This is the last stop on Robie H. Harris' 5-day, five blog book tour to promote her upcoming picture book, Maybe a Bear Ate it. She was at Fuse #8 on Monday, then at Book Buds, MotherReader, and yesterday, Kids Lit. While I don't do much in the way of picture book coverage here at Bookshelves of Doom, I do keep my eye on book challenges -- and Robie H. Harris, author of It's Perfectly Normal, It's So Amazing and It's Not the Stork, knows all about the book challenges.
Back when it came out (and also when it was revised and re-released), It's Perfectly Normal received starred reviews in practically every journal that gives out stars, great newspaper and magazine write-ups, a thumbs-up from Ann Landers... and it's also landed you on the ALA's Most Challenged Authors list in 2005, 2003, 2001 and #15 on the Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000 list. When you were first writing it -- if my math is correct, this would have been in the late '80s, right? -- did you expect such varied reactions?
RHH: I only expected one thing — that some individuals and/or organizations whose religious or cultural or personal beliefs are different from mine, and who had a history of opposing books that do not comport to their view, would most likely try to have libraries take my book out of library collections. And that is what did happen and continues to happen. Yes, I assumed that certain individuals would object to the ways in which I dealt with some of the topics, and possibly feel that some of the topics I included were not necessary to include. I also thought that some might object to the values that were evident because of topics I included, and choose to write about and what I said about particular topics such as homosexuality or abortion. And that was just fine with me because I have never, ever felt that every family, school or library in America should have the books Michael Emberley and I created on sexual health. But I have always felt that anyone who chooses to read or buy these books should have the right to do so. And of course, from the start, I hoped that the kids and teens for whom I wrote IT’S PERFECTLY NORMAL would find Michael Emberley’s (the illustrator) and my book useful and interesting and I was thrilled when that happened. But I never took it for-granted that that would happen.
RHH: NO! A firm NO! Both Michael and I believe that kids and teens deserve the most honest, up-to-date, accurate and age-appropriate information about sexual health and staying healthy. If we took things out, just because an individual or an organization objected, then who would lose — the kids. And if we took these topics out, then we would not be telling the whole story, and would not be giving today’s kids and teens all of the facts they need to stay healthy. And if we took these topics out, which most kids know something about, but also may have a great deal of misinformation about, then we would not have been honest with kids, and leave our kids and teens ill-prepared to deal with the ups and downs of growing up, and as they become older the real risks of becoming sexually active at too early an age. And if we the adults in our kids’ lives are not honest with them, then the words we say or write will have NO credibility with them, and they will go elsewhere for the information the may need and/or may seek, and perhaps to sources that are not accurate, and could jeopardize our kids’ health. I only included information that I felt would be in “the best interests of the child” and if someone disagrees with me, I believe that in a democracy, that is their right.
I've noticed that quite often, challenged books also seem to generate a lot of Thank You letters to the author (an example would be Sarah Dessen's blog entry about the recent challenge to Just Listen). Has it been the same with your books?
RHH: I have received thank you notes from librarians who have defended our books when there has been a library challenge. But more often, in fact most often, the thank you’s come from people in the audience when I speak. Or when I go to any kind of an event, work or social, I am amazed to find out how many people know about my books on sexual health and come up and thank me. And of course, I always pass on those thanks to Michael Emberley. And the thanks are for things such as: writing about abuse, and other difficult topics to discuss, for being inclusive and that means writing about all kinds of kids and families, and in the art, creating a book that looks like what America really looks like, and also for being honest both with the words and the pictures in all three of our books that are part of our FAMILY LIBRARY on sexual health: IT’S PERFECTLY NORMAL, IT’S SO AMAZING! and IT’S NOT THE STORK!
From what I've read, authors respond differently to challenges: some stay out of the fray completely, some comment if asked, while others are very vocal, sometimes offering free books to the community, school/library visits and writing letters to the editor. What do you usually do, and why?
RHH: When IT’S PERFECTLY NORMAL was first published, my publisher Candlewick Press and I set up a procedure, which we hoped would offer support to those librarians whose professional judgment is questioned in the form or a library challenge. Here’s how we — my publisher and/or I respond — to a book challenge. Whenever we hear of a challenge, the publisher calls the librarian, asks what has happened, tells the librarian that he or she has our support and if wanted, a kit of materials will be sent out including a letter from my editor on why she published my books on sexual health, along with reviews, awards, and praise, and other relevant materials. And the librarian is also told that if it helps them, I would also be happy to talk with them to clarify any issues about why I wrote what I wrote, and why Michael Emberley and I included the art that we did in IT’S PERFECTLY NORMAL or whatever book in our FAMILY LIBRARY has been challenged. Then my publisher contacts the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, so that they can also offer their support to librarians as they go through the book challenge.
Then PEN AMERICAN Center’s Children’s Book Committee is notified and they send a letter written by children’s book authors Elizabeth A. Levy and Vera Williams saying that “PEN’s 28,000 members applaud librarians for supporting young reads’ right to choose and have access to the many different voices and images that are part of their world.” Later on the letter states that the following: “If young people come upon something in a book they disagree with, they have the right to close the book, or to speak up or write about their opinion. But they do not have the right to keep someone else from reading a book with a different point of view.”
Often I am asked to come to give a speech in the city or town where the challenge is still on going. I am happy to help out in any way I can. But when a challenge is still not resolved, my mere presence will only inflame the controversy. I am happy to come and speak after there has been a decision about my belief in the freedom to read and the freedom to write, even for our children and teens, and also about the perils of censorship.
And often I am contacted by the media in the midst of a challenge, and when that happens, I do talk with the press as a way of supporting the librarian. The bottom line is that I believe that it is the librarian, or in some cases the bookseller, who needs to be supported, not my books.
And in a recent challenge in two cities in Maine, where copies of IT’S PERFECTLY NORMAL were taken from the library and the person who had taken these books wrote the two libraries and said she was not going to return the books, my publisher sent along replacement copies, as did citizens around the country who most likely found out about these two cases in Maine on the internet and in blogs on the internet. My support comes in the form of speaking out across the country about freedom to read and freedom to write issues and the first amendment, and how censorship, keeping information and ideas and stories from kids that they have a right to have, affects our kids and teens and their families.
There was a brief conversation at Bookshelves of Doom recently about the advantages and disadvantages of being an author whose work is regularly challenged. (Advantages being, for example, free press, and disadvantages being, for example, libraries avoiding controversy by not stocking the book in the first place.) Any thoughts?
RHH: I don’t think there is one single advantage to being an author whose books have been challenged. Well, maybe there is one advantage, and that is the chance to meet and work with the most dedicated librarians, children’s librarians, who are the real heroes in their communities and our democracy when they stand up and publicly defend a book in their library collection that has been challenged. Perhaps book sales go up, but I don’t believe publishers have tracked that. And yes, there is media attention, but the time one spends responding to these cases, and in particular, the hours and days librarians spend defending our democracy and the first amendment, keeps all of us from our main jobs —whether it’s writing fiction for young children about the normal ups and downs of childhood, or in terms of the nonfiction I write — getting the most accurate and up-to-date information about sexual health to our kids and teens on how to stay both emotionally and physically healthy.
It seems to me that these topics (sex/sexuality/puberty) can be more difficult for adults to talk about than for kids. Why is that? (If you agree, obviously -- if you don't, please feel free to blow me out of the water!)
RHH: Not to worry! I agree with you. In IT’S PERFECTLY NORMAL, there is a bird and bee cartoon that goes like this:
THE BIRD: Did you ever notice that some grown-ups — not just kids— have a hard time talking about sex?
And THE BEE responds: Yep! They twist around in their chairs and say, “Well, uh…” about a hundred times and laugh nervously.
I put that BIRD and BEE exchange in to acknowledge to kids that it IS hard for many, not all, but many parents to talk to their kids about something as personal and private as “bodies and sex.” And yet, when I wrote that exchange, I hoped that that it could provide an opening for parents to talk with their kids about sexual health and vice-versa. And of course, I hoped that the book could help foster those conversations.
Now as to why it is hard for parents to talk with their kids. First and foremost, today the information about sexual health can be complicated and hard to explain. Additionally, in our culture, many adults do not like to think about kids having sexual feelings and experiences. And add to that that many of today’s parents had parents who did not feel comfortable talking about sex with their kids, so todays’ parents had no role models for doing having the “talks.” However today, I have to say, we must to talk with our kids about not becoming infected and not having a baby before one are old enough to become a parent, and that means talking honestly about sex with them. Then add to that the recent news that Jamie Lyn Spears, who is only sixteen announced her pregnancy, the top rated TV show for kids nine to fourteen. So how can we NOT talk with our kids about the issues her early pregnancy brings to the forefront? This is when our books can help both a child and a parent, as well as teachers, librarians, health professionals, and clergy talk with kids when today’s media brings more news about sex than we may think they may be ready for.
And then add to that the internet, and whoa, how can we not talk with our kids and help them sort out what is healthy and safe in terms of sexuality and what is not healthy and safe? Also, we need to start talking to kids at a much younger age, and that’s why I wrote IT’S SO AMAZING! for kids seven and up, and IT’S NOT THE STORK! for kids age 4 and up. If we answer their questions when they are younger, then when they go through the more difficult times of puberty and adolescence, they will be more likely to talk with us at that point. And I believe that books can help to frame and begin those necessary conversations.
Growing up, what information about sex/sexuality/puberty did you have at your disposal? Who (if anyone) gave you The Talk, and how did it go?
RHH: My mother spoke with me at a very young age and named all the parts of my body, and talked to me about how babies were made when I asked, and then about getting my period before I got my period, and about not getting pregnant when I was in my early teens. She spoke to me about these things in the most-matter-of-fact way, as if this was just a normal part of growing up, which it is! But most of my friends’ moms did not talk with them, so of course, we all talked with one another. Sexuality and reproductive health were part of my high school, a girl’s only school, freshman year biology course, and that only amplified what my Mom had told me and added the layer of science and human biology, which is a large part of the book I have written on sexual health. My father in my teen years stressed how important it was not to get pregnant, and how difficult that could be for someone who was too young to take good care of a baby. This too runs through my books. They both loved babies and that too runs through my books. I was lucky to have the parents I did.
What are you reading right now, and/or have you read any real stand-outs recently?
RHH: Right now, I am reading Richard Russo’s Bridge of Sighs about the difficult lives of small town America. I seem not to be able to put it down, and perhaps it is really about many who live in rural America today. I just finished Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise and I could not put it down, this book about coping with the Nazi occupation in a small town in France. And then how can I not mention a children’s book, but a book for adults too, Peter Sis’ latest book, The Wall, again having to do with occupation, but this time by the Communists in Prague. And I also have to mention Leonard Marcus’ Golden Legacy: How Golden Books Won Children's Hearts, Changed Publishing Forever, and Became an American Icon Along the Way, a book that includes a lot of what went on at Bank Street in the thirties, and forties, and fifties and the creation of picture books, and mentions people I worked with in the late sixties at Bank Street when I co-wrote a segment for the Captain Kangaroo Show and produced a film, Child’s Eye View about disadvantaged children on the west side of New York City, which was selected to be in the Lincoln Center Film Festival. These writing experiences played a key role in launching my career as a children’s book author of nonfiction and picture books. And Leonard captured so much of those early Golden picture books for all of us in his wonderful and important new book.