Award-winning actor Taraji P. Henson highlights anxiety around fitting in and dealing with bullies in her debut picture book You Can Be a Good Friend (No Matter What!) (Zonderkidz, June), the first in a series illustrated by Paul Kellam. In the book, Lil TJ is excited for her first day of school. But her plan to “make a million friends” doesn’t play out like she hoped; suddenly, she’s getting teased by classmate Beau, who makes fun of her art and the food she eats. Encouragement from her grandmother eases Lil TJ’s self-doubt, but will that be enough to help her deal with Beau’s taunting? Henson spoke with PW about celebrating one’s uniqueness, cultivating empathy and understanding, and how these principles intersect with the work she does for the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation, founded in honor of her father.

How can kids be “sweet like honey”—like Lil TJ—while still being mindful of their own mental health?

By doing things that make them feel good. If there’s a situation that makes you feel uncomfortable, you don’t have to stay there. You can remove yourself from that situation, to continue to keep your peace and your joy. When people say mean things to you, they’re just words. The only power they have is when you give their words power.

Beau explains that new things make him nervous, which is why he “wasn’t very nice” to Lil TJ. What did you want to convey by portraying differing responses to change?

Empathy. It’s what we can all work on having more of, because we’re so quick to judge, especially with technology and social media. As soon as somebody does something wrong, people start coming out with all this new information. But has anybody stopped to listen to why this person did that? Now, there are egregious things that aren’t forgivable. But I’m talking about little things, like with Beau. If that happened on social media, we would be ready to cancel Beau when we didn’t even hear both sides of the story. But in You Can Be a Good Friend, we hear both stories. We’ve allowed for empathy and listening and understanding.

People of color, particularly Black youth, are disproportionately affected by mental health challenges. How can educators and caregivers support children who are experiencing these struggles?

We have to stop criminalizing kids for being kids, especially Black children. I’m speaking from experience: I was a substitute teacher in Los Angeles Unified School District. I volunteered to be a special needs substitute and I remember getting assigned to a Crenshaw school. I was waiting for these babies to come in with wheelchairs and [other accommodations], but when they walked in, it was all Black boys. That’s when I realized I was working in the school-to-prison pipeline.

I chose to take the time to get to know the why behind those kids. There was one child who was found wandering along the railroad tracks because he had nowhere to be. That tells me there’s no one home to pour into this child, to check to make sure that he’s doing his homework. So, I’m not gonna [punish him] for not having his homework because now I understand why. These circumstances are beyond his control, and I can’t criminalize a child for no parent being home. But I can empathize. If I go in there with care, I may spark a love for learning. But if I continue to badger him and treat him like a criminal, what is he going to likely grow up to be?

Those boys were left with no hope. Things like that have an impact. I can’t sit back idly and watch. Not when I’m in a position to do something. This is my attempt to help and heal humanity in some way.

How does You Can Be a Good Friend fit in with the work you do for the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation?

At the end of the book, we have a note to the parents and guardians for where to go for help. Parents hurt when their babies are hurting and sometimes, they get stuck because all they want to do is fix the hurt and make it better. A lot of times they don’t have the tools.

It was more than just writing a book. Yes, I wanted to write a book and I wanted to touch your heart with a nice little story, but once that book is over, that baby in real life is still there. So, when the fantasy is over and reality hits, when they’re met with these difficult moments, we want to be able to catch people and have places for them to go.

What mental health topics do you intend to highlight in later books in the series?

My plan is that you grow up with Lil TJ. She’s not going to stay stuck as this little girl—she’s actually going to grow up and we’re going to experience all the things that she experiences like junior high, hormones, high school, dating, anxiety, all those things, and we’re going to deal with it all through the world of Lil TJ. We’re gonna get to really know her.

Taraji P. Henson will participate in the evening author reception on Saturday, June 29, 4–5 p.m. PST.

You Can Be a Good Friend (No Matter What!): A Lil TJ Book by Taraji P. Henson, illus. by Paul Kellam. Zonderkidz, $19.99 June. ISBN 978-0-310-16059-5.