About Me
Creating Children’s Books Takes the Effort, Talent of Many

by Donya Dickerson
Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market 2001
January 2001

For many people, writing seems like a solitary profession. The thought of spending day after day alone, staring at a computer screen, can be enough to scare someone away from pursuing a career as an author. But for Robie H. Harris, whose books It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex and Sexual Health and It’s So Amazing!: A Book About Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families focus on sexual health for kids, the writing process has been far from lonely. In fact, her first book dealing with sex, It’s Perfectly Normal, came about after many discussions with family, teachers, and child specialists. And collaboration played an important role with her subsequent titles, It’s So Amazing!, Happy Birth Day!, and Hi New Baby! (all published by Candlewick Press) and Goodbye Mousie (Margaret K. McElderry Books).

Harris never intended to write books on sexuality for kids. But when an editor for another publisher asked her to do a book for children about HIV/AIDS, she started to consider the subject seriously. “The topic had never crossed my mind,” says Harris. “But I said to that editor, ‘If I were talking with my own kids about HIV when they were in elementary school, I would want to talk about it in the context of healthy sexuality. There are a whole lot of things that kids need to know before in order to stay healthy. They need to know how their bodies work, what happens during puberty, what’s the same and what’s different about females and males, how babies are made and, of course, about HIV/AIDS, and lots more.

In fact, Harris outlined a potential book in that editor’s office that day and went home and told her kids, who were then in their late teens, about her conversation with the editor. “I asked my kids, ‘What was helpful when your dad and I talked to you about sex? What did you still need to know? And what should I put in this book that I didn’t think about?’” And that’s when the great collaboration began. “We talked, and that night I made about ten phone calls to science teachers, other parents, and our pediatrician. My kids talked to their friends, and I talked with them, too. And they were very open.” The editor decided, however, that he still wanted a book focusing on HIV/AIDS. But by then Harris knew she was going to do her own book about sexual health, one which would be comprehensive and would include HIV/AIDS.

From the start, Harris realized she’d have to learn not only how to present sensitive sexual topics to kids, but also the specific science of the facts of life. “We wanted to be absolutely sure the information in the books is as accurate as possible and would really work for kids, particularly for It’s Perfectly Normal and It’s So Amazing! because these books deal with topics that can be difficult and tough-as well as fascinating-for kids. We also realized these books are also about human biology and are really about how each one of us grows up. That’s why I always feel in writing for children-no matter what the topic-that our responsibility is to the kids who are our audience,” says Harris.

And this responsibility comes through in the way the books are written. Topics like the fertilization of an egg by a sperm, the stages of pregnancy, puberty, heterosexuality and homosexuality, masturbation, and others are clearly explained in a way that makes them perfectly normal. Harris’s use of a carton bird and bee as narrators in It’s So Amazing! and It’s Perfectly Normal allows kids to be more comfortable with the subject matter. “The bird and the bee are the voices of kids,” explains Harris. The bird is curious and wants to know everything about sex while the bee is resistant and would rather read books about earth science than hear about where babies come from. Young readers are able to identify with the personality most like their own.

In order to get her books right, however, Harris had to do her research. And looking at the pages of thank-yous in the back of It’s So Amazing! and It’s Perfectly Normal, it’s clear that her research was extensive. “I talked to everybody from pediatricians to teachers, librarians, social workers, psychologists, reproductive biologists, child development experts, HIV/AIDS experts, and clergy members,” says Harris.

For writers doing research, Harris advises that when asking people to help, the first thing you say is that your book is for children. She followed this plan and was never once turned down. In fact, she established many beneficial relationships that lasted through the entire process of creating the books. “I felt strongly about getting the science as accurate and as up-to-date as possible.” At one point she read an article in The New York Times Science section about reproductive biologist, Jeffrey Pudney, Ph.D. who had been doing research on sperm. “I picked up the phone, got his number from information, and said, ‘Hi, my name is Robie Harris, and I’m writing a book on sexual health for kids.’” From this call she developed an important contact with Dr. Pudney, who spent many hours going over the materials with Harris and her illustrator, Michael Emberley. “Jeffrey is so passionate about biology that he was an extraordinary teacher for us. He felt excited because he wanted the kids to be excited about science and health when they read our books and looked at the cartoon illustrations.”

Harris also went to parents for input on her manuscript: however, when some of the parents asked if they could read a draft of the book to their children, Harris asked them to wait. Unlike many writers who jump eagerly at any chance to share their work with their intended audience, Harris says, “It made me nervous, not because I didn’t want the parents to read it to their kids, but because the book was not finished yet. I felt it would be irresponsible to pass on any information inadvertently that might not have been quite right or inaccurate at that point in the writing process.”

All the research Harris did was part of the collaborative process. “I work best through collaboration. I love to work closely with the illustrator and all the people I showed the text to beyond the editor-all the parents, kids, teachers, librarians, health professionals, scientists, and child development experts.” Nevertheless, through this research she realized she had to write about topics that were so difficult to even think about-like sexual abuse-because it would have been a disservice to kids not to include them.

“The most difficult part about writing the section on abuse,” says Harris, “happened when I talked to Eli Newberger, M.D. He said what can be confusing for kids is that sometimes the abuse feels good. I said to him, ‘How am I going to write that?’ But he said he knew I could do it because it is very important for children to know.” Although this section was an incredible challenge for Harris and Emberley, its inclusion in the book actually helped a girl who was being abused. “I read an article about a ten-year-old girl who read the chapter in It’s Perfectly Normal on sexual abuse and who then went to her mother and said her father was abusing her. The father was convicted, and the book was even used in the trial. And even though this chapter was so difficult to write, it was absolutely worth doing-just for this one child.”

In order to present these difficult topics clearly, Harris worked closely with illustrator Michael Emberley. Although most publishers find illustrators after the book has been written, and as a rule authors and illustrators don’t collaborate, Harris’s process was different. She started working with Emberley early on-even before the book was sold to a publisher. “We were concerned with how to make this book accessible to kids,” says Harris. A crucial part of this accessibility was ensuring that the illustrations showed children of different shapes, sizes, and ethnicities.

Harris met with Emberley constantly to find the best ways of presenting the information in the books. “We had to be very confident about every double-page spread in the book,” says Harris. “We asked if the information would be appropriate, would it be fun? We set out to create a book that would work for many kids, so that one child would be able to read the boxes of text or look at the pictures, while another could read the discussion between the bird and the bee, and another to look at a diagram or even start at the beginning and go all the way to the end. I believe brilliant books can be done even when the author and illustrator never meet. I feel extremely lucky to have a working relationship with someone I respect highly and who really wants to do what is in the best interest of the child.” For his research, Emberley even attended an actual birth to learn how to draw a newborn.

The entire process-from the day she started thinking about writing It’s Perfectly Normal to when the book was finished-took about five years. “When you collaborate it does take longer,” says Harris. She eventually took her manuscript and Emberley’s drawings to Candlewick Press because she was impressed with editor Amy Ehrlich, who felt the book was an important project and shared Harris’s vision for the book and how it should be produced. And although Candlewick was a new press at the time, its sister company, the established Walker Books in the United Kingdom, gave the press more than thirty years of experience. Working with Candlewick meant even more collaboration. “There were a ton of meetings with editors that were critical. But Michael and I met even more, and that was the most important collaboration.”

For Harris the collaborative process has paid off. “As a writer you can spend a lot of time alone. I feel very lucky that I was able to so closely work with Michael and everyone else. I learn so much from them. It’s more effort and time, but ultimately, if you are lucky, I believe you end up with a better book.”

2001 Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market copyright © 2001 by Donya Dickerson. Used with permission of Writer’s Digest Books, an imprint of F&W Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.