A generation of children grew up with Free to Be... You and Me by Marlo Thomas, first published in 1974 by McGraw-Hill. Now, with a 35th-anniversary edition just out from Running Press, which acquired rights in 1998, the book looks set to continue to spread its influence. The updated edition features an audio CD with four songs as well as new artwork by Peter H. Reynolds, Lynn Munsinger, Tony DiTerlizzi, Henry Cole, Jerry Pinkney and others. The text, however, is the same as in the original edition; it includes poems, stories and songs by such contributors as Judy Blume, Carl Reiner, Shel Silverstein and Judith Viorst.

“[The book] has a message of diversity and inclusion and celebrating individuality,” says Craig Herman, v-p and associate publisher at Running Press. “Whoever you are, you literally can just be free to be yourself. You don’t have to follow stereotypes.” And following a Presidential race that saw female presidential and vice-presidential nominees for both major parties and the election of the nation’s first black President, Herman believes “that message has never been more clear.”

Thomas appeared on NBC’s The Today Show following the book’s publication, after which “sales just went through the roof,” according to Herman. (During Thanksgiving week, Thomas will make five additional appearances on The Today Show, as a spokesperson for the Thanks and Giving Campaign, which benefits St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.) The book has since hit the New York Times list, and the publisher is going back to press a third time, after which more than 100,000 copies of the book will be in print.

In the coming weeks, Running Press will launch a Web site for the book at freetobeyouandme.com, which will offer a chat function as well as message boards to allow fans to share their memories of the original title and the new edition. “This book is still alive for many, many people,” says Herman. Running Press will continue to publish its paperback edition of the original book, which hasn’t gone out of print.

Marlo Thomas.
Photo: Harry Benson.

Herman says that the publisher had been questioning how best to revise the property—and when. “We took a long hard look, and with Marlo’s help we decided this was the right moment in time,” he says. “Peter Reynolds was hired to give an overall design approach and bring it up to date from a design point of view.”

Thomas visited several bookstores in the New York City metropolitan area following the book’s release, and was greeted by large crowds. At BookEnds in Ridgewood, N.J., around 150 fans turned out for Thomas’s visit, with 175 books sold. Another 50 copies of Free to Be were sold in pre-sales placed through the store’s Web site, with signed copies shipped to buyers across the country after the event. “Some people brought old copies of the original book, which was fun,” says co-owner Pam Boyer, adding that the crowd filled the store’s lower level. “She enjoyed seeing these dog-eared copies that people are passing down generation to generation.”

Fans also had old copies of the book and recordings at Thomas’s stop at Book Revue in Huntington, N.Y. Julianne Wernersbach, publicist and events coordinator, said that between 250 and 300 people attended. “They brought their kids, who were acting out Free to Be in their schools and were so excited to sing songs for her,” she says. “At these celebrity events, often people are mainly excited about the person, but people are really into this book.”

“I guess I had not paid attention to the movement that had developed around Free to Be You and Me,” says Roxanne Coady, owner of RJ Julia Booksellers in Madison, Conn., which hosted an event with Thomas at a nearby library that drew close to 300 people, some from as far as Pennsylvania. “There were lots of people in the audience who were children when the book came out and who wanted to talk about how the book changed their life. There was a class from a school 45 minutes from here. The whole class. They had a Free to Be You and Me club. I hadn’t realized what icons she and the book were.”

Boyer says that the Free to Be... You and Me has continued to sell well at BookEnds in the weeks following Thomas’s signing, and she expects it to perform well during the holidays. “For people familiar with the first version, the title is the draw,” she says. “They see it and say, ‘Oh yeah, I remember that book.’ ” Boyer also cites the appeal of the new illustrations and audio CD, as well as the $19.95 price point. “It’s very well priced for the size of the book and for what you receive inside.”

Wernersbach at Book Revue agrees. “This will absolutely be a holiday seller for us, no doubt,” she says, “especially when we have signed copies.” She also says nostalgia plays a strong part in the book’s popularity, but she credits Running Press with doing “a really good job” in revising the anniversary edition, saying that the book’s unique and “timeless” content is the main draw. “It’s modern,” she says, “but it still has the same feel, the same soul.”

Free to Be You and Me (35th Anniversary Edition) by Marlo Thomas and Friends. Running Press Kids, $19.95 ISBN 978-0-7624-3060-4