There is just a small number of things in life that I know for sure, and one of them is that children are way more resilient than a lot of adults often given them credit for. As Maurice Sendak once told Selma G. Lanes:
You must tell the truth about a subject to a child as well as you are able, without any mitigating of that truth. You must allow that children are small, courageous people who deal every day with a multitude of problems, just as adults do, and that they are unprepared for most things. What they yearn for most is a bit of truth somewhere.
Mind you, as anyone who has ever taken care of a child knows, this is sometimes easier said than done. I may want my child to know the truth about the world, while at the same time I want to extend her innocence as long as I can into her childhood. Or consider how Anastasia Higginbotham puts it in Tell Me About Sex, Grandma, coming to shelves in April. A young boy asks his grandmother why adults don’t want children to know about sex: “Our job is to protect you,” she says. “From sex?” he asks. “From growing up too fast,” she answers.
That said, Higginbotham has a series of books called Ordinary Terrible Things (I love this title so much) that tackles head-on the thorny subjects parents often avoid discussing with children. This series has just come to my attention, and I haven’t read the first title, Divorce Is the Worst, released in 2015. But I recently read Death Is Stupid, which arrived on shelves last year. And I have also read Tell Me About Sex, Grandma, publishing this Spring. Both books are remarkable for the non-patronizing way in which Higginbotham approaches subjects many parents ditch altogether (or for altogether too long).
I know it’s not fair of me, because it’s not on shelves yet, but I just have to tell you about the sex book for a moment. If I were independently wealthy, I’d buy a small plane, fly across the country, and drop off copies of this book to every elementary-school health and sex educator out there. That’s because the grandma character in the story does not flinch the tiniest bit when her grandson comes to her and asks about sex. And she does so in what I think is just the right way.
But hold up a second: before he asks Grandma, there are four spreads that essentially establish that a) sex is everywhere; b) it also hides in places like people’s computers; c) seeing those things on the computer can make a child feel confused and quite possibly physically ill; and d) it’s best to know the right sources for information. This would be when the boy goes to his grandma’s room (albeit looking queasy) to ask. These spreads are a seamless introduction to the topic and also manage to communicate a great deal about the warped way we avoid talking to children about sex. Sex is “hidden.” Hmm. Yes, it often is. Not just for children.
Grandma is cool as a cucumber when her grandson peeks into her room to get the low-down on sex. (Amusingly enough, she closes her laptop when he walks in. No worries. Perhaps she was just paying the bills.) It’s in your nature to want to know, she tells him, and you have every right to ask. When he pushes back, and fairly so, that he gets the sense it is “bad,” since kids are shielded from it, she mutters that it’s a “grown-up thing” and “private.” But then he pretty much demands that she just tell it to him straight. The responses that follow that are uncommonly honest. “It’s a thing with bodies,” she says. “Moving so it feels good. By yourself or with someone.”
Wow. That’s a decent amount of ground covered and a lot to unpack—and there’s no need for me to, since we’re all adults here—but I think this economically-worded summary captures a lot quite well for a young child. She tells him sex is a “conversation,” a “revelation,” and a way to learn about oneself. (Here, the boy whispers that sometimes, when he is alone, he moves so it feels good. Once again, Grandma doesn’t even flinch. “It is okay,” she responds, “and best to do only in private.”)
The rest of the book is filled with further advice from Grandma, who tells the boy that, as he grows, he will discover how he feels, what he likes, and whom he likes; that no one can “boss” him into sex; and that it is never okay for an adult to choose to have sex with a child. A person’s sexuality, she adds, is “no one else’s business,” as long as these legal rules of consent are followed (though she doesn’t use the word “consent”). To be extra sure, Higginbotham emphasizes these “rules” again in the back of the book.
If only all children had a Grandma telling them, “Your sexuality is yours alone. Yours to discover. Yours to treasure. Yours to share if you choose.” It’s most excellent advice.
The very title Death Is Stupid, already on shelves, may strike many as off-putting, but it is part of, arguably, the best spread in the book. This book also features a young boy. He is dealing with the confusing loss of a grandmother, and he’s baffled by the platitudes he hears while grieving. When his mother suggests he talk to the deceased in his imagination, there’s a wonderful spread where he imagines sitting with her, telling her he still needs her. “Oh, honey,” she says in his mind’s eye. “I know. Death is so stupid.” He is shocked, yet delighted, that she said “stupid,” and the two laugh mischievously. It’s a buoyant, light-hearted moment in a heavy book.
Like the sex book, readers see a young child grappling with the confusing comments from the grown-ups in his world, a child who just wants the truth. “She’s at peace. She can rest,” he hears, and then he asks: “Why can’t she rest HERE with me and still be alive?” (EXCELLENT QUESTION.) What follows is a spread that made me laugh out loud, where he imagines her resting in bed, him attending to her needs. She replies, “Oh, thank you for letting me rest, dear. Now I don’t have to die.” A book about death pulling off a moment of (dark) comedy gold like that? Spectacular.
The book closes with some moving moments with the boy and his father (who is grieving the loss of his mother), attempting to honor Gramma’s memory in special ways. It’s a book that is, at turns, deeply moving and playfully funny.
And I can hardly wait to see what topic Higginbotham tackles next. Whatever it may be, I’ve no doubt she’ll pull it off with great respect for child readers.
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.
DEATH IS STUPID. Copyright © 2016 by Anastasia Higginbotham. TELL ME ABOUT SEX, GRANDMA. Copyright © 2017 by Anastasia Higginbotham. Illustrations reproduced by permission of the publisher, Feminist Press, New York.