Way back in 1988, children’s book author Robie H. Harris was sitting in a New York editor’s office batting around ideas for possible books. The editor proposed that she write a book about AIDS for elementary school children; she counter-proposed an all-encompassing look at “almost every single question that kids might have” about anything related to sex.
She rattled off a list of topics, and the rest is history: “It’s Perfectly Normal” is just out in its 20th-anniversary edition, with more than a million copies already in print. The mix of text by Harris and illustrations by Michael Emberley do indeed seem to cover all the sexual topics pubescent kids wonder about, from masturbation to menstruation to orientation to contraception.
“Of course,” Harris says, “over the years, I’ve added more topics as the times have changed, as information has changed, and as kids coming into puberty and adolescence have changed in some ways.”
What might those topics be? And what do they say about how kids’ worlds have changed over the last 20 years? Herewith, 10 significant changes in the book and what Harris says about them:
1. The Infosphere:
“There can be a lot of inappropriate, weird, confusing, uncomfortable, creepy, scary or even dangerous websites that you can end up on when looking for information.”
The biggest change in kids’ lives over the last 20 years, Harris says, is how they get their information. “With the explosion of information happening everywhere, kids are bombarded by sexual images, sexual words, words in songs. And then there’s the Internet: Kids can go on the Internet and find responsible information, and they can also go on the Internet and find information that is not accurate and sometimes absolutely dishonest.“
“And so the biggest change is the need to help kids know how to understand the information you get, and how do you get help with it? That’s when you go to a trusted adult. There’s just much more information to sort through for kids, and that’s why the biggest expansion in the book is the Internet chapter.”
And just a note on porn: Harris says every mental health expert she consulted says youngsters should stay away from it. (The book is for age 10 and up.) So “It’s one of the few judgments I put into the book, because I think it has to do with the health and wellbeing of our kids.”
“Gender is another word for whether a person is male or female. Gender is also about the thoughts and feelings a person has about being a female or being a male.”
That’s the broader definition of gender in the opening chapter, and the new edition also includes an explanation of “transgender” and “LGBT.” Harris acknowledges that the section on transgender youth “should have been in the book earlier, but it’s in there now.”
The section also includes a discussion of some people’s disrespect for gay and transgender people, and says it generally stems from ignorance. “I can’t write without a point of view,” Harris says. And her litmus tests has always been, “Is this what I would say to my own children?”
3. Long-acting birth control
The IUD, the implant and Depo-Provera are the most effective kinds of birth control.
The ranking of the most effective birth control methods is new, Harris says. It reflects a strong consensus among medical authorities that those long-acting methods are appropriate for teens who become sexually active — and desirable because they’re by far the most effective: they require no further action by the user — no daily pill, no pause for diaphragm insertion.
The book makes clear that condoms are also important to prevent disease, but Harris says when she found out about the ranking, “I thought, ‘This is something we owe it to kids to have in the book.” (Just this week, the American Academy of Pediatrics officially recommended the long-acting methods as “first-line” birth control for teens.)
4. Emergency contraception
Some brands of the morning-after pill can be purchased by a female or male of any age and without a prescription at a local drugstore or online.
The book had mentioned the “morning-after pill” before, but recent court rulings have made it available over the counter to buyers of any age, and this latest edition also includes more on the timing: that some pills must be taken within three days, some within five.
“That embryo is then implanted in another woman’s uterus, where it grows into a baby. That woman is called a surrogate.”
These days, Harris says, you might hear children as young as five or six using the term “surrogate” to explain their origins. “And my sense as an author, as a parent, is that I’d rather that kids have accurate and full information, and not perhaps worry for their friend who was conceived this way, or think there’s something weird or odd about it if any child has been conceived this way.”
“A healthy female who wants to wait until she is older to have a baby may also have her eggs frozen to be used, if she chooses, at a later date to conceive a baby by in vitro fertilization.”
“Some women choose to do this,” Harris says, “having their eggs frozen for a variety of reasons. Sure, this is another way some babies come to be, but it’s also just fascinating science.”
7. Sexual abuse
“Sometimes it happens when someone who is more powerful than another person or when someone who is older than another person takes advantage of that person in a sexual way.”
The chapter on sexual abuse has been there from the beginning, Harris says, but now adds the important concept of the power differential often involved in abuse. “It’s extremely important for kids to know about that,” she says.
8. HPV vaccine
“This vaccine prevents females and males from getting or passing on HPV and prevents females from getting cervical cancer.”
Uptake remains relatively low on the Human Papilloma Virus vaccine, and “It’s very, very important,” Harris says. This latest edition points out that boys should get the vaccine as well as girls, to keep from passing on the virus.
“Scientists all over the world are working day and night in laboratories to try to make a vaccine that will prevent a person from being infected with HIV if he or she comes into contact with the virus.”
There has been a chapter on HIV and how it’s spread from the get-go, Harris says, but it has been expanded and updated with the latest on research and treatment.
10. Abortion laws
“State governments have also made many laws that restrict and make it more difficult for a female to get an abortion. For example...”
The book has always had an abortion chapter, but laws change, and the latest edition lays out the current legal picture on the state level. “It’s important that kids understand that there’s law here and it could affect them,” Harris says.
Over the years, she says, there have been many attempts to censor the book, but it is still widely available to kids and teens in their homes, schools, and libraries, and from their health-care providers. It has been published in over 35 countries.
For all that’s changed, Harris says, the book’s central idea, as expressed in the title, remains the same: “Most things are normal.” The title came from a Cambridge, Mass. science teacher her children had when they were young; after each answer to most — though not all — questions about sex, she would add cheerily: “And it’s perfectly normal!”
Readers, thoughts? Suggestions for what else should be in the next edition?