About Me
The Inside Story: Robie Harris

by Ellen Myrick
Children’s & Teen Librarian
November/December 2005
Volume VIII, Issue 10

Ellen Myrick: First, I just want to thank you for taking the time to answer these questions. I’ve been an admirer of your work for a long time, and It’s So Amazing came out at exactly the right time for me to give it to my daughter. I’m eternally grateful! And now, on to the interview.

Ellen Myrick: Let’s talk about the “Just Being Me” series. What was the impetus for these books?
Robie Harris:
One of the things about young children that fascinates me is the honesty of their feelings and the direct expression of those feelings — feelings that range from joy to sadness, anger, fear, jealousy, frustration, love, and even hate — feelings we have throughout our lives. Young children express those feelings day-in and day-out and often behave in ways we don’t expect them to, or feel they shouldn’t, such as: dropping an egg on the floor and dancing in it in I Love Messes! — or when getting dressed, putting socks on their hands and mittens on their feet in I’m All Dressed! The first book I wrote in this series was I’m So Mad! During one week in my local supermarket, I witnessed six, yes six, different young children having a tantrum. “There has to be a story here, a picture book for young children,” I thought to myself. I knew that every young child experiences those feelings, and I felt a book that told this story would fascinate them and might help them feel that they are not the only children in the world who get tired, and/or angry — and sometimes the feelings they have just pop out and can’t be stopped. And I knew that there were probably other stories about these kinds of strong feelings that needed to be told as well and show young children that they are not being bad and are still loved when they behave in these unexpected ways — even when they say things such as, “NO!“ when a daddy tries to wipe the red dots off his child’s face. Or when told “You can’t go to the party in underpants,” and the child forcefully replies, ‘WHY NOT?” Or when told “It’s time to go to bed,” and the child forcefully replies, “I’M NOT SLEEPY!” Or when, in the chaos of a tantrum, a child shouts out, “I’M MAD! MAD AT MOMMY!” Rather, the young children in these books, like most every young child, are being themselves — hence the title of the series, JUST BEING ME.

EM: I like the ways these books encourage children and parents to accept each other while still maintaining structure. It’s a very delicate balance — how do you go about achieving this?
I didn’t set out to achieve this. That’s probably because in my own life as a child, I had a mother who was so patient and caring that when I did what I was not supposed to do, she always sat me down and told me firmly that this or that was something I shouldn’t do, and why I could not do it any longer. I remember calling my older cousin, “Larry Maxwell House Coffee, good to the very last drop!” His middle name was Max and “good to the very last drop” was part of a coffee commercial. He would cry the moment I said those words. My mother never punished me. But she certainly did talk to me about stopping because what I was doing made my cousin feel bad and that was a not-nice thing to do. My mother’s talking made it easier for me to stop. And after a while, I did stop teasing my big cousin. So in writing I’m So Mad!, I’m Not Sleepy!, I Love Messes, and I’m All Dressed, the parents are all a bit of me as a parent and certainly a lot of mother as a parent. Here’s what I have just written in a new picture book I am working on, and this too comes from the mother in me, “No matter what — I LOVE YOU!” I’m quite sure this feeling permeates all of the picture books I’ve written, and those I am working on now, and will creep someway or other into the future picture books I write.

EM: In this series, was there one particular subject that was harder to put on paper? If so, why?
I would guess that “anger” was (and still is) the hardest subject for me to write about. And it is really in all four books, but particularly in I’m So Mad! when a young child gets very, very angry at her Mommy for not letting her buy ice-cream sandwiches. I had a lot of questions as I wrote the part of the book where this child “loses it” and really yells and lets her Mommy and everyone at the supermarket know exactly how she feels. “How angry should this child get at her Mommy?” was one of my biggest questions. “Very!” I decided, and here’s why. Young children do get very angry when they “throw a tantrum.” Writing about that anger is what is honest. Children, even young children, are not afraid of the portrayal of strong feelings. In fact, if as writers of children’s books we are not honest with our audience, our words and stories will not ring true nor have any credibility with children. These powerful feelings are the stuff of adult literature, so why shouldn’t they be the “stuff” of children’s literature? Humor, both in the text and Nicole Hollander’s empathetic illustrations, also plays a role in helping bring the child and parent back together in a loving way.

EM: Do you especially identify with any of these young protagonists? For example, I can remember that exquisite feeling of finger painting and wanting to spread the joy beyond the paper.
I identify with all of them. But only one at a time and that time is when I am writing about that particular child. I have to get myself into the “head” and “feelings” of a young child and think hard about what it feels like for a young child when he or she wants to dress in his or her way, or makes a mess of eggs and yogurt and goodness knows what else, or feels very angry because you can’t get what you want when you want it — or at all. Writing in the first person, writing in the voice of the young child who is telling his or her story is what allows me to do that. I do remember that as a young child, I would procrastinate forever when told it was time to go to bed. I could have stayed up for hours, but eventually I would get sleepy. And one time with one of my children, I did fall asleep reading to him, and he thought that was just about the funniest thing in the world but then became tired and cranky and woke me up so he could go to sleep. And that’s where the book in this series I’m Not Sleepy! came from.

EM: You are known for working quite closely with illustrators, specifically Michael Emberly in the Perfectly Normal books. Did you have any give and take with Nicole Hollander for this series, or does this follow a more traditional pattern? What are your thoughts on the finished illustrations?
I am SO lucky to be working with such brilliant and talented illustrators who bring so much to my books that never-ever crosses my mind. Yes, Michael and I talk and e-mail, and fax, and hang out, and talk, and talk, and talk about what the other has done, and how this all can fit together. We talk and rework things until we feel “we have it right for our audience — children.” The same process worked with Nicole Hollander. When needed, we would e-mail, and talk, and Nicole would fax me drawings, and again, along with our editor, we would do this until we both felt “we had it right for our audience — children.” Working collaboratively this way can be at times frustrating and can add more time to the process, but in the end, I feel that, at least for the books I create, we the author and illustrator end up with a better book, a book that works better for children. Isn’t that what it’s all about? As for the finished illustrations, I have loved the way they’ve turned out. In each book, they are so appealing and engage young children and seem to work seamlessly with my text, making each book resonate even deeper with young children and their families.

EM: It might be too early to tell us much, but can you fill us in on It’s Not the Stork!? How will this be different from It’s So Amazing and It’s Perfectly Normal?
When It’s Perfectly Normal, a book on healthy sexuality for children age 10 and up, was published, parents, educators, librarians, health professionals, and clergy asked over and over again for a book on healthy sexuality for children 7 and up; hence I wrote It’s So Amazing!. And then the same thing happened again. Parents, educators, librarians, health professionals, and clergy asked for a book for children 4 and up; hence, I wrote It’s Not the Stork! A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families and Friends. The same elements that are in the older books are in this book as well — a book that is comprehensive and answers most young children’s questions. This younger book still has the two cartoon characters — The Bird and The Bee — but in this book, they are the voices of young children and express the range of questions, feelings, and concerns young children may have about the topics discussed in the book: “Where did I come from?” “How was I made?” and so many profound questions about themselves and their bodies. And as we have done with the two older books, the text and the art has been vetted over and over again to make sure that the information in this book is age-appropriate, emotionally-appropriate, and yes, even for this young age, scientifically accurate. What IS different is the writing. The way I write and “talk” in this book is in a simpler manner to be accessible and so that my narrative, my words, make sense for young children.

The focus of this book is also different in that it focuses on gender — what makes a girl a girl and what makes a boy and boy, and then what happens when girls and boys grow up, and become adults, when, if they choose to, they can make a baby or adopt a baby or child, and become a Mommy or a Daddy. The book does have a section of how babies are made and born, and what it means to be a family and that there are all kinds of families. The other major way this book is different from the two older books is that Michael Emberley’s accurate and playful art is designed for younger children, and is clear and simpler, and of course the bird and bee characters act younger, and when appropriate, sillier. Next summer (2006) when all three of these books will be in print, Michael and I will have created a “family library” on healthy sexuality.

EM: It’s Perfectly Normal was published eleven years ago, and you revised it for the tenth anniversary a year ago. What has been the response to the revisions? What reaction has surprised you the most? Have you already started making notes for future revisions?
The response to the 10th anniversary edition of It’s Perfectly Normal and the 5th anniversary edition of It’s So Amazing! has been all that we hoped for. All positive and many, many thanks from parents who give these books to their children, and from educators, librarians, health professionals and clergy, who use these books in the programs in which they work. What the general public does not know is that I try to keep abreast of any and all scientific or legal changes, or perhaps even some cultural changes that have to do with sexual health. I clip or download anything that I come across. And each time, since the very first reprint of It’s Perfectly Normal, each time my publisher is about to reprint, I check any new facts with the appropriate experts in the field to make sure that the information is accurate and if there is a change that we should add to It’s Perfectly Normal, or in some cases to It’s So Amazing. If so, that text is added or the text in the book is revised. I still keep an eye out for new information and check in with experts from time to time. I continue to do this because I believe that it is my responsibility to give kids and teens the most accurate and up-to-date information possible. And doing this helps me sleep better at night.

EM: Do you have a special library moment you would like to share?
My special library moment is always when (and since I have had the privilege to speak in so many libraries there are so many of these moments) I go into a library and see and watch and often overhear how a librarian helps a child or teen, even a young child, find the book he or she is looking for, or helps a child who wants or needs a book, on any topic, including perhaps a difficult topic, find and get the book he or she needs. These experiences remind me of the librarians I grew up knowing and who helped me in many of the same ways. As a writer, I am only in front of my computer. Our librarians are on the front lines of our communities, ensuring in every way they can that children and teens have access to the world of literature and ideas through the books they choose to read as they navigate through childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood in these complicated times.