About Me
Writing: In the Best Interests of the Child

by Robie H. Harris
CBC Magazine

A couple of summers ago, while visiting with some of my family to meet their new baby Harry, one of their friends stood up to say goodbye. That’s when Harry’s four-year-old sibling asked the family friend, “Where are you going?”

“Chicago,” she answered. “I’m taking a plane to Chicago.”

“Is Chicago VER-RRRRY far away from New York? RRR-REALLY far, far away from me, and my mommy and my daddy?”

“Yes, the friend answered, “It is really, really far away, and it’s very, very windy there, and sometimes things — even little things blow away.”

Then without skipping a beat, Harry’s older brother said, “Oh then — take baby Harry to Chicago with you. He’ll like it there. Okay?”

Needless to say, there was a look of great disappointment on the four-year-old’s face when the family friend did not walk out the door with baby Harry. Immediately, I grabbed a piece of paper and wrote down, as I often do, the exact words my great-nephew had said. Then I quickly scribbled down some notes about the look on his face, and what might happen next, and how he might feel if he banished his new sibling.

I knew this story had to be a book — a book about the powerful expression of emotion, the wish for the total disappearance of one’s sibling — the adorable adored new baby in the family, which as we all know, is a perfectly normal and healthy response. And in fact, this story has become the text of my picture book, Mail Harry To The Moon!, illustrated by Michael Emberley. But in my book, the older sibling sends his baby brother farther away than Chicago — all the way to the moon!

This book is typical of the kinds of picture books I love to create — books about the powerful feelings of young children. I had the good fortune of having a mother who understood that the expression of these strong feelings is normal, necessary, and healthy. And I believe that her understanding fed into the kind of parent and then children’s book author I became — someone who is fascinated by and loves to create stories about the powerful, real, and legitimate feelings our young children have — even our youngest children have — day-in and day-out.

A child’s inner life/emotional life is the stuff — the center of what I love to write about — from the bliss a new baby feels on its first day of life when being cuddled and talked to in Happy Birth Day! and Hello Benny! — to the joy a baby has when he or she stands up first time or takes those first steps, and the love a toddler feels when sitting in her daddy’s lap and having a story read to her in Go! Go! Maria — and to the powerful feelings that burst out when a young child is having a tantrum at the supermarket in I’m So Mad! I loved writing about the profound feelings of anger, sadness, and love a young child has when a beloved pet dies in Goodbye Mousie — the fear of going off to the first day of school and the joy of making a new friend in I’m Not Going To School Today — and the contradictory feelings of excitement, disappointment, jealously, anger, love, when the new baby sister or brother arrives in Hi New Baby! I also loved writing about a child’s fears and feeling of loss when parents go out for the night and leave a child with a baby sitter, even a beloved baby sitter, in Don’t Forget To Come Back! And at the moment, I am both loving and struggling with the challenge of writing about a child who is so angry with his mommy and yet loves her at the same time. In this book, the young child blurts out the angriest words in response to his mommy saying “NO!” over and over again.

I don’t set out to tackle difficult subjects. Rather, I write about what grabs me emotionally, what I find fascinating, and most always they are the same kinds of things I think children, even very young children, wonder about — attachment, love, anger, jealousy, separation, loss, joy, growing up, and even sexuality. These are topics adult literature deals with, so why not children’s literature, even children’s picture books?

That’s why in my picture books I always try to tell a good story in the hopes that my story, along with the honest and strong feelings my characters express, will resonate with young children so that they will “feel” that their powerful and often contradictory feelings are perfectly normal and healthy.

The creation of these stories and characters, and the writing of their words, often help me explain the strong and often contradictory emotions I have. And I just bet that new understanding feeds into my writing and helps to make my books and what I write about strike a responsive chord with the children for whom I write.

The other difficult topic I write about for children in my nonfiction books is healthy sexuality. My three nonfiction books — It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health for children age 10 and up, and It’s So Amazing! A Book About Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families for children age 7 and up, and It’s Not The Stork! A Book About Girls, Boys, Birth, Babies, Bodies, Families, and Friends for children age 4 and up — are based on the value that both illustrator Michael Emberley and I hold dear — that if we are not honest with the kids for whom we create these books, our books will not ring true to them.

That means that whatever information is required in order to help our children and teens stay healthy, then that information, through text and illustration, will be part of our books, as long as the information is age-appropriate, psychologically-appropriate, scientifically accurate, and as up-to-date as possible.

Perhaps it’s “the figuring out” how to write children’s books so that they really are in the best interests of the child — to borrow the title from renown child analysts Anna Freud, Al Solnit, Joseph Goldstein, and Sonja Goldstein’s book — that is what I like so much about the process and struggle of creating these books.

And the truth is, if someone says to me about my writing, “Well, isn’t the topic too tough?” or “Aren’t the words too strong?” or “Isn’t the child too angry?” or “Do you have to write about abuse, or homosexuality, or HIV/AIDS?” and often along with the accompanying statement, “And some parents and teachers will not buy something like this.” I still write about these topics. I write about them because they mirror the emotional and real lives of almost all children, and do not shy away from the myriad of emotions and issues our children, indeed all of us, continue to deal with throughout our lives.

If in fact the story I am writing is emotionally honest and in the best interests of the child, I will keep the strong feeling or feelings, or scene in the book, no matter what. And, if in fact a piece of information in the nonfiction book I am writing is in the best interests of the child, I will keep that information in the book, no matter what. After all, I am creating my books for children.