Teach Kids It's Okay Not to be Perfect with Kevin the Unicorn
Almost 50 years ago, a picture book was published by the name of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. When I was little, I knew that it was famous and that it was very popular, but it was just so depressing. To be perfectly honest, I don’t think I ever really got the point of it as a kid. Not even schadenfreude was enough to endear that book to my heart.
Things just kept getting worse for Alexander, and that’s just not enjoyable for me at all. I’ve also never been a fan of downward-spiraling Shakespearean tragedies for that matter. And, perhaps worst of all, Alexander just kind of wallows in self pity for the entire book.
But, admittedly, the book still serves a good purpose for kids. They need to know that some days are simply going to be awful. Our experience in life can’t be perfect all the time, and, most important of all, that’s completely okay.
Most people are going to learn very early in life that some days simply stink, but many kids don’t get the important followup message that it’s entirely okay and normal when everything doesn’t go your way. It doesn’t make you a bad person, and it happens to everyone. And delivering that message in the form of a picture book with a sense of authority allows kids to empathize with others and normalize their own bad days.
As a dad, my thoughts about this message have definitely evolved too. I definitely want our kids to appreciate the balance between the good and bad times in life. And, nowadays, there are many other related lessons I want to pass on as well. Because oftentimes our entire concept of “bad” seems to be completely distorted by outside factors. It makes me want to talk with my kids about perspective, perfectionism, and the pressures of society too.
Unfortunately, Alexander and his incessant self pity is not exactly the best teacher or role model. But the good news is that I’ve recently found a much more effective, modernized vehicle for all of these lessons that I want to teach my kids. It’s called Kevin the Unicorn: It’s Not All Rainbows - and it’s written and illustrated by Jessika von Innerebner. It’s proven to be perfect for discussing not only bad days like Alexander’s - but also the negative implications of society’s expectations, the pressure to be perfect, and the power of perspective.
Disclosure: A copy of this book was provided to us by the publisher to allow for this article. We choose to write about things our family loves, and all thoughts and opinions are our own.
For me, the very best part about Kevin the Unicorn is that it’s legitimately funny. I love sharing high-quality humor with the kids, and I always feel like we’ve discovered the Holy Grail when a new book comes out that makes both kids and adults honestly laugh out loud. There are a lot of gags and physical humor, as well as plenty of more subtle humor brought to life by the emotions on display in Kevin’s eyes.
But the funniest part of all might just be how hilariously over-the-top the bubbly, colorful, sparkly unicorn lifestyle is portrayed. We’re talking smiling donuts falling from the sky and skateboarding on rainbows sparkly. The amazing art serves the dual purpose of being gorgeous and endearing - while at the same time standing hysterically in stark contrast to Kevin’s inner feelings.
Kevin lives in a society of unicorns that’s so obsessed with perfection, it almost feels like a scary sci-fi dystopia. He’s surrounded by signs reminding him to sparkle and smile - including one that says “no smile, no service” at the local glitter soda shack. Everyone knows that unicorns are supposed to have days filled with perfect magical awesomeness, right?
That’s what I really like about this book. It’s not just about Kevin waking up with a bad hair day - or the long series of very comical bad luck he has after that. It’s also very clearly about society’s role in making him feel so bad. Society has made him feel like he has to smile all the time and have perfect hair every day. That’s a powerful lesson for our little boy and girl to be exposed to - and a very interesting twist compared to the mundane bad day of Alexander.
In many ways, Kevin the Unicorn would fit right in with our list of picture books that celebrate being yourself. When Kevin’s eyes start twitching and he finally blows his lid about how bad of a day he’s having (definitely NOT sparkly!) it’s immediately understood to be a celebration of honesty. The indictment of the constant pressure to be happy and glittery is very plain to see, and I always welcome another good opportunity to remind our kids to be true to themselves.
One interpretation of this book is definitely an indictment against the pressures we put on women in particular. I can’t help but be reminded of our 3-year-old’s current obsession with sparkly dresses. She likes to say they make her pretty. I honestly have no idea at all how she developed this obsession, or the concept that her outfit determines her prettiness. But it’s somewhat surprising and disconcerting to me that we’re already having to explain to our 3-year-old that she’s always beautiful just the way she is.
And the way Kevin succumbs to the pressures of society and stresses about his hair also makes me think of our son with his very cool long hair, and how so many people in society still think long hair is only for girls. I highly value every single chance we get to read a book that uses its authority to criticize society’s expectations - and celebrate being honest and true to yourself.
And, getting back to Kevin’s anger and sadness, there are multiple reasons that it’s important to let kids know it’s perfectly okay not to be happy. The first thing that pops into my head is the very unfortunate habit of telling kids, especially boys, not to cry - as if sadness is a sign of weakness. The last thing we need to be teaching our kids to do is stigmatize depression, or that they should be afraid to share their real emotions.
And, speaking of mental health, I think it’s undeniable that we’re living in a society that’s becoming increasingly obsessed with judging each other - and judging our own self worth based on what others think. And it’s due in no small part to things like social media and our school system’s obsession with test scores. Kids are under a lot more stress than they used to be, and unfortunately it’s a lot of the completely unnecessary variety.
That’s honestly one of the main reasons I love Kevin the Unicorn. I love pointing to the signs throughout the book that say things like “always be a happy-corn” and “sparkle more” and asking my kids if that’s how Kevin really feels. To me it’s all about perspective. Laughing together about those expectations and how silly they are is an important shift in perspective - and it can be pretty empowering too.
There’s a lot to love about Kevin the Unicorn, and there are many good life lessons packed into a story about a bad day. But it also can’t be overstated just how much fun it is to read. We have definitely shortlisted it as one of our favorite funny picture books of all time, and the beautiful artwork looks like it could seamlessly transition into a new favorite cartoon on TV.
Ultimately this is the book about bad days I’ll always be most tempted to revisit with the kids. I don’t have the stomach for Shakespearian tragedies and wallowing around in self pity all day like poor Alexander. But Kevin pulls off having a terrible day, being legitimately entertaining, and being a pretty good role model at the same time. And his sparkly face will be the first thing that pops into my head for a long time when I think about this important lesson for our kids - it’s okay not to be perfect.