Taraji P. Henson Finds Inspiration at Home for New Children's Book: 'We Always Want to Fix Things for Our Kids' (Exclusive)

The actress includes a sweet dedication to her grandmother at the start of the story, which was partly inspired by her own family

<p>Emma McIntyre/WireImage; Zonderkidz</p> You Can Be a Good Friend No Matter What Book by Taraji P. Henson

Emma McIntyre/WireImage; Zonderkidz

You Can Be a Good Friend No Matter What Book by Taraji P. Henson

Taraji P. Henson drew from her personal life for her debut children’s book.

Her forthcoming book, You Can Be a Good Friend (No Matter What!) is illustrated by Paul Kellam and comes out June 18 from Zonderkidz. The actress chatted with PEOPLE ahead of its release. The story follows Lil TJ, who gets teased at school for being different. The young girl decides to follow advice from her grandmother and embarks on a journey of making new friends.

Henson, 53, was inspired by her own family to write the story, which includes a sweet dedication to her grandmother at the start: "You catch more flies with honey." That sentiment guides TJ throughout the book.

"I was always told that as a child from my grandmother [and] my mother,” Henson tells PEOPLE. "Especially with these kids and social media and the knee-jerk reaction, like ‘You hit me, I'm going to hit you back.’ It's just that saying, you know, 'If we've lived by an eye for an eye, the whole world would be blind.' At some point, somebody has to rise above."

<p>Momodu Mansaray/WireImage</p> Taraji P. Henson

Momodu Mansaray/WireImage

Taraji P. Henson

"At some point, someone has to choose love," she continued. "And so [we're] just trying to teach the children at a very young age that it's a choice and you can choose to be a good friend no matter what, and usually the other person will come around."

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In writing the book, the actress found herself looking back at the early days of her career and where she is in life today.

"What inspired this book is that I work in mental health. I'm an advocate for mental wellness, and so it's always about meeting people where they are and trying to help as much as I can make this journey called life a little easier for all of us," Henson says.

The actress started the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation in 2018 to help reduce stigma, support mental health initiatives and improve mental health care access in Black communities. She also has a background in education, so a book for children just made sense.

"I was a substitute teacher before my career took off, so I have a love for children. My sister just made me an auntie for the first time," Henson shares. "And I have a little girl that lives inside of me, this voice that pops out every now and again ... So I wanted to give her a voice and I'm actually sharing her with the world and trying to teach some lessons along the way.”

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"You have to choose joy," Henson said, reflecting on the main message of the book. "Even in a situation where you feel like you're being bullied, there's a choice. You can choose to be the victim. And what I mean by that is never let anyone take advantage of you. Always speak up."

The Hidden Figures star has one son, Marcell Johnson, 30, and says she also added lessons from her own parenting experience into the book.

Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic Taraji P. Henson and son Marcel Henson
Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic Taraji P. Henson and son Marcel Henson

"We always want to fix things for our kids, and we can't all the time and we can't always be there for them. So we try to instill in them some tools that will help them maneuver," Henson says. "And this is just the mother side of me, as well. My son just turned 30 on May 10, but I'm still a mom. Once you become a mother, you're kind of always a mom."

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She recalls an experience from their past that she "did pick up and put into Little TJ."

"When my son was trying to find himself and his style, he would want to wear his pajama costumes to the grocery store, and I let him do it. In his mind, he was Batman or Spiderman in the grocery store, saving the day," Henson says. "Who am I to crush that? I was a very creative child when I was young, and so I just allowed him to be free and dream because I was allowed to be free and dream, hence why I'm an actress."

That's reflected in the book, too. "That's who little TJ is," Henson adds. "She has a very incredible imagination and she's just free and she's rambunctious and she just wants to be everybody's friend."

You Can Be a Good Friend (No Matter What!) by Taraji P. Henson is available June 18, wherever books are sold.

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