by Chris Finan
Robie Harris’s popular sex education books for children are the center of a lot of controversy. Her It’s Perfectly Normal, which teaches middle schoolers about sex, sexuality, and their changing bodies, is on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 Most Challenged Books of 1990 — 2000. Ms. Harris took some time to answer a few questions about what it’s like to be a censored author and what kids can do to help.
Why did you decide to write a sex education book?
In the late 80′s, an editor asked if I was interested in writing a book on HIV/AIDS for elementary school age children, something that I had never thought about writing. I answered the editor by saying that if I were going to talk with my children about HIV/AIDS, I would start out by telling them all the things they needed to do to stay healthy, and all the information they would need to make healthy decisions. I told him that kids already had a lot of information from the media and their peers, but what worried me the most was that kids had a lot of misinformation. I also said that while kids and teens would need to know about the HIV virus and other sexually transmitted diseases, (how NOT to get infected, and how one gets infected), they would also need to know a lot of other things about their bodies in order to stay healthy. And that’s why it would be necessary to include the many aspects of sexual health — what is sex, how one’s body changes during puberty, how pregnancy begins and how to prevent pregnancy, why it matters to wait to have a baby when one is old enough and responsible enough to take care of a baby, how to keep one’s body safe — and so much more in our book.
How old are the kids reading your books?
I felt that if possible, it would be in our kids’ and teen’s best interest to educate them about sexual health before they entered puberty, and of course, continue all through puberty and adolescence. That’s why when writing IT’S PERFECTLY NORMAL Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health, I wrote the book for kids ages 10 and up. Michael Emberley, the amazingly talented and caring illustrator of our books on sexual health, and I took felt we had to be responsible and take the greatest care in creating these books by having them vetted by experts to make sure that what we created was as scientifically and psychologically accurate, as age-appropriate, and as up-to date as possible. (It took us 5 years to complete this book.) Each time there is a reprint, we make sure the information is updated. And this summer, there will be an up-dated 10th anniversary edition of IT’S PERFECTLY NORMAL, which has now been published around the world from Italy to the Netherlands to Japan, Taiwan, Mongolia, Poland and many other countries. A 5th anniversary edition of IT’S SO AMAZING! A Book About Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families will also be published this summer. This book for children ages 7 and up was created in response to the overwhelming requests for a book younger children. And we are in the midst of creating a book on babies and where they come from called IT’S NOT THE STORK! for an even younger group, ages 4 and up, who also have lots of questions and want to know the fascinating story of how we all begin and where we came from.
Were you surprised the first time your books were challenged?
No. I had been told by almost everyone I interviewed during the research phase of the book that there would be public library and school library challenges. And I knew that while most in this country want comprehensive sexuality education for their kids and teens, there are those who do not want their children to have this information from anyone other than one’s parents. I believe whenever possible, the parent should be his or her child’s first sexuality educator. But I know — from my own experience as a parent, and from teachers, librarians, and health professionals — that books and the professionals who deal with kids day-in-day-out, can and do also help educate our kids about sexual health.
What do you think about situations where parents ask for your book to be banned?
If any parent chooses not have their child taught about sexual health or read my books on sexual health for any reason — be it religious, cultural or whatever — that is their right. But if a parent wants their child to be educated about sexual health, and wants them to have the choice to read my book or any other book on a library shelf, that is also a parent’s right. And I believe that in a democracy, no parent has the right to keep this information from other children or teens whose parent or parents choose to have their schools or libraries provide responsible information — whether it’s in the form of a book or a curriculum. I would never ever say that every family, library, or school in America should have my books. But any family, library, or school that chooses to have my books, should have the right to have them.
How did it make you feel?
At first, I felt as if I had been attacked. And then I took a deep breath and realized that the book Michael Emberley and I created for children and teens was what I believed children and teens needed to have — honest information to help to keep them healthy, to help them make good and responsible decisions about their bodies and they grow from being a child to a teenager. Then I felt fine.
But each time a librarian is challenged for making the decision to have my books in his or her library collection, decisions that librarians exercise with enormous care, I am upset that that the librarian’s professional integrity and informed professional decision is being challenged. Our librarians are heroes who defend our democracy when they go before their library boards to defend their decisions to have and keep my books or any other challenged books in their library collections. They are the heroes who are on the front lines of our communities protecting our 1st amendment rights.
Did you fight back?
We fight back by supporting the librarian who is being challenged. And this is how that is done: Whenever my publisher or I hear about a library challenge to any of my books, my publisher calls the librarian directly to offer support and ask how we can be helpful. At that point, a packet of materials is sent out to the librarian. This packet contains reviews, as well as a letter from my editor saying why she choose to publish my books on sexual health and why she believes it is important for children and teens to have accurate information.
My publisher also contacts the PEN AMERICAN Children’s Book Committee chairs who send a letter to the librarian offering support and stating why in a democracy children and teens have the right and the need to have free access to information they may seek or come across by happenstance in their school or public library. These two actions are taken to support librarians and help them make the case that in making their professional judgment about my books, they are not alone in that judgment. It is our hope that by sending these materials, their library boards will understand that these books are responsible, well reviewed, and award-winning, and that the librarian’s judgment is overwhelmingly supported by other professionals — book reviewers, educators, librarians, health professionals, and clergy members as well.
Did anyone help you? Have kids played a role?
As mentioned above, my publisher always supports my work, along with family, friends and colleagues who offer advice about how to deal with protecting 1st amendment rights and making sure the our kids and teens have access to the information they need. Middle school kids and teens have played a role by showing up at library hearings — when the library board considers the challenge to remove my books from their library or from open shelving. Kids and teens speak eloquently, clearly, and persuasively why my books, and other books about sexual health, need to be on open shelving in their library, or need to stay in the library, and why it matters to them to have the information that presented in my books.
What can a kid do to help fight censorship?
Lots of things can help, including what I mentioned above — speaking at the library board meeting when the challenge is being considered by the board. Also, you can write a letter to the library board, and ask ten of your friends to also write a letter, and ask each of them to ask ten more friends. Soon, the board may receive 50 letters, and that’s a lot of letters and could be very persuasive. You might want to write up a sample letter for your friend to use.
You could also ask your parent to write a letter and ask them to ask ten friends to write letters. By now, the board may have received 100 letters and that could be very persuasive. You could also write a letter to the editor in your school or local newspaper. When you write a sample letter, a letter, or a letter to the editor, make sure you have the correct facts, and have a friend or an adult, your librarian, or teacher, or parent check your letter to make sure you have the correct facts.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to be a writer?
Sit down and write every day. Then read out loud what you wrote. You will hear what works, and what doesn’t work. Go back and revise. Get friends, a teacher, a parent to read what you write and critique it. Tell them to be 100% honest, to be tough. Look in the libraries or bookstores for the type of book you’d like to write. Form a writer’s group, and get those in the group to critique. Or do none of the above and just write. Write, write, write. Just keep at it, and your writing will become better and better and one day, and a lot of this has to do with luck and timing, what you wrote might just be published.