Expertise in obstetrics and gynecology isn’t what gets most people TikTok-famous, but Dr. Allison K. Rodgers’ knack for distilling information into brief videos—on everything from cervical mucus to breast self-exams—has garnered her a robust online following (1.2 million and counting). It also led to her new nonfiction book targeted at middle graders. We Need To Talk About Vaginas: An Important Book About Vulvas, Periods, Puberty, and Sex! (Neon Squid/Macmillan, Feb. 28), illustrated by Annika Le Large, breaks barriers with its honest depiction of bodies. “I really am excited because I think this book will not only open kids’ minds, but [will also] open parents’ minds to things they need to be talking about,” she recently told me via Zoom from her office in Chicago.

The daughter of a pediatrician and a pharmacist, Rodgers grew up feeling she could broach any topic with her parents, from masturbation to unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. Now the director of education at Fertility Centers of Illinois, she works as a reproductive endocrinologist, obstetrician, and gynecologist and strives to foster that same openness with her own children. Not all young people feel comfortable discussing puberty or bodies with their parents, however—which is one reason for her TikTok presence. Rodgers’ daughters and many of their friends have come to her with questions on topics such as their periods or vaginal discharge. “It was clear that a lot was not taught in health education and that a lot of people questioned if what they were experiencing was normal,” she says. Though she had had an online presence for about 10 years—including a blog, a Facebook account, and a podcast—she discovered TikTok shortly before the start of the pandemic and found an opportunity to educate an even wider audience.

The book differs from those that have come before it in many ways, notably its inclusivity. While other titles have specifically addressed girls, Rodgers wanted young people who didn’t necessarily identify as female to feel welcome while reading it. She included a section on gender identity, defining terms such as cisgender, nonbinary, transgender, and gender dysphoria and generally avoided references to women or girls, instead using language such as “bodies with a vagina” or “bodies with a uterus.” Rodgers wanted “to make sure that everybody, regardless of how they identify, could learn something and not feel like they were being ignored or excluded.” She also gave a copy of the book to her 10-year-old son; she believes the information contained within is important for everyone.

Rodgers also wanted her book to include a wide range of body types as well as people of various races, and she is thrilled with Le Large’s artwork. She’s especially happy that the pregnant person and fetus depicted are both brown-skinned. The work also includes illustrations of vulvas, with labia of varying sizes and amounts of pubic hair. “Everybody’s vulva looks different, right?” she observes. She’s all too aware that media portrayals of bodies tend to leave many young people feeling self-conscious about their appearances. “It took me 40-something years to learn how to really love myself,” she says. Rodgers hopes that the illustrations will empower readers to take pride in how they look. “You have beauty in exactly who you are and all of your uniqueness.”

As frank as she is about discussions of sexuality, Rodgers initially hesitated when her editor suggested including a diagram of penis-vaginal sex. “It was a little outside my comfort zone,” she says. “I’m thinking, OK, 10- to 14-year-olds—do we need to talk about sex?” But she realized that conveying accurate information was vital—even if it sometimes felt difficult. She mentions talking to a colleague who, as a child, developed misconceptions after reading a book with an ambiguous portrayal of intercourse. Rather than showing the act, the image featured two pairs of feet at the end of a bed peeking out from under the covers. “My friend said, ‘When I was little, for the longest time, I literally thought the sperm left the tip of the penis and swam on the outside of the bed into the woman’s body.’” Rodgers adds, “Your kids need to see what to expect.”

Rodgers also knows, given the recent rise in censorship attempts, that there are many who might call for a book like hers to be banned. “I would love to have a conversation with someone who feels this is inappropriate and shouldn’t be introduced to children—just to understand where they’re coming from,” she says. 

But misinformation continues to proliferate, especially online; she’s seen websites claiming that the color of menstrual blood can indicate hormonal imbalance or that virginity is tied to whether someone has a hymen. (Both claims are false.) It’s more important than ever, Rodgers believes, to give young people accurate and reliable information. “We have books that teach us how our digestive system works and how our heart pumps blood. [This] is literally the same thing. It just has a lot of stigma attached to it,” she says. “Everybody deserves to understand what’s going on with their bodies.”

Mahnaz Dar is a young readers’ editor.