Free to Be... You and Me: the 35 Anniversary Edition: the book every kid needs

Free To Be... You and Me was one of my favorite movie/record/books when I was growing up. Marlo Thomas's 1972 project brought together an all-star cast to perform songs, poems and sketches that challenged gender stereotypes and delivered a fundamentally humane, loving message about being who you are and not being constrained by society's expectations.

When I was a teenager, a couple of my friends, Shona and Ted, got ahold of a print of the film and showed it at my school. It was an instant smash hit. The memories came roaring back for all of us, the wonderful songs, the humor, the nostalgia. Those songs became anthemic in my social circle, and not just as some ironic throwback -- there's some kick-ass music on that soundtrack.

So in the early 1990s, I decided to put up a Free to Be... fan-site, and I went ahead and registered Then life intervened. 15 years went by and I kept on paying for the domain. I'm not sure why -- I guess I thought I might get around to putting up that fan-site, and I didn't want the site getting into the hands of some pornographer or similar.

Last spring, I got an email from a law-firm in New York that represents the Free to Be Foundation..., a charitable trust that oversees the Free to Be project and produces educational material about gender equality. The note said that the Foundation was interested in getting the domain for use in connection with the book, and would I be interested in discussing the matter.

The note did not contain any threats, veiled or otherwise. It didn't call me a domain-squatter or mention WIPO's UDRP. It was polite, friendly -- just the sort of thing I'd expect from the people who gave us Free To Be...You and Me. So I called up the lawyer, Cris Criswell, and asked him to tell me more.

It turned out that the Foundation was about to publish a 35th anniversary edition of the book, with new art and a bound-in CD, and they wanted to use the domain to promote it. He explained that the Foundation was a charitable 501(c)3, with a board of directors that included Marlo Thomas, Gloria Steinem, and other people I admired and trusted.

"OK," I said, "it's yours."

"Just like that?"

"Sure. You didn't threaten me and you're doing good work. Of course you can have it."

"Of course I didn't threaten you. I figure fans have rights too."

See what I mean?

I asked for one thing: would they send me a copy of the 35th Anniversary edition, signed and inscribed to my newborn daughter, who was already listening to the soundtrack with me? Of course they would.

I'm holding it in my hands now. It's amazing. The new art is fabulous. And I've got the CD on now, and the music is just as great as I remembered. There's Rosie Greer singing, "It's All Right to Cry," Michael Jackson singing "I Don't Have to Change at All" (!), Alan Alda singing "William Wants a Doll," Harry Belafonte singing, "Parents are People,' the Smothers Brothers singing "Helping." There's Carol Channing reciting the cleaning poem, and Mel Brooks doing the convulsively funny "Boy Meets Girl" sketch. It is just brilliant.

And wonderful. If you were to distill the messages that every kid needs to hear to grow up to be a confident, loving individual who does what's right even when society sneers, if you were to turn them into great songs, funny poems, without a hint of preachiness or condescension, it would be this book and CD. Every kid needs this book -- and the organization that publishes it is every bit as great as the book itself.



I'm a baby!

Well what do you think I am, a loaf of bread?

You could be, what do I know, I'm just born, I'm a baby, I don't even know if I'm under a tree or in a hospital or what, I'm just so glad to be here.

Well, I'm a baby too.

Have it your own way, I don't want to fight about it.

What, are you scared?

Yes, I am, I'm a little scared. I'll tell you why. You see, I don't know if I'm a boy or a girl yet.

What's that got to do with it?

Well, if you're a boy and I'm a girl you can beat me up! You think I want to lose a tooth my first day alive?

What's a tooth?

Search me, I'm just born, I'm a baby, I don't know nothing yet!

You think you're a girl?

I don't know, I might be. I think I am. I 've never been anything before. Let me see, let me take a little look around. Hmm... cute feet, small, dainty, yup, yup, I'm a girl, that's it, girl time.

Well, what do you think I am?

You, that's easy, you're a boy.

You sure?

Of course I'm sure. I'm alive already four, five minutes, right? I haven't been wrong yet.

Gee, I don't feel like a boy.

That's because you can't see yourself.

Why, what do I look like?

Bald. You're bald, fellah. Bald, bald, bald, you're bald as a ping-pong ball, are you bald.


So, boys are bald and girls have hair.

Are you sure?

Of course I'm sure. Who's bald, your mother or your father?

My father.

I rest my case.

Hmm. You're bald too.

You're kidding!

No, I'm not.

Don't look!


Ugghhh. A bald girl. Yuck. Disgusting.

Free to Be...You and Me (The 35th Anniversary Edition), Free to Be Foundation (includes free MP3s from the CD)


  1. oh man, this brings it back. My mom brought this home when I was about 9, and she played it all the time. I still dig it. I can still hear Rosie Grier singing… “It’s Alright To Cry”. Sweet memories. Thanks.

  2. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful! I understand why you loved it as a kid, I did too. But, oh my, became the surprise hit at high school?! That is great.

    A wonderful heirloom that will last for generations.

  3. My mother brought this home and we had a great sing-along to it for days.

    and since she was a teacher, she had a special treat for me one day when she took me to work: she got the vcr and TV from the library and sat me down with the video.

    so, in honor of the featured skit in your post – the video of it:

  4. I still have this on LP.

    (And I still find myself singing “It’s Alright to Cry” as done by Rosey Grier every once in a while.)

  5. After all of the unutterably sad Jonestown posts, this is better than a unicorn chaser. Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!

    Babies trump even unicorns.

  6. I started out thinking I should buy this for my friend that has a little one.

    And ended up thinking I should buy it for myself!

  7. Bravo! Bravo! What a wonderful thing to do, let them have the site.

    I have never heard the CD it was just slightly ahead of my time but I will be buying for my 3 YO and myself.


  8. I’m a teacher at a school where many people are very against this production. The 6th grade drama class does a production of this and a few of my “Bible-Thumper” colleagues think “Free to be you and me” teaches kids that it is “OK” to be “Gay”….weird, eh?

    This is what one guy (who I happen to carpool with) said,

    “Kids need to realize that they really aren’t free to be who they want to be….this teaches them that they can be anything…gay, lesbian, pedophile, or drug addict…They need to realize that God has already set the path for them….”

    I happen to love FTBYAM, but when you work in Wheaton, Illinois (The Bible Belt of the Chicago area) you sometimes feel like the minority for open-mindedness…

  9. We too have been singing/playing these songs to our baby. He will instantly calm down when the carousel music from the theme starts.

  10. nd yt ystrdy BB hd pst whr mst ppl smd t thnk tht s lng s ts dn wth hmr, ts prfctly fn t cll ppl wth pppd cllrs nd sdwys hts dchbgs. s thr chptr n ths bk bt tht?

  11. Nice story. I’d like FTBYAM but was subjected to it too many times by (what I now realize were) hungover teachers wanting to shut kids up.

    Cory: Do you own the domain name for “Paddle to the Sea” as well? As a student of the Canadian school system in the 70’s was also subjected to that one more times than I care to remember.

  12. #14 lighten up, nancy. You from Long Island/NJ, by any chance?

    and mods, #5 looks like spam to me.. am i wrong? :p

  13. FYI – “We don’t have to change at all” – is the song “When We Grow Up” and is sung by Diana Ross.

    Figured you’d want to know.


  14. Every year at summer camp during one of the movie nights we would watch this projected onto a huge sail hung on the wall in the dining hall. It was usually followed by Treasure Island.

  15. “William wants a doll!”

    Oh man. My mom used to play that song– especially for my brothers.

    I LOVE ‘Free to Be You and Me’!! Warm, fuzzy childhood memories…


  16. “and not being constrained by society’s expectations.” What kind of simplistic thinking automatically assumes that this is a good thing?

  17. I was a too old to really appreciate “Free to Be” (I was in college!), but I saw the original speical once or twice, and it was fun. I wish it had come out ten years earlier!

  18. Beautiful story, Cory. Thank you for sharing it with us. I’ve got a 3-year-old and will most certainly check “Free to Be…” out. — Alex Pham

  19. Wow. It’s so heartwarming when a rich and powerful person like Marlo Thomas, who you might suppose was far too busy for such things, takes a little time out from her busy schedule to blame her underlings for shit, which is what over half of her handwritten note consists of.

  20. The back cover of the original album had a photo of Marlo Thomas in my schoolyard, surrounded by my classmates. Sadly they seem to have dropped that photo from this new release.

  21. I always felt this was the beginning of my Snoopy expectations which did not prepare me well for my eventual Charlie Brown reality.

    From Office Space:

    Peter Gibbons: Our high school guidance counselor used to ask us what you’d do if you had a million dollars and you didn’t have to work. And invariably what you’d say was supposed to be your career. So, if you wanted to fix old cars then you’re supposed to be an auto mechanic.
    Samir: So what did you say?
    Peter Gibbons: I never had an answer. I guess that’s why I’m working at Initech.
    Michael Bolton: No, you’re working at Initech because that question is bull$hit to begin with. If everyone listened to her, there’d be no janitors, because no one would clean $hit up if they had a million dollars.

  22. I seem to remember a segment read by Carol Channing called “Ladies first” in which a young girl constantly asserts privilege until she has the privilege of being the first one eaten by a tiger. I also remember my kids never getting enough of the songs and stories and how it helped shape them into wonderful human beings who think for themselves – deliciously seditious stuff.

  23. My mom played the cassette in the car all the time when my sister and I were kids. I can recite every single word of every song and poem and skit, and I love them all. My dad always laughed and smirked at it, especially at “William Wants a Doll,” but luckily I ended up adopting FTBYAM’s values and not my dad’s, heh.

  24. “(includes free MP3s from the CD)” should probably say something like:
    “(includes free snippits of MP3s from the CD)”. They are one minute teasers.

  25. I’ve seen gentle mocking of the book in places like “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” but it really does seem to drive cultural conservatives and South Park conservatives bugfuck.

    This, in large part, is responsible for my belief that cultural conservatives and South Park conservatives have been dodging their appointment with the dustbin of history.

    * * *

    I’d love to see the late 21st century update with this book, which has chapters about grandpas learning to love their cyborg kids and dealing with being the only uplifted raccoon in first grade.

  26. One of my students was in this as a play, and seeing it was my first introduction to it. I don’t know why, I guess the Catholic school I went to felt like #11’s colleagues – uncomfortable with telling children that they can be themselves.

    OK, it’s touchy-feely 70’s liberalism, but it’s a good message for kids to hear.

  27. When I used to practice law, one of my colleagues SENT a similar letter, regarding a similar situation, and was got a very kind (and cooperative) response. Maybe more attorneys should stop assuming all cease and desist letters (or their ilk) need to be ‘nastygrams.’

    (Shorter version: see, In re Flies and Honey, citation omitted.)

  28. Somehow this missed me in both the cities where I grew up, but I can still get that happy Seventies vibe from your explanation of it.

    How beautiful, people working to produce something to help children grow into loving and peaceful individuals, rather than reducing them to homogenous, depersonalised commercial targets. (I worked on a pitch for the original with a firm in Toronto, and reading the “brand equity” document Mattel sent over, which described in detail who Barbie is and isn’t and the audience they wanted to capture with her, made me feel sick and angry.)

    Okay, sure those same Seventies vibes had people drink poisonous Kool-Aid, and, yeah, it’s easy to make fun of the well-intentioned (while doing nothing better instead), but it kinda feels like we’re coming around again to a similar era in which people are ready to believe in bigger possibilities. (Too bad we didn’t listen to the climate message when it came around then, but it seems we have one last chance.)

    Let’s hope for more people who think and create like the ones behind this project.

  29. MegaWIN!!

    My fifth-grade teacher played this for us all the time and we loved it.

    Also in the memory banks: Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends. Ah, good times!

  30. This came out the year I was born, but I have no memory of it as a kid. I became aware of it as an adult, but I feel like I missed out on something in my childhood. I just emailed my parents to encourage them to buy it to read to/play for my nieces, whom they live near and see a lot.

    Thanks for the head’s up, Cory, and for generally spreading the love through the interwebs.

  31. Didn’t the Simpsons skewer this philosophy with “Do what you want day”?

    How do you build social capital without having social expectations?

  32. “Brothers and Sisters” is an awesome, incredibly catchy tune. And the video from the TV special is even better. My brother and I played this album to death on our old Fischer Price phonograph. Love it! There’s definitely something weird about watching Michael Jackson doing the “When I Grow Up” song…

  33. we have social expectations. “be kind”, “don’t hurt others”, “strive”, “enjoy”.

    I suspect what #46 means by “social expectations” is “I’ll TELL you who you are and how you may live”

  34. I LOVE it. I wore out at least one record of it and probably a VHS tape, too, when I was a little kid. I’m thrilled to see the ne edition!

  35. thank you for posting this!
    I think I’m one of the few who has a parent who listened to this as a child and then raised their kids on it, who is over the age of 10. I can’t imagion having a childhood with out this album. I’m shocked by the amount of people I have met from the ages of 45-18 who I say to
    “you didn’t have FTBYAM
    ..or had “Where The Wild things Are”
    ..or watched the Muppets.

  36. Thank you for this, Cory.

    I think I now know what I’m getting a good friend’s three daughters (6, 4 & 4) for Christmas. We had the book and LP when I was a kid, and it’s one of those bits that I discover decades later buried bone-deep.

  37. Thanks for the flashback Cory! How GREAT that you had the domain to give them.

    I had the record as a child, and the most memorable song to me is Rosie Grier singing “It’s Alright to Cry”… “The crying gets the sad out of you. It’s alright to cry. It might make you feel better…”

    The baby skit was memorable too!

    Side note: Also loved Rosie in “The Thing With Two Heads.”

  38. Our elementary school choir teacher showed this once a year, along with “A Cricket in Times Square.” Good stuff, and got me interested in puppetry.

  39. This was one of the first CDs my wife and I bought when our first son was born, having both been raised in Canada in the 70s and growing up with Free to Be. Say what you will about some individual tracks (Diana Ross and Michael Jackson singing “When We Grow Up”, that film and album set the tone for tolerance in our generation, and it’s great that it’s still being given to kids today.

    Funny thing though: We had the album on one day when their aunts were over and my sister-in-law totally cracked up listening to Atalanta, the story told by Alan Alda and Marlo Thomas about a princess fighting her father’s tradition that she get married. Listen to the race and maybe you’ll notice what my sister-in-law pointed out: the sexual overtones as Young John and Atalanta “reach the finish line together”!

    The entire movie is on Youtube of course, starting here:

  40. I too grew up listening to FTBYAM. At some point I realized that although the statements made by the characters all promote equality and social justice, the subtexts were not quite as advanced. This is seen most clearly in the baby skit. The boy baby is overbearing and opinionated, while the girl baby is unsure of herself and defers to the boy’s opinion. It reminds me of 50’s sci-fi, where the technology has advanced but the social structure of society has not.

    (admins: I tried twice to create an account but never received a confirmation email)

  41. Never heard of the book nut it sounds like something that should continue to exist in the world. Gratz on doing something selfless and nice for people! :)

  42. This post really brings back the memories for me. This should also be a pretty decent gift for the young ones during the holiday season, thanks for the idea.

  43. I’m 44 and I don’t really know anything about this. I’ve heard the name and always thought it sounded funny, but I’ve never really had a clear idea what it was or why I would check it out. I still don’t.

    The story about the domain name is great.

  44. #47: “How do you build social capital without having social expectations?”

    Heavily leveraged expectation default swaps?

  45. I remember in the second grade, they had all three classrooms in the grade pile into one room to watch a video. I’ve always wondered what it was called, and reading this today, that was the video. I remember watching the video, and thinking, yes this make sense, this is the correct way, this is fair. But then I noticed that in probably 95% of my classmates, nothing changed, the same meanness and gender rigidity remained. It was then I realized that that their was this ideal out there about how things “should* be, but it really didn’t line about with the reality of how things were, and that basic fairness didn’t really exist.

    I appreciate the sentiment in this video, I *really* do, but I don’t think we are doing our children any favors by giving them the impression that they live in a utopic world or that one was emerging.

  46. Thanks so much for protecting the FTBYAM name in cyberspace and for being so generous. I know the artist (Peter H. Reynolds) who did the cover art for the new edition and other illustrations. Because of him I got to meet Carol Hart who helped Marlo create both the movie and book.

    It is wonderful that something so important is getting heard again.

    I hope your little lady laughs as much to Boy Meets Girl and my brother and I did.

  47. I was in grade school in the 70s, and we had a totally different presentation using the similar free to be me slogan. It was pure antidrug propaganda. I assume it was totally unrelated to this.

  48. Wow… I grew up with this album, and I remember tearing up when I heard ‘free to be you and me’ just after my first child was born in 2004. I had a simlar experience last year when I attended his first school show… And they sang that song… I am so lucky to have my children in a school that has taken this message to heart. For those who are interested, it’s the Grove Community School in Toronto… And a truer expression of FTBYAM I’ve never found. Much love and appreciation to all for publicizing this.

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