Robie Harris on Presenting Human Development and Sexuality to Children and Teens

Robie Harris

Michael Emberley

 

Author Robie Harris and illustrator Michael Emberley have worked closely together to create nearly a dozen age-appropriate books for children and teens on human development and sexuality, including It’s So Amazing!: A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families (Candlewick, 1999) and It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health (Candlewick, 1994). For Harris and Emberley, the entire research process is of the utmost importance when it comes to creating accurate informational books. From finding the right resources to portraying information in word and illustration, these two have insights to share about the inquiry process.

Harris Casts a Wide Net

When I was working on gathering information for It’s Perfectly Normal, I probably talked to 40 or 50 people. I read everything I could. I read all the reports on what kids need to know in order to stay healthy.

When doing any research, I actually get on the telephone and I say, “I’m writing a book on sexual health, on where babies come from for kids age 6, 7 and up, and you’ve written about, for example, adoption and you’re an expert on adoption. I would like to include adoption in this book because many of these books don’t include adoption. I’d like to know how you’ve talked to parents and how you’ve talked to kids about it. Would you have time to meet with me for an hour?” And everyone says yes.

After talking to this person about adoption, I realize that I need to talk about genes and chromosomes. Those are very complicated issues for 7, 8 and 9 year olds, so I go and talk to a geneticist and I say, “What is the simplest way that I can talk about the X and Y chromosome?” They will often guide me and give me things to read.

Harris Confirms the Science

I will then go back and write it and then call that person and email what I have written. When you simplify science, if you take out certain things, you can immediately become inaccurate, so then I email it back to them—or I fax it back to them—and they tell whether my science is accurate or not.

I do that about everything and it’s not just about the science. I’m constantly going back to people, constantly refining and also spending an enormous amount of time reading what I’ve written to myself, reading it over and over and over again. Once I have the science down, then I can go around with the words so that, in fact, it is easy to read, easy to say out loud and once you can say it out loud and read it out loud without stumbling, then you know you’ve got it.

Emeberley Shares the Artist’s Perspective

It’s Perfectly Normal and It’s So Amazing are books about puberty, growing up, reproduction, and how babies are made. It’s such a complex topic that it started to become logical to me that different techniques would work extremely well. The biology material just seemed perfectly suited to a comic book style, so Robie and I created the bird and bee characters, which are comic book style characters. They are supposed to represent children commenting on the text.

For communicating some of the harder science, the comic book style was helpful because you’re trying to teach a concept, not a pure reality. I could show how sperm are produced, for example, how eggs are released from the ovaries, etc. This, too, seemed suited to comic book style.

Robie and I developed a mantra, which I think is good for any nonfiction book for kids: “What’s in the best interests of the child?” And whenever we had to make a hard decision, we always went back to this question. For these books, it is about making kids comfortable with things that are perfectly normal.

Have students reflect on the insights of Harris and Emberley:

  • After learning about adoption, Harris realized she needed to learn about genetics. Have students give an example of when learning about one topic led them to explore another topic.
  • What are some ways student researchers can ensure that they are portraying their topic accurately?

This post was originally published as an article in Carin Bringelson and Nick Glass’ monthly column for School Library Monthly.

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