If you are a parent with tweens or even almost-tweens, then you know the birds-and-the-bees conversation looms. I want to be careful and avoid sounding like a cliché of a parent when I say I rather dread the conversation, but if I were to speak honestly, I’d have to say I don’t really look forward to it. I know I should address sex matter-of-factly with my own children, and I intend to, whether or not they get around to asking about it directly. But let’s face it: It’s hard to discuss without blushing here and there, because sex is addressed in our culture a whole heapin’ lot—but only when being glamorized or exploited. There aren’t a lot of role models for addressing it frankly and honestly, which is precisely what we should do with our children.
But fortunately there are Robie H. Harris’ books on puberty and sexual health, namely It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health, as well as It’s So Amazing! A Book About Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families. Both are illustrated by Michael Emberley, and both are celebrating anniversaries this year. It’s So Amazing! turns 15 years old, and It’s Perfectly Normal is 20. Get out the party hats and get ready to sing, because these books are wonderful—informative, thorough and candid. They look children squarely in the eye and lay out the facts without condescension. Best of all, Candlewick has released updated anniversary editions of both books.
It’s So Amazing! is geared for the 7-and-up range, and It’s Perfectly Normal for children 10 and up. Now, I’m not usually a parent who pays close attention to age labels on children’s books, because as many librarians will tell you, It Depends on the Child. (This is our mantra.) Some children who are younger than the age label assigned to a book are intellectually and emotionally capable of reading and enjoying that book. If we stick so rigidly to the recommendations at all times, some children will really miss out. But with books like these, I gladly cling to these age recommendations and fully intend to heed them. That’s because…well, did I mention the conversation is one that makes me nervous? I feel like Sitcom Mom when saying it, but it’s true. So, as a parent, I’m going to trust smart Robie and follow these age recommendations. I suspect school librarians will too. But, as always, It Depends on the Child. Some parents may feel that their 9-year-old is ready for It’s Perfectly Normal, and that’s all good too.
It’s So Amazing! introduces readers to a bird (very curious) and a bee (very squeamish), who guide readers through the book, discussing reproduction and specifically addressing gender, male and female body parts, love and sex, eggs and sperm, pregnancy, birth, adoption, how one’s body grows, masturbation, sexual abuse, HIV and AIDS, adoption, miscarriages and abortion, and heterosexuality and homosexuality. Plus some. As mentioned, it’s been updated for the anniversary edition, and the book was vetted and approved by science and child development experts.
It’s Perfectly Normal covers much of the same (and the same bird and bee are back), but it is for older readers, goes into more detail, and also addresses such topics as STDs, birth control, hygiene, etc. While It’s So Amazing! only defines abortion, It’s Perfectly Normal addresses the politics surrounding it. This book also delves more into sexual abuse, as well as staying safe online (what is helpful, what is fun, what is creepy and what is dangerous).
So much is covered so smartly and carefully in these comprehensive books that I couldn’t possibly list all the topics here, but I can tell you how well-done these books are. And that, as a parent, I am extremely grateful they exist.
Both books feature Emberley’s warm and often funny cartoon illustrations, depicting people with a wide range of skin color and body types. There are straight and gay couples, interracial couples and families, and people of all ages. Everyone is included, as it should be.
Though these books celebrate their anniversaries this year and are available in new editions, other books from Harris exist—those, that is, geared at even younger readers. For ages 4 and up, there is It’s NOT the Stork! A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families and Friends, also illustrated by Emberley. And for the very young, there are Who Has What? All About Girls’ Bodies and Boys’ Bodies; Who’s In My Family? All About Our Families; and What’s In There? All About Before You Were Born. These are illustrated by Nadine Bernard Westcott.
It’s a family library of books on sexual health from Harris, and she’s someone we can trust to bring young readers the facts in a frank and gentle way. Her ability to make it just a little less squeamish for us parents is just icing on the cake.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.