To an outsider, it might seem that self-confidence would come easily to Jamie Lee Curtis. The daughter of Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis, she grew up in a rarefied Hollywood environment that gave her a lot of things -- but not necessarily the ability to feel good about herself. "I had fame when I was born, and I had more fame very quickly in horror movies," says the 43-year-old actress, who starred in Halloween when she was 19. "Even at a young age I was making good money, but that did not give me self-esteem."
Now Curtis is famous for another reason that makes much more sense to her. Her fifth children's book, I'm Gonna Like Me: Letting Off a Little Self-Esteem, is just out from HarperCollins. "I never understood my success as an actor," she says, though her credits include such hits as A Fish Called Wanda and True Lies. "It gave me very little sense that I had done something of value. My success as a writer, on the other hand, has come because I understand what it's like to be a child and I can translate that very well"
As the mother of Annie, 16, and Thomas, 6 (her husband is writer-director Christopher Guest), and a bestselling author, Curtis has finally established what she calls "a good base." The message of I'm Gonna Like Me is a personal one. "It wasn't so much finding my voice as realizing that I had something to contribute, that kids and adults were moved by it and laughed at it," she says about writing her books. Still, Curtis's literary turn was unscripted. One day, Annie, then 4, made a comment about what she used to do and what she could do now. It struck Curtis as funny, so she sat down and listed her daughter's accomplishments, which became her first book, When I Was Little: A Four-Year-Old's Memoir of Her Youth. "I didn't plan to become an author," she insists.
After signing with HarperCollins, Curtis formed a partnership with illustrator Laura Cornell that has continued through all five books. Cornell's illustrations are full of humorous asides that only a grown-up will get: A runaway balloon makes a stop at the Bates Motel, which Curtis's mom made famous in Psycho, and a kids' lunch table is full of items like "Cup-O-Lettuce" and "Tofu Helper."
At the same time, Curtis is able to speak directly to children. There's an easy explanation for that. "I am one of them," she says with a laugh, plopping on the kitchen floor to make her point. "My daughter will tell you I'm the most immature adult she knows." Her ideas usually come from overhearing a child say something interesting. Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born, perhaps her most personal book, was written in response to kids who said hurtful things to her daughter about being adopted. Her latest book was inspired by the reaction of her goddaughter to Jamie's gift of a colorful dress. Upon opening it, the girl said, "I'm gonna like me." When Curtis heard this, she quickly wrote the text.
Each of her books connects to an emotion -- none more thoroughly than Today I Feel Silly & Other Moods That Make My Day, which explores all kinds of feelings and concludes, "Whatever I feel inside is okay." Observes Curtis, "For a child like me who never spoke about what she was feeling, that's a profound message to put out into the world. That book represents tremendous growth on my part.
Through her writing, Curtis hopes to help young readers find their own sense of self. "I think what often happens is that children don't have a foundation, so they go off into adult life, experience big highs, and then plummet," she says. "Life and expectations don't pan out the way they planned, and that unsettles them terribly."
Curtis believes this is a condition that plagues most adults, hence the abundance of self-help books. Ironically, however, some of today's super-supportive parents create an unrealistic sense of their child's accomplishments. This can lead to what Curtis calls the "good-climbing-Brandon" method of childrearing: "You see well-dressed parents in parks who have obviously read a lot of books about raising kids, and they're clapping wildly: "Good climbing, Brandon." And it's a 4-year-old who's climbing a ladder!"
Offering excessive accolades for not doing very much creates artificial self-esteem, says Curtis. "It puts kids on a pedestal that the universe is going to knock them off. You should get a high-five when you hit a home run. Now everything's a high-five."
For Curtis, the keys to self-esteem are letting children develop at their own pace and encouraging their interests. She also recognizes the importance of giving credit where credit is due. So a child in her new book says, "I'm gonna like me when I'm called to stand. I know all my letters like the back of my hand." And even when things don't go so well, the child says, "I'm gonna like me when my answer is wrong, like thinking my ruler is ten inches long."
Acceptance is the big lesson Curtis has incorporated into I'm Gonna Like Me, and one she's benefited from herself. Asked if writing is more satisfying than a starring role, she answers in a heartbeat: "Oh, God, yes. This is the first time in my adult life that I was able to connect the dots between something I did and its success. And that feels great."
Copyright © 2002. Reprinted with permission from the October 2002 issue of Child magazine.