Every year the American Library Association issues a list of challenged books—books that have been removed from library shelves, books that have sparked controversies in communities, books that someone feels are obscene, vulgar, pornographic or otherwise inappropriate. And year after year, Robie H. Harris’s book It’s Perfectly Normal can be found on that list.
In 1996, it was challenged in Washington because the “book is an act of encouragement for children to begin desiring sexual gratification... and is a clear example of child pornography." In 2002 in Texas, it was decided the book tried "to minimize or even negate that homosexuality is a problem." In the Fort Bend County Libraries, the book was reclassified as being for adults, despite the fact that it is an illustrated picture book, clearly intended for children. But the book explores changing bodies and growing sexual awareness, and so, year after year, parents and schools will try to restrict who can read Harris’ books.
Bookslut reads the Sister Spit anthology.
I spoke with Harris about whether a writer ever gets used to having her books taken off of library shelves and labeled obscene, and if she’s expecting a fight over her latest children’s book, Who’s In My Family?, which tells the story of changing family structures, from biracial to gay households.
Almost every year your book It's Perfectly Normal is found on the lists of books challenged in or removed from libraries, so you must be used to it now. But the first time it happened, do you remember what your reaction was like? Were you surprised?
I never get used to having one of my books challenged or banned. But I was not surprised when I found out about the first challenge to It's Perfectly Normal, since I had been told that any book on sexual health for kids would be challenged. However, I was totally surprised by how upset I was and for days wondered why I ever wrote a book that was causing a librarian to spend weeks defending it and defending her own professional judgment.
Soon, I remembered why I had written this book and felt better. That’s because I knew that illustrator Michael Emberley and I had created a book that provided kids and teens with honest and accurate information, which they have a right to and need in order to stay healthy as they enter and go through puberty and adolescence. I also thought that the information in this book might help prevent kids and teens from being infected by an STD or becoming pregnant before they are old enough to take good care of a baby.
Do you hear from parents or readers often about that book? I would imagine the gratitude must be louder than the anger.
Yes, the gratitude is overwhelming and so appreciated. But, I can't do anything about some people's anger. I do worry that if kids are kept from having access to the most up-to-date scientific, medical and psychological information about sexuality that is in my books, instead they will be presented with misinformation or no information. And this can result in pre-teens and teens making uninformed and unhealthy decisions, including engaging in sexual encounters at too early an age, or in risky sexual practices.
Another book that shows up on challenged lists is And Tango Makes Three. As your new book Who's In My Family? deals with changing family structures, I'm wondering if you anticipate any controversy. And does the fuss bother you at all?
And Tango Makes Three is a marvelous book for all families. In my newest picture book, Who’s In My Family?, I never had any doubt, nor did illustrator Nadine Bernard Westcott, that our book would include all kinds of families. Hearing about and seeing the many different families in a book such as ours can help young children learn to respect differences—a value I hold high.
But if a controversy arises, I will not hesitate to speak out, as I always have, and say that in our democracy, if any person does not want to read the books I have written, that is their right. But I will also say that they do not have the right to prevent others, including children and teens, who choose to have my books or any book from having access to them.
Obviously there are those who would like to restrict information to children, about sexuality, about bodies, about religion, about all sorts of things. What do you think their motivation is? Is it simply fear?
In communities all over America, there are those who believe that restricting books that have responsible and age-appropriate information, and novels and picture books as well, is the right thing to do for children of all ages. Fear plays a big role, and specifically for my books on sexual health, the fear that access to honest information will lead to kids having sexual relations when they are too young. But research has shown that kids who have accurate information are those who postpone having sexual relations until they are older.
Also, many parents have told me that because of personal, cultural or religious reasons, they are not able to talk with their children about sex, and wish they could. Many have said that they give their kids my books to serve as a way of "talking" to their kids. That's exactly why I wrote these books.
So many of your books deal with what might be confusing for children: separation, a mother's pregnancy, the death of a pet, the first day of school, even basic science. It seems like gentle explanation might be helpful to ease anxiety. So how do you balance a story, the amount of information, and figuring how what is age-appropriate or preventing an overload of information?
Yes, I also write picture books about the emotional life of young children, including the perfectly normal feelings most all children have and express-ranging from love, to anger, jealousy, joy, sadness, happiness, fear, and loss. My latest picture book is about fear and will be published next year.
When children's powerful feelings underlie a good story, those feelings resonate with young children and they sense that they are not alone and feel reassured. Whether I am writing a story or nonfiction, I always talk with experts about what children are like at certain ages and stages and what might ring true for them. And I have come to trust my own gut feeling that if we are "honest" in our writing, children will listen to and read the words we write.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.