Intensive Research Is Important for Children”s Nonfiction

Robie Harris never intended to write books on sexuality for kids. But when an editor asked her to do a book for children about HIV/AIDS, she started to consider the subject seriously. “The topic had never crossed my mind,” says Harris. “But I said to that editor, ”If I were talking with my own kids about HIV when they were in elementary school, I would want to talk about it in the context of healthy sexuality. There are a whole lot of things that kids need to know before in order to stay healthy. They need to know how their bodies work, what happens during puberty, what”s the same and what”s different about females and males, how babies are made, and of course about HIV/AIDS, and lots more.””

In fact, Harris outlined a potential book in that editors office that day and went home and told her kids, who were then in their late teens, about her conversation with the editor. “I asked my kids, ”What was helpful when your dad and I talked to you about sex? What did you still need to know? And what should I put in this book that I didn”t think about?”” And that”s when the great collaboration began. “We talked, and that night I made about ten phone calls to science teachers, other parents, and our pediatrician. My kids talked to their friends, and I talked with them, too. And they were very open.” The editor decided, however, that he still wanted a book focusing on HIV/AIDS. But by then Harris knew she was going to do her own book about sexual health, one which would be comprehensive and would include HIV/AIDS.

From the start, Harris realized she”d have to learn not only how to present sensitive sexual topics to kids but also the specific science of the facts of life. “We wanted to be absolutely sure the information in the books is as accurate as possible and would really work for kids, particularly for It”s Perfectly Normal and It”s So Amazing! because these books deal with topics that can be difficult and tough—as well as fascinating—for kids. We also realized these books are also about human biology and area really about how each one of us grows up. That”s why I always feel in writing for children—no matter what the topic—that our responsibility is to the kids who are our audience,” says Harris.

And this responsibility comes through in the way the books are written. Topics like the fertilization of an egg by a sperm, the stages of pregnancy, puberty, heterosexuality and homosexuality, masturbation, and others are clearly explained in a way that makes them perfectly normal. Harris”s use of a cartoon bird and bee as narrators in It”s So Amazing! and It”s Perfectly Normal allows kids to be more comfortable with the subject matter. “The bird and the bee are the voices of kids,” explains Harris. “The bird is curious and wants to know everything about sex while the bee is resistant and would rather read books about earth science than hear about where babies come from. Young readers are able to identify with the personality most like their own.”

In order to get her books right, however, Harris had to do her research. And looking at the pages of thank-yous in the back of It”s So Amazing! and It”s Perfectly Normal, it”s clear that her research was extensive. “I talked to everybody from pediatricians to teachers, librarians, social workers, psychologists, reproductive biologists, child development experts, HIV/AIDS experts and clergy members,” says Harris.

For writers doing research, Harris advises that when asking people to help, the first thing you say is that your book is for children. She followed this plan and was never once turned down. In fact, she established many beneficial relationships that lasted through the entire process of creating the books. “I felt strongly about getting the science as accurate and as up-to-date as possible.” At one point she read an article in the New York Times Science section about reproductive biologist, Jeffrey Pudney, Ph.D. who had been doing research on sperm. “I picked up the phone, got his number from information, and said, ”Hi, my name is Robie Harris, and I”m writing a book on sexual health for kids.”” From this call she developed an important contact with Dr. Pudney who spent many hours going over the materials with Harris and her illustrator, Michael Emberley. “Jeffrey is so passionate about biology that he was an extraordinary teacher for us. He felt excited because he wanted the kids to be excited about science and health when they read our books and looked at the cartoon illustrations.”

Harris also went to parents for input on her manuscript; however, when some of the parents asked if they could read a draft of the book to their children, Harris asked them to wait. Unlike many writers who jump eagerly at any chance to share their work with their intended audience, Harris says, “It made me nervous, not because I didn”t want the parents to read it to their kids but because the book was not finished yet. I felt it would be irresponsible to pass on any information inadvertently that might not have been quite right or inaccurate at that point in the writing process.”

Harris” entire process—from the day she started thinking about writing It”s Perfectly Normal to when the book was finished—took about five years.

This interview appeared in Children”s Writer”s & Illustrator”s Market. Check out the current edition.

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