Matthew McConaughey’s Children’s Book Goes Deep

“I think as early as you can get a person to understand the contradictions of life, the poetry of it, the better.”

It’s a brilliant, sunny morning after a weekend of miserable rain when I speak to Matthew McConaughey. We’re both in New York for the day, a city that can be draining for many, even if it’s just for a quick visit, but not McConaughey. “I love it when New York is alive and vital,” he says reverently over the phone, pronouncing “vital” as “vie-TAL” in that charming cowboy-hippie way McConaughey does (as far as I can tell) basically everything. “New York is a little vortex of energy. One day I’ll probably do a play here or something and take residence for quite a while, and I look forward to that.” For now, however, he’s content in Austin with his wife, Camila, and their three children, Levi, 15; Vida, 13; and Livingston, 10. Being a dad to tweens and teens isn’t exactly a new gig for the actor, but he’s still finding surprises every now and then.

“What surprised me most — and I figured this was going to happen, I just didn’t really understand it until it did — is that things [with my children] happen sooner than I thought they would,” he shares. “I mean, what things my eldest son is thinking and bringing up at 15, I look back and I swear I wasn’t thinking or saying those things until I was 17! It’s a challenge and fun to manage what information about themselves and the world that they’re getting, and what’s being sold to them, what the world says is success.”

“But the graceful flip side of that is,” he continues, “nothing that they’re going through have I ever been like, ‘Oh my gosh, I have no idea what that’s about!’ Nothing’s been unbelievable.”

Matthew McConaughey with his family, including wife Camila, mother Kay, and three children, in 2019. Rick Kern/WireImage/Getty Images

He notes that writing his memoir, Greenlights — which prompted him to revisit journals and other writings from when he was a young teenager — has helped keep him grounded in his younger self. While his latest book, Just Because, is a storybook for children, it nevertheless delves into similarly heady subject matter. That might be because, McConaughey says, he didn’t realize he was writing a best-selling children’s book when he started.

Waking up in the middle of the night, he thought he was writing a song (a “rap dream ditty” as he puts it). But as it began taking shape, he saw there was some real meat on those proverbial bones. “I started to see ‘Oh, there’s a little bit of a theme behind all this. There’s a little bit of a context and a morale and an approach and a way of seeing. You know what? I believe all this stuff,’” he recalls.

He kept going, ultimately penning 200 couplets. He realized that not only were the issues he explored in his rhymes principles he needed to work on as an adult, but they were valuable lessons for young people. “I think as early as you can get a person to understand the contradictions of life, the poetry of it, the better.”

With that, McConaughey picked about a dozen of his favorite rhymes and set forth to working with illustrator Renée Kurilla (whom he praised for her insight and creativity in interpreting his words) to bring the book to life.

Penguin Random House

All of the couplets play with the idea of dichotomy: two simultaneously existing truths that seem contradictory but aren’t always. (“Just because you can pull it off doesn’t mean you should do it/ Just because you failed doesn’t mean you blew it” is among my favorites.) It’s a duality McConaughey not only wants kids to recognize, but is the space where he strives to exist.

“It’s a place where I have the most confidence. It’s a place where I have the most courage. It’s a place where I have the most forgiveness,” he explains. But he cautions that acknowledgment of paradox isn’t the same as moral relativism.

“One of the things about that duality is that people sometimes go ‘Well if you’re in the paradox, then … it means nothing, right?’ No. It just means give the other side consideration. And then make your choice. So many times today, all through life, we don’t give a consideration, to just go ‘This is how it is. I know how I feel about it. That’s it. Fait accompli. The end.’ Sometimes it’s just easier to do that, but we’re half blind if we do that.”

“It’s kind of just creating space to think about these things,” I offer, “and creating a lot of grace in that duality.”

“Space and grace,” he replies with casual excitement. “Space and grace are great words.”

Is there a particular couplet that most strikes a chord with McConaughey at the moment?

“Just because you want one more doesn’t mean that you need two,’” he says. “I’m constantly working on challenging myself about the strengths of being more minimal in my own life. I’m working on that play between ‘want’ and ‘need.’ And I think when what you want is actually what you need, and when what you need is actually what you want, I believe that’s as close to heaven on earth as you get.”