’ve tried incredibly hard to instill in my children, but it’s an enormous and important one.
This self-worth is, I believe, inherent in children at birth, but it gets removed quickly for some of them, gradually for others, merely chipped in a lucky few, and the factors at play there are multitudinous. As I’ve thought about this over the years — and I’ve thought about it a lot — it has occurred to me that there is a layer of it that has to do very specifically with the body. This is undoubtedly because we live in an overwhelmingly fat-phobic society full of toxic diet culture, which is inculcated in us as early as our newborn days and lasts til the end of our lives, inescapable.
I am, to be honest, totally done with it. After a lifetime of being steeped in this BS — complete with 25+ years of disordered eating, which I am utterly exhausted by and sick of — I’m done.
So I wanted to write an issue about books that focus on bodies in their beauty and glory — titles that show children of all kinds and a whole variety of people loving, celebrating, and finding joy in their bodies. This is what I mean by “bodily joy.”
I could have expanded this (ten-fold) to include books about reproduction, boundaries, consent, and other topics that help children learn about themselves and make them aware of possible danger — and to be sure, the final title reviewed here enters that territory — but I chose to center bodies first and foremost, as this is a topic where most of us begin with our tiniest readers. (I have to admit that sometimes I really miss the days of, “Where are your eyes? Where is your nose? Where is your mouth?” It always delighted me.)
Those deeper topics are crucial, though, of course they are — so in order not to leave them out entirely, I’ve included a list of recommended titles in the booklist at the bottom of this issue. I’ve also created a booklist on Bookshop.org with the same. (All Bookshop. org links are affiliate ones — if you make a purchase, I receive a small commission.)
Before we dive in…
💓 This issue is dedicated to two people:
Virginia Sole-Smith, whose Substack newsletter and podcast, Burnt Toast — an anti-diet, fat-positive community about body liberation and how to navigate diet culture and fatphobia, especially through parenting — has done more to help me re-learn gratitude for my own body and experience real bodily joy than two decades in therapy. Equally important, Virginia has given me hope that I can raise— that I am raising — children who don’t have to inherit my baggage, who rejoice and enjoy being in their beautiful, precious bodies, exactly as they are.
And Allie Prajapati, who knows why.
Bodies Are Cool by Tyler Feder (2021)
I’ll be honest: the first time I read this book, I cried. I’d heard amazing things; I’d seen all sorts of hype about it online; I still was not prepared for my own emotional reaction. I read it alone and I was glad — not because I mind crying in front of my children (I absolutely don’t) but because I’m not sure I would have been able to receive it in the same way, had anyone borne witness. I took this book deeply and immediately into my heart — the place where my most painful feelings about my body are at least housed if not still actively living — and it struck me powerfully: what if I had had this book as a child? I wish that I had had this book as a child.
With this title, Feder created what I can only describe as an incantatory love song of witness, total acceptance, and celebration of bodies — something that has not only been thus far nonexistent in the world of children’s literature but feels, finally, like it has arrived in a moment ready to meet it.
It begins, “Big bodies, small bodies, dancing, playing, happy bodies! Look at all these different bodies! Bodies are cool!” and continues on for pages and pages more in utter joy, honoring every kind of body — I mean this truly, every kind of body — one can think of. All colors, all sizes, all shapes, all abilities, all ways of being are on display here — via Feder’s bright and cheerful digital illustrations — in one big raucous body-loving party.
I wish I had had this book as a child more than any other children’s book I’ve ever come across, and that is really saying something. I am tremendously grateful I get to share it with my children. I want it to be in the hands of every child, everywhere. That’s how much it matters. That’s how important it is.
Bein' With You This Way by W. Nikola-Lisa (1994)
This excellent poetry book opens in a neighborhood park with what is clearly meant to be a playground rhythm, like the singsong of a jump-rope rhyme, and continues in this vein, calling out different attributes of all the different children in Bryant’s spirited watercolor and colored pencil illustrations (from hair to eye color to arms and legs and skin color). The stanzas repeat certain lines that emphasize this compare-and-contrast exercise:
but the same,
As the children spend the day together in this neighborhood gathering place — sliding down the slide, watching grownups play chess, playing with pigeons, laying in the grass — their togetherness is continually celebrated with joyful repetition, “bein’ with you this way!”
It’s a beautiful portrait, in words and images alike, of friendship and joy and play. This title works best if you really get into it — leaning into Nikola-Lisa’s beat feels like a return to the playground for adults, a raucous reminder of our physical (and all kinds of other) differences that are worth singing about, loudly.
Naked by Michael Ian Black, illustrated by Debbie Ridpath Ohi (2014)
In this hilarious, raucous read, a little boy rips around his house after a bath, doing everything naked (he adds a jaunty cape), gleefully narrating everything he does, with a singular emphasis on his joyful nudity.
“Running around naked!”
“Sliding down the stairs naked!”
“Eating a cookie totally and completely naked!”
When we first got this book, my 5yo was so obsessed we read it over and over and over again (if you know, you know), and while that’s an excellent reason to read this — one doesn’t really need any more reason than that — it’s also worth pointing out the fun of Ridpath Ohi’s hysterical digital illustrations, and the brilliance of a book that celebrates being in your body in its full naked glory, just as you are.
I Love My Body Because by Shelly Anand and Nomi Ellenson, illustrated by Nomi Ellenson (2022)
The theses of this exuberant read — that everybody has a body and every body is good; that your body takes you where you want to go; that your body is your first home; that your body is different from everyone else’s body (and that’s something to celebrate rather than mourn) — is still, unfortunately, pretty radical for certain generations, including mine. (I’m 40yo, fwiw.) But it affirms something I’ve noticed in teenagers and kids, including my own 8 and 6yo — they already believe these things (HALLELUJAH).
So if we, as caregivers, can keep these beliefs alive — if we can offer them words of affirmation about their bodies, like Anand and Ellenson do here with such skill, as well as images that reflect all kinds of bodies, abilities, skin tones, clothing, assistive devices, and other differences, like Rodriguez Medina also does here, with her vibrant and playful digital illustrations — the kids have a chance of being alright.
Get your hands on this one, especially if you have children 3-7yo — consider it an investment in their present as well as their future.
The Best Part of Me: Children Talk About Their Bodies in Pictures and Words by Wendy Ewald (2002)
The author of this book asked 2nd through 5th graders to “choose the parts of their bodies they liked best or that explained the most about them,” and write about them. Coupled with Polaroid photos she took of the chosen body parts, what came out of that project was a chronicle of individual students, the differences between their bodies, and perhaps most revealing, how cultural groups conceive of and think about their bodies.
The best part of The Best Part of Me is that these charmingly handwritten notes from children are real missives — each page documents appreciation of their various bodies, in their own words, with their own hands. Some wrote about chests, scars, elbows, backs — no part is too humble under this lens, through their gorgeous, child eyes.
This is probably not a book anyone is going to sit down with a read straight through from beginning to end, though there’s nothing wrong with that — rather, it’s one to dip into thoughtfully, to use to spark conversations of your own. What do you like about your body? What’s the best part of you?
I’d love to see teachers, librarians, and other educators use the notes in this book as the basis for a lesson — on the human body, perhaps, or maybe as part of a greater social-emotional curriculum, on a day that focuses on self-love. It’s a gem.
Amazing You: Getting Smart About Your Private Parts by Dr. Gail Saltz, illustrated by Lynne Avril Cravath (2005)
If you are looking for a basic, introductory, but still entirely entertaining look at the human body — and one that will captivate your toddlers through kindergarten-age kiddos — look no further than this straightforward, well-done title, billed as “a first guide to body awareness for preschoolers.” It’s very much a “facts, and just the facts, ma’am” kind of read, but that’s okay — little children need to start somewhere, and starting simple is fine.
But what I appreciate the most about this one — in addition to Cravath’s cheerful digital illustrations, which offer diversity in race and age, though not ability, it should be said — is that it not only covers the parts and places on one’s body, but emphasizes that bodies are amazing and something to be proud of when you look in the mirror.
If you’re just starting to broach the topic of genitals, the differences between bodies, and how a baby gets made, this is a superb book to have on hand. (I never pass up an opportunity to pun…)
(After you age out of Amazing You, check out another of Saltz’ books, as the next step in bodily education, for a slightly older crowd: Changing You!: A Guide to Body Changes and Sexuality.)
Let's Talk About Body Boundaries by Jayneen Sanders, illustrated by Sarah Jennings (2017)
We’ve been talking to and teaching our children about feelings and emotions, body ownership and boundaries, consent, and sex (in age-appropriate ways, though wow, have I answered some questions 😂 ) since the minute they could understand what we were saying — it’s not just that I don’t shy away from hard topics with my kids, though that’s true, it’s that having these conversations is critical for all sorts of reasons.
Sanders is my favorite resource for this topic — she’s a body safety advocate as well a classroom teacher and mother — and since I first read her book for grownups, Body Safety Education: A parents’ guide to protecting kids from sexual abuse (which I recommend), she has been my go-to.
This title, aimed at early elementary-aged kids (though preschoolers with good attention spans could absolutely handle it), is my favorite of all her work, explaining not only various body ownership-related topics in clear, concise language but offering a wonderful variety of situations and examples in which these topics arise. This is hands-down the most valuable part of the book — it’s one thing to talk to my kids about their rights and staying safe, and it’s another entirely to run through scenarios with them, discussing what’s okay and what’s not okay, and what they can do if they find themselves in tough spots. (The discussion questions and tips in the back run a close second in value — if you’re at a loss or you’re uncomfortable broaching these topics, this information alone is worth the price of this book.)
Jennings’ colorful, inclusive colored pencil illustrations give the text an even more accessible feel, which is an added bonus, because if a picture book isn’t interesting to look at, it really doesn’t matter how excellent the text is — it’s not going to get read. I want to empower my children to know absolutely, at their core, that, as Sanders writes on the opening two pages: “Your body belongs to you, and you are the boss of it. You are very special. There is no one exactly like you!” This book does that, beautifully.
If I have reviewed any of these titles in the past, I’ve linked to those here.
Also highly recommended
Laxmi’s Mooch by Shelly Anand
Parts by Tedd Arnold
All of Me: A Book of Thanks by Molly Bang
All Bodies Are Good Bodies! by Charlotte Barkla
I Like Myself! by Karen Beaumont
Consent (For Kids!): Boundaries, Respect, and Being in Charge of YOU by Rachel Brian
Hair Love by Matthew A. Cherry
Eyes That Kiss in the Corners by Joanna Ho
Eyes That Speak to the Stars by Joanna Ho
We’re Different, We’re the Same by Bobbi Jane Kates
Some Bodies by Sophie Kennen
Sulwe by Nyong’o Lupita
Happy In Our Skin by Fran Manushkin
The Belly Book by Fran Manushkin
Can I Give You a Squish? by Emily Neilson
You Are Enough: A Book About Inclusion by Sofia Sanchez and Margaret O’Hair
My Body! What I Say Goes! by Jayneen Sanders
Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes (Barefoot Singalongs) by Skye Silver
I Love My Hair! by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley
Awesomely Emma: A Charley and Emma Story by Amy Webb
Hands Can by Cheryl Willis Hudson (one of my all-time favorites for littles)
Just Like Me by Vanessa Brantley-Newton
Skin Again by bell hooks
The Blood-Hungry Spleen and Other Poems About Our Parts by Allan Wolf
Body Music: Poems about the Noises Your Body Makes: Some for a Purpose, Some by Accident, and Some to Make Actual Music by Jane Yolen and Ryan G. Van Cleave
For babies and toddlers
Whose Knees Are These? by Jabari Asim
Whose Toes Are Those? by Jabari Asim
I Love All of Me (Wonderful Me) by Lorie Ann Grover
Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes… by Annie Kubler
Every Body: A First Conversation About Bodies by Megan Madison
Yes! No! A First Conversation About Consent by Megan Madison (this is a board book, but I have read it to my kids long past toddlerhood for its useful messages)
Here Are My Hands by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault
For older readers
Starfish by Lisa Fipps
It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, Gender, and Sexual Health by Robie Harris (the third in Harris’ incredible “Family Library” series, all of which are helpful on this topic)
Guy Stuff: The Body Book for Boys by Cara Natterson
Celebrate Your Body (and Its Changes, Too!): The Ultimate Puberty Book for Girls by Sonya Renee Taylor
Love Your Body by Jessica Sanders
Sex Is a Funny Word: A Book about Bodies, Feelings, and You by Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smyth
The Every Body Book: The LGBTQ+ Inclusive Guide for Kids about Sex, Gender, Bodies, and Families by Rachel E. Simon
Lovely by Jess Hong
Her Body Can by Ady Meschke
His Body Can by Ady Meschke
Beautifully Me by Nabela Noor
We’re All Works of Art by Mark Sperring
The Bare Naked Book by Kathy Stinson (there are two editions of this title — the first lacks any diversity, the second is greatly improved)
The Skin You Live In by Michael Tyler
Want a printable PDF of this entire booklist? Here you go 🖨️
I hope you’ve found some new books here to help you and your family learn more about bodies and experience that singular feeling of bodily joy.
And, a giveaway 🎁
I’ve always believed in starting with myself before working on my children, so to that end — and because I believe so much in Virginia Sole-Smith’s work — I’m giving away one copy of her upcoming book about how families can change the conversation around weight, health, and self-worth: Fat Talk: Parenting in the Age of Diet Culture.
⏱ The deadline to enter is Sunday, February 12 at midnight CST. On Monday, I’ll choose and notify the winner. (Please note that Fat Talk isn’t out yet, so this giveaway is for a pre-order, which will arrive on your doorstep on the pub date, April 25.)
Here’s to loving, celebrating, and finding joy in the bodies we’re in 🥰
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