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"It's Perfectly Normal" Took Unusual Perseverance

Monday night I attended a reception for the children's author Robie Harris, held at the home of friends in Georgetown. The invitation listed the titles of three of Harris' "best-selling and award-winning" books and promised comments from Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America about how to talk to young children about sex. Most people associate NARAL with abortion rights so the connection to children's health was not immediately obvious. I was intrigued and curious. Since I didn't know much about Ms. Harris, I looked up her books online before the party and found that she also has recently become something of a talking head on the subject of banned books, particularly children's titles, a subject that as a writer is close to my heart. The reception, which was mostly women, began after pleasant mingling and discussion of Thanksgiving plans. Nancy Keenan briefly discussed the mission of NARAL and their position that sex education should be offered in schools, both public and private. Relating a poignant example of a young teen who didn't understand the lifelong consequences of the sexually transmitted disease she had contracted, Ms. Keenan had my attention. Stressing the importance of pertinent information for children and teens to ensure their ongoing physical and emotional well-being she then introduced Robie Harris. The author, a grandmother from Cambridge, Massachusetts, explained how she "fell into" writing books that explain in words and pictures the cycle of life (including babies) to small children and the changes of puberty and sexuality to older ones. As an already established children's writer in the 1980s, Ms. Harris was approached with the idea of writing a book for teens about the emerging problem of HIV/AIDS. At that time she decided she couldn't write a book about AIDS without covering the other obvious health and sexual topics related to it and proceeded to research her book with some of the top-rated scientists, physicians and psychologists in the country. Harris then went on to recount how several publishers enthusiastically received her book initially, but later asked her to remove or tone down certain sections, which she refused to do. Eventually she came to Candlewick Press, a children's book publisher in the Boston area, that agreed to publish her book in its entirety. After "It's Perfectly Normal" was published, Harris and her publisher found themselves defending the book from challenges in public libraries and the threatened removal of the book from school libraries. There were protests and media attention and the book was frequently stolen from public libraries only to be replaced time and again by library supporters and private donors. Harris professed much admiration for librarians in general including one who told her she wouldn't keep the book in her own home, but felt it was her job to keep it available at the library. In the meantime, along with her other children's story books, Harris worked on the two follow up volumes to "It's Perfectly Normal" (which is designed for teens and pre-teens 10 and older) titled "It's so amazing" (aimed at ages 7 and up) and "It's not the Stork" (for 4- to 6-year-olds). Ms. Harris fielded a few questions and also talked with parents as she signed copies of her books to their children and recommended which book might be more appropriate depending on the age of the child in question. She suggested reading parts of the book to your child until you see her "glaze over" or "dipping in" to a section to address a specific question. While Ms. Harris skillfully skirted any political comments, she made her position on sex education for kids and teens very plain. As her website will tell you, she and her illustrator Michael Emberley "believe that our kids, preteens, and teens need and have a right to have the most up-to-date and accurate science facts about reproduction, puberty, and sexual health." She also noted that although you may not agree that all parts of her books are appropriate for your child, you can always "skip" the parts you aren't comfortable with or ask another family member, clergy or pediatrician, etc. to explain something to your child. The main message she seems to be delivering is: explain the facts and don't hope that your child is getting them somewhere else (such as school), because they may not be or they may be wrong. Recently Robie Harris' books on sexual health were given a big thumbs up over similar books in the field by New Yorker writer Jill Lepore in an article titled "Too Much Information" (Oct. 18, 2010). Lepore called Harris' books the "best of the batch" and noted that they "have an endearing and companionable matter-of-factness," are "genuinely sweet," and the illustrations are "honest and tender." So far, my two boys have only asked me the most general of questions about the beginnings of life and the differences between boys and girls, but since I won't have the reassuring and practical advice of Robie Harris in person, I plan to keep a few of her books close at hand for when I need a review of the facts. For more information: visit Robie Harris' website and that of NARAL Pro-Choice America.