51% #1707: Robie Harris on "It's Perfectly Normal"
On this week’s 51%, we speak with Robie Harris, author of the groundbreaking children’s book, It’s Perfectly Normal, about the importance of comprehensive sex education, and how parents can navigate “the talk” with their kids.
You’re listening to 51%, a WAMC production dedicated to women’s issues and experiences. Thanks for tuning in, I’m Jesse King.
This week’s topic is sex ed, and particularly the much-debated question: how much should we tell our kids, and when? Our guest today has written more than 35 children’s books on a variety of subjects, but she’s perhaps best known for her lineup of sexual education books: Who Has What? for three to five-year-olds, It's Not the Stork! for four to eight-year-olds, It’s So Amazing! for kids as young as seven, and her groundbreaking 1994 book, It’s Perfectly Normal, for ages 10 and up. The books have undergone several updates and re-releases over the years to accommodate new developments and conversations around sexual health. The latest edition of It’s Perfectly Normal came out in May 2021.
Each of these titles, especially It’s Perfectly Normal, contain honest depictions of sex and/or the human body, drawn by illustrators Michael Emberly and Nadine Bernard Westcott. As a result, they’ve frequently drawn fire from lawmakers and faced removal at public libraries and schools — so much so that Harris is on the board of directors for the National Coalition Against Censorship. The practice of book banning is nothing new, of course, but it’s a particularly hot topic at the moment: the American Library Association says more than 1,500 individual titles were challenged in 2021, the most it’s seen since it first started tracking banning efforts in 2000. Many of the most challenged books from last year were targeted for portraying LGBTQ experiences, something Harris has never shied away from.
Harris says the information in her books is crucial for preparing kids to get through puberty and, one day, make healthy decisions as adults. I recently sat down with Harris to discuss what she calls “comprehensive sex education” and look back at the books over the years.
What prompted you to write It's Perfectly Normal?
I was sitting in an editor's office in New York City, it might have been 32 years ago, I can't remember exactly. His name was Michael Demony, and we had done some children's books together. And he was the editor of the first book on HIV/AIDS. And when I say HIV/AIDS, HIV wasn't even a term that was used then. It's called And the Band Played On, and it was about the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco. He was a San Francisco Chronicle reporter, and highly, highly respected. So he had done that book, and I was sitting in his office, we were talking about children's books – we were also talking about the state of the nation. It was the day after Election Day, and we were talking about the state of children in America, and that it really wasn't very, very good. And they needed lots of information that they weren't getting. And he said to me, “Would you like to write a book on AIDS for school-aged kids?” And I said, “Oh my gosh, I don't really know enough to write about that.” I mean, I know a lot about kids, because I have a background in child development. But I said, “I really don't know about that. But I wouldn't write a book just on AIDS, I would write a comprehensive book that would include almost every question that kids want to know about their bodies, about puberty, about growing up, and not even just the physical part of it, but the emotional part of going up.” I wasn't writing anything down, because I didn't think I would do this book. And he was writing down everything I said, and he handed me the paper and said, “Here's what you just said.” And I had outlined the book sort of off the top of my head. And he said, “Well, you know, your book could be banned. Do you care about that?” And I said, “No!” I care about if kids can't get the information that they need to stay healthy, but no, I'm not going to worry about [that], I'm going to write what I believe in. We live in a democracy, and that's my right as a citizen.
And I went back home and I asked my sons, because my husband and I thought we've done a great job [with sex ed]. I asked my two sons who were then in, I think, fifth and seventh grade, “Tell us what you would put in a book, and did we leave anything out?” Well, they had a long list of things we left out. And I quickly wrote them, and then that night, I called everyone I knew. I called Bill Hazeltine, who is still a top expert in terms of HIV/AIDS and other diseases. I talked to our pediatrician, I talked to reproductive health experts at Harvard Medical School. A lot of people didn't know my name, this was before the internet – so when I call would call up, I'd say, “My name is Robie Harris, I would like to talk with Dr. So-and-So, I'm writing a book for kids on sexual health.” And no one turned me down. I mean, these were heads of departments at Harvard, or Boston University, or Boston Medical Center, or Harvard Medical School – no one turned me down. And it was a sort of joyful moment, just because people care about kids.
My editor at that point was wonderful Candlewick Press, which is in Somerville, Massachusetts, a worldwide, children's book publisher. I talked to them about doing it, and the editor there bought the book within two weeks, which is like a record-setting time. And she said, “I want the book to be what your vision of the book is.” But I need to also tell you that many dear and well-meaning friends said, “If you write that book, no publisher will ever publish anything of yours again.” Well, now 35+ books later, they were wrong. And I said, “If that happens, it happens, you know? I’ll write, one way or another.”
When we're talking to kids, if we don't tell them the truth, then they're never going to trust us, and I think they'll stop listening to us. So I see these books – it’s in my voice, it’s what I would say to my own children. These books are my way of having a conversation with kids way beyond my children.
So what kind of questions do you see kids asking, and how early should parents start educating kids about their bodies and sexual health, or I guess, start giving them “the talk?”
The earlier the better. If you really want to think about it, babies are exploring their bodies – they’re touching every single part of their body. So from birth, they're exploring that. And then of course, comes the toddler who may have heard something from an older brother or sister, right? They’re like, “I was inside you?” And of course, it's often in the supermarket checkout line. “How did I get out? Did you cough me out of your mouth?” I mean, I've heard the zillion stories. “Did I come out of your belly button?” Kids want to know about their bodies. We live with our bodies, physically, 24/7 forever.
I don't tell stories, generally, online about my two (at that point) young sons, but again, they were in fifth and seventh grade. The younger one whispered to the older, “In science class, did they talk about sex today?” And, you know, the seventh grader [has] a swagger, right, at that age, and said, “Well, yeah, of course, we talked about that in science class and biology. Of course, we talk about it.” And then they started laughing, and then they both said in unison, “And it's perfectly normal.” And I realized at that point, that was my title for that book. Why? Because most things about sex are perfectly normal. And of course, then there are the things that are not perfectly normal, that are abhorrent, tragic, traumatic, you know, and those things are included in this book – because kids hear about them, and particularly these days, during the pandemic and the access to the internet, even very young children [hear about them]. So I think that if we can talk to them, parents, or have someone else talk to them as a stand-in, that really helps kids navigate those times and realize that, “OK, nothing's wrong with me, I'm normal. This is what happens.” And for some kids, it happens younger, some kids, it happens older, and all of that kind of talk is in the book. It’s in all the books – we have an even younger group, Who Has What?, a book about our bodies, and it names all the parts of the bodies, not just “head, shoulders, knees and toes,” which is a fun song to sing, but the genitals are left out. And I use the science names. I don't disapprove if people have their own family names, but I think kids should also know the science names, because this is human biology.
But if you haven't started yet, and you have an older child, just roll up your sleeves and take a deep breath, right? And you know that you're going to make mistakes, at least I sure did. And also there are questions that you don't want to answer at that moment, because you just don't know how to do it. So you can say your kids, “That's a great question. I need to find out more about it. Let's talk about that on Friday instead of today, so that I can give you the accurate answer, the science answer, the medical answer, the psychological answer.” And then I have to say that there are parents who cannot – or are not able to, is a better way of saying it – because they themselves have had a traumatic experience that has to do with sex. My heart just goes out to them. But one can then ask one’s sister in law, one's brother in law, one's health care provider for your child – Planned Parenthood, even. There are all kinds of places to get the information that you need, and people to do it for you. And I think we really have to respect that notion, because that group of parents still live with the trauma even if they're doing well. And they're marvelous parents, most of them, because of this, so let's include them in that way.
How do you see the conversation changing? I mean, your books have been updated multiple times over the years. So which topics do you see coming into the conversation and which have become outdated?
When we think about gender and how much more, at least for me, I know about it, I'm aware of it, I respect it – we can't just do the “boys, girls” [thing]. I think that we have to just be so inclusive and not leave anybody out. So what I did in It’s Perfectly Normal, and then It’s So Amazing!, which an updated version will be out in 2023 – what I did is that I wanted to be inclusive of all kids. And I have been since the beginning, LBGTQ+ kids, of course, they were going to be in my books. And at that time when I started out, if they were in the books at all, they were at the end of the book – [here] they are in chapter five in the first section of that book, called “What is sex?” “What is sex and gender?” it now says. So I decided that I also wanted to include striped kids – I didn’t want to leave them out. So I use, throughout the book, I certainly use “they” and “a person” and all of the other ways to be gender neutral, but I also use the science names. For example, the male genitals are called “the male genitals,” that’s the science name. I also, in places, so that those who were straight can feel that they're being spoken to in this book – I write “most boys,” “most girls,” “most females,” “most males.”
I'd like to, if it's OK with you, I'd like to just read you one short paragraph.
“Sometimes other people may try to define your gender for you. But who you are is most always the person you feel you are, or figure out you are, or already know you are – no matter what anyone else may say or think about you.” And that has to do with respect, which I write about. Gender is many things. That's why there's more than one answer to the question, “What is gender?” And sex is many things, too, so in the chapter before it says, “Sex is many things.” And on that page – and I just read today that U.S. passports are going to add “X” to their birth certificates, and many states have done so – we have a birth certificate. And Michael Emberley drew a wonderful birth certificate with “male, female, x.” So parents can put that, or an adult can when they’re older. So there's a lot of new art in here. And I should just tell you, there's these two [gender neutral] characters in there: one’s a bird and one's a bee. And the bird is the kid who wants to know everything, every single detail, and can't stop asking questions, while the bee – and I was more like the bee, in a way – the bee is the kid who thinks it's all gross and disgusting, but gets fascinated by the science. And I am fascinated by the science. So here's from when we talk about gender: the bird says, “Hey, now I know about sex and gender!” and the bee says, “Hey, now I don't need to know anything else about all that stuff!” And their backs are facing each other, because they're always at odds with one another until the end of the book – when they somewhat agree that it's perfectly normal, but just somewhat.
There is a bill in the New York legislature right now that would provide for comprehensive sexual education. When you talk about “comprehensive sexual education,” what does that look like to you?
Comprehensive sex education needs to include everything that kids need to know to stay healthy when it comes to sexual health. And as I said earlier, it's not just physically what happens to you, but emotionally what happens to you. And when it's not talked about, it becomes a taboo. So my understanding is that the only thing that's mandated in New York state is HIV/AIDS…and that's it, to be taught in the public schools and charter schools. Well, the bill is comprehensive sex education, K-8, from public and charter schools, and I sure hope that New York state is, and I will use the word, progressive enough to realize, going back to an old term of mine: If we can give kids comprehensive sex education in the schools, and then you have parents who are mostly able to do it, and then health care providers, and even the Unitarian Church has a wonderful program which uses our books, [our kids will be prepared]. If they grow up having had this information in an age-appropriate way, over and over and over again, as they get older – and I'll read you one thing that I do say at the end of the book: “They're more apt to be able to postpone pregnancy, to treat their friends with respect.” And I say, “A large part of growing up is learning to take care of yourself in a healthy way. It's more than taking just good care of your body, it means taking responsibility for your own actions for yourself and what you do. It means making healthy choices for yourself, including choices about your body and sex. And it means having respect for yourself and your own decisions, and having healthy relationships with other people.” And then, I ended with, “Yes, puberty is a time when friends, even good friends, often try to persuade or pressure one another to try out new things. Some of these things, which may involve sex, alcohol, drugs, or going on online sites, may be things you do not want to do, or are not ready to do, or are afraid to do, or feel are not safe to do. That's when it's important to make the decision that is best for you, one that is safe and healthy for you. Everyone makes mistakes and has bad judgment once in a while” – I really wanted to end with that – “But most of the time, you can and will make responsible choices.” And this is my hopeful end.
So going back to this bill, really, our legislatures should be supporting our children as they are growing up and older. We couldn't do more to support them than to have comprehensive sex ed, and also train our teachers, who also need training. I've often said it’s easier to just talk about this, but going back to the parents, it's hard as parents to talk to your own kids. So this community that I talked about, that can support kids – it’s an ideal of mine, but it exists in many, many places.
There's particularly a lot of debate right now over what's appropriate for children. Florida, of course, just enacted the so called “Don't Say Gay” bill, and Texas considers gender affirming medical treatments for transgender youth to be “child abuse.” It appears, from my view anyway, that the way we talk to children about sex and gender and their bodies, just in general, is a battlefront for what some would call the culture war in the U.S. And I guess I'm just wondering what your thoughts are on it, because I know your books have been banned or restricted in many libraries or schools as well.
Well, the disturbing thing is – and I wrote it down so I hope I can be accurate about this – this is the Texas attorney general [saying] that parents are the ones who need to be involved, 100 percent, in sex education, not the school districts. And other people have said, “not teachers.” Well, I have to tell you something – if I took myself back to when I had an elementary school-aged kid, right? As I said, I know a lot about children – but teachers and librarians and even booksellers are professionally trained to teach. I'm not. I am not. I learned, you know, as a parent, but I also learned from doing all the research on this book. I don't want to be the one telling my school that they can't teach this. And in many of these programs, the parents can go into school and say, “I want my child to opt out.” And so the kids go to the science center, somewhere in the school, a place to do some homework, right? And they don't have to be part of it. That’s been going on for a long time, because sometimes, for cultural and religious reasons, people don't want their kids to have that information, and I respect that. Just don't keep me and my child from getting that information.
So I feel for the teachers and the librarians and booksellers who are on the front lines. I'm just, you know, here I am sitting in front of my computer, and every once in a while they let me out to speak or go to a meeting. But they're living in their own communities, so it doesn't stop. When they go to the supermarket, someone's going to complain or attack them. And now there’s the whole [debate] about keeping books that have the word “gay” in it, or describe pornography – which I do in It’s Perfectly Normal. I am not a pornographer, but it's stunning the amount of kids, and then younger kids, who go online and see pornography. For some, it's upsetting, for others it’s exciting. They haven't done anything wrong, but we need to talk to them about it. [We need to speak] to the fact that most of it is not real, and if you find yourself very upset by what you're seeing, you need to find a trusted adult. And that's the same reason that I talk about abuse. I mean, we have to give kids, we have to let them know that they didn't do anything wrong, that, often, abusers are in your family, so you can't go there – but to go to a trusted adult. You might want to take a friend with you, if you can't go alone. If you can't talk to your family, find a trusted adult and ask them to help you, because they can help you to get help and help the abuse to stop. In our democracy, our kids have a right to have truthful, accurate, as up to date as possible, scientific and psychological information to stay healthy.
I have hope: kids have across the country have fought these kinds of laws, and in one place turned one of them around. So my hope is in these younger kids. And when I say younger, I’m talking some eighth graders, seventh graders, some older kids, college kids, who are speaking out against what's happening, and really for getting the information they deserve.
Robie, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me and to be on the show. Is there anything you'd like to leave our listeners with? I heard you might have another reading you'd like to share with us?
Yeah, yeah. Because I am concerned about the rate of teen suicide, and it's gone up in the LBGT community. [The book] says: “No matter what people may think, it's so important for every person to treat all people with respect. And it's important to know that people's daily lives, having fun, going to school, going to work, making a home, having friends, being in love, being single, being a partner, being married, raising children, are mostly the same – whether someone is straight, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or questioning.”
But I wanted to say something about teen moms. It's very difficult for a high percentage of teen moms, especially if they don't have support from their own families or the people that care for them. And again, my heart goes out to certain groups of people, and it does to them, because who knows why they got pregnant. Perhaps they didn't have comprehensive sex ed, it could be for other reasons. But also, there are teenagers who seem to be able to make it on their own, to do their schoolwork or have family support. So I have respect, and I think we all need to – and I'm sounding a little preachy now, but I guess at my age and being a grandmother, I can. I think we really have to help and respect that community of teen parents.
Robie Harris is the author of several children’s books, including It’s Perfectly Normal, It’s So Amazing!, It's Not the Stork!, and Who Has What?. Her latest title, not on that subject, is Somewhere with artwork by Armando Mariño. You can learn more at her website, robieharris.com.
51% is a national production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio. It's produced by Jesse King. Our executive producer is Dr. Alan Chartock, and our theme is "Lolita" by the Albany-based artist Girl Blue.