About Me
The Booklist Interview

by Stephanie Zvirin
May 1, 1996

Pediatric specialist Dr. T. Berry Brazelton called it “honest”; Penelope Leach, author of numerous books on child care and development, called it “reassuring and responsible”; and it was recognized on a host of best-of-the-year round-ups, among them, Booklist’s Editors’ Choice. Available now in 15 countries, It’s Perfectly Normal (Candlewick, 1994) broke new ground in sex education for American kids with its forthright illustrations and straightforward, comprehensive text. Author Robie Harris talked with Booklist about the book, herself, and her latest projects — among them, a loving picture book about a baby’s first day of life.

BKL: I understand you got your start as a teacher.

HARRIS: Yes, at Bank Street College. I went to graduate school there, and I taught in their lab school. This was around the time that Sesame Street was starting. I was working with kids who were six, seven, and eight years old in one the country’s first Head Start programs. CBS was worried about the Captain Kangaroo show because Sesame Street had stolen all the talent. They asked Bank Street for help, and I worked with two other people on a regular five-minute educational segment for Captain Kangaroo.

BKL: How did It’s Perfectly Normal come about?

HARRIS: An editor at St. Martin’s asked me if I would be interested in writing a book on HIV and AIDS for elementary-school children. I agreed that children needed to know about the virus, but I thought they needed to know a lot more to stay healthy. The book I would write would be about healthy sexuality. It became It’s Perfectly Normal and was eventually published by Candlewick.

BKL: The book is very forthright. Did you think you might have difficulty finding a publisher?

HARRIS: Well, I may not be giving enough credit here, but when I started working on the book, I realized that an editor probably wouldn’t but it from an outline. An editor would want to know exactly what was going to be written…especially about the more difficult, loaded topics. So I decided to write the whole book without a contract. Of course, I wanted it to be published, but I wasn’t going to worry about whether or not that would really happen. It took about two and a half years to finish what I thought was the final draft.

BKL: What about the illustrations? They seem to be such an integral part of the book.

HARRIS: As I finished the writing, I realized that I really wanted to submit It’s Perfectly Normal with somebody. I didn’t want to have one of those situations where the illustrator was 2,000 miles away. I wanted to be able to sit down with the artist and have some say because the subject was so complicated. That’s when I called up Michael Emberley.

BKL: Obviously, things worked out well.

HARRIS: Yes. Michael was quite wonderful. He said it would be a challenge, and he’d love to do some drawings even if it turned out that the publisher didn’t want him as the illustrator. He did the bird and the bee first, because I had already written their parts. I said to him early on that I hoped we could have some comic strips — the travels of the egg and sperm — and he loved that idea. Then we talked about a drawing of something controversial, which turned out to be the first picture of sexual intercourse in the book. I wanted to keep in mind what was comfortable for kids and consider what kids have already seen. If we left things out in either the text or the drawings, we would be giving the message that what wasn’t there was shameful or dirty or wrong. We wanted to show caring, respectful relationships while still being honest.

BKL: Wasn’t it difficult to talk openly about some of these very personal things?

HARRIS: At first, but Michael was marvelous to work with. He would do a drawing and call me up. I would go to his studio, and he’d say, “What do you think about this?” The drawings were always wonderful, but sometimes they made me uncomfortable. He’d say, “Okay, just talk to me and tell me how you see this.” I didn’t always have the words to say what I felt, but eventually we became very good at talking. We showed the text and drawings to many, many people to make sure that we were as correct and up-to-date as possible. A reproductive biologist at Harvard Medical School actually went over the comic-strip travels of the sperm and the egg.

BKL: Some people might argue that your book contains more information than middle-graders and early teens want or need to know.

HARRIS: I think we tend to fool ourselves into thinking kids aren’t interested. They’ve already heard and seen so much. That age seems an opportune time to lay a foundation about the way their bodies are changing, even if kids aren’t asking questions or talking about the subject.

BKL: Why the bird and the bee? They’re clever, but aren’t their images a little out of date?

HARRIS: I wanted the bird and the bee to reflect the feelings and thoughts of kids: the bird is one way, the bee is another. I also wanted to give readers a break; the text is very serious. I thought, “Let’s be funny when it’s appropriate.”

BKL: Have you had any censorship problems?

HARRIS: We’ve had seven or eight unsuccessful challenges, and there’s one challenge going on now in Vermont. I think there’s also a quiet kind of censorship — the book is not being shelved or bought or it’s disappearing from the library. I certainly don’t feel that every school or family in America should have this book, but I’d like to think it can help some parents talk to their kids and give kids information they need. By late spring, the book will be in 15 countries. That tells me there are people out there who want this information for their kids.

BKL: Your new book, Happy Birth Day! is something completely different.

HARRIS: I used to tell my own kids how amazing they were when they were born. They loved to hear the story, and I just thought what a wonderful picture book that would be. Happy Birth Day! is very much personal experience. I showed it to Michael, and he loved it. But Michael doesn’t have kids. So I said, “We’re going to go to a birth together.” I showed him four videos beforehand and warned him it was kind of messy. We were on call for three days at Boston City Hospital. After the birth, we spent time with the mother and her baby so Michael could see how alert and active and sleepy a baby is during the first day. And he was able to pour all that into the drawings for the book.

From Booklist 5/1/96, reprinted with permission. Copyright American Library Association. www.ala.org/booklist.