When my grandmother watched me after school, I had to learn about sex the old-fashioned way: from Golden Girls reruns.
But the beautiful child in author-illustrator Anastasia Higginbotham’s Tell Me about Sex, Grandma is in luck. When called upon to hold forth on the birds and the bees, Grandma delivers loving and informative answers with ease.
“It’s a thing with bodies,” Higginbotham writes in Tell Me about Sex, Grandma. “Moving so it feels good. By yourself or with someone.”
“The feelings change as you grow up,” Grandma tells the child, who’s of an indeterminate gender and sexuality. “They grow up with you.
“Sex is an energy, an action, a conversation, a revelation,” she continues, defining revelation as a “sudden burst of understanding or discovery.”
Caring, careful, wise, and winsome, Grandma is Higginbotham’s wish for young readers ages 4-9.
“She’s a fantasy,” says Higginbotham, whose decision to seat sexual knowledge and power in the matriarch was a mindful one. “I don’t think many of us had a grandma like this. I made her what I needed her to be, what I thought children need her to be—also, not an expert. She’s not a social worker, she’s not a teacher...but she’s not afraid of the questions, she’s not afraid of the child’s development, she’s not afraid of the child growing up [because] she’s done that all already.”
Grandma is the third book in “Ordinary Terrible Things,” a series of evolved and engaging children’s books published by the Feminist Press. (It’s preceded by Divorce Is the Worst (2015) and Death Is Stupid (2016).) Higginbotham’s illustration involves drawing, collage, and recycled materials: magazine clippings, worn textiles, and her favorite paper grocery bags (from Sahadi’s in Brooklyn, New York). Pens and glue are the sole supplies she buys.
“It’s kind of like a dare to myself—I have to make it work with what fabrics I have and what paper’s already here in my house,” says Higginbotham, who often incorporates family heirlooms and personal treasures.
“It makes me happy to see a tiny little green dishtowel in the book on Grandma’s shoulder that used to be on my grandma’s shoulder,” she says. “So I get to put these little very personal touches in, but also I get to use what was on its way to the trash.”
“Ordinary Terrible Things” draws inspiration from the author’s 20-year tenure as a speechwriter and interviewer for New York City social justice nonprofits.
“I believe the messages children are getting about sex are so contradictory and confusing that it warrants being included as an Ordinary Terrible Thing,” says Higginbotham, who continues the thought from the perspective of a prospective reader. “There’s a message coming from the outside that this is something grownups are kind of obsessed with—that’s apparent to any child who’s paying attention at all—and something they’re obsessed with hiding from us, so it must have a lot of power, because it holds their attention and they don’t want it to hold our attention.”
In the book, Grandma embraces her grandchild’s attention to the subject matter—she doesn’t push. She emphasizes the diversity of desire and the importance of a mind-body connection in sex, while providing firm rules for its performance.
“It belongs to no one else but you,” Higginbotham writes. “No one else is allowed...to boss you into sex, or take it from you without your permission.”
“It was very intentional to make sure that the rules were for adult behavior,” she says. “[That] immediately puts it into a realm of grownups making good choices, instead of saying to a child, ‘You’re gonna have to set this limit, you’re gonna have to learn to say no, you’re gonna have to protect yourself from diseases and pregnancy.’ It’s like, oh my god!—lay off. I wanted a grandma who wouldn’t lay a heavy burden on the child.”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews.