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Happy Anniversary: It's Perfectly Normal

It’s Perfectly Normal: A Book About Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health by Robie H. Harris, illustrated by Michael Emberley, was published by Candlewick in 1994. It celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary in 2019. 

 

Intended for readers ages ten and up, Harris and Emberley’s It’s Perfectly Normal was groundbreaking when it appeared on the scene in 1994. It took its upper-elementary/middle-school audience seriously, providing refreshingly honest, detailed, straightforward information. And that information was revisited and carefully updated in each of three anniversary editions, in 2004, 2009, and 2014. 

The Horn Book praised the first edition:  

An unassuming, coherent, comprehensive explanation of sex in all its complicated glory. The text is freely and profusely illustrated with explicit drawings done in a friendly style. All of the people pictured look wonderfully happy with themselves, whether they are kissing, or copulating. Certainly some critics will take issue with the frank talk and anatomically correct drawings, but for sheer information, this does the job. 

At the time, the morality-policing critics did take issue, of course. They still do—people’s tendency toward self-righteous outrage on behalf of The Children hasn’t changed. The book has been consistently challenged in library collections, and has frequently made it to the list of “Top Ten Most Challenged Books,” according to the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom. Reasons cited included nudity and allegations that it was “child pornography.” 

The book’s creators have been committed to keeping the information current in the anniversary editions. In an introductory “Note to the Reader” included in each new edition, Harris and Emberley write that they “ask experts, including parents, teachers, librarians, doctors, nurses, psychologists, psychoanalysts, scientists and clergy, what information about puberty, sex, and sexual health needs to be changed, updated, or added to keep you healthy.” 

One notable improvement to the original, made in the 2014 twentieth-anniversary edition, was in the chapter on sexual orientation, making the information more inclusive and emphasizing identity along with physical attraction. Titled “Straight and Gay: Heterosexuality and Homosexuality” in the previous editions, the chapter’s new title (in the paperback edition) indicated a wider lens: “Who You Are: Straight, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, +.” Bisexuality is integrated in discussions throughout the chapter rather than receiving just a passing mention, and there’s new information about gender identity (though that term isn’t used), being transgender, and the terms queer and questioning. These changes reflected increased public awareness of LGBTQIA+ issues since 1994 and were a welcome step forward. 

The language around gender and sexual orientation, however, has evolved quite a bit since 2014. Five years ago, the definition of a “transgender person” as “someone who crosses from the gender that person was born with to the opposite gender, or as some say, to the other gender” could stand, but even then this simplistic assessment didn’t reflect many trans people’s experiences. Today, the word transgender is considered an umbrella term embracing a range of genders and identities — i.e., there’s no one way to be transgender. Similarly, the addition of a paragraph about pronoun usage, including the singular they, was laudable in 2014, but today we recognize that the paragraph’s usage ignores nonbinary folks. Using the singular they isn’t only for those “who feel that they are male some of the time and female at other times.” Also, trans people don’t just “feel this way”; they are this way. 

My wish for the next new edition of It’s Perfectly Normal would be for a holistic beyond-the-male/female-binary approach to the subject matter, beginning with the “Who You Are” chapter. Trans, genderfluid, genderqueer, nonbinary, and agender kids (yes, kids) desperately need to see themselves and their experiences normalized and included in conversations about puberty and sexual health. Cisgender kids (those whose gender identity corresponds to the gender they were assigned at birth) need to be aware of trans, intersex, and gender-diverse people and accept that different gender identities and expressions are healthy variations of our humanity. Rather than confining discussion of trans people to one chapter, include them throughout the book. Use more expansive, less-gendered language when talking about bodies, adolescence, and sex. It’s an admittedly hard shift for those of us who identify as cisgender to make — but it’s worth it. The more work we do to see and understand our differences, the greater our capacity for empathy and compassion. 

And that concept is already embedded in It’s Perfectly Normal and has been since the beginning:  

People are often afraid of people they know little or nothing about or who are different from them in some ways…No matter what some people may think, it’s always important…to remember to treat all people with respect. And it’s important to know that people’s daily lives—making a home, having friends and fun, working, being a partner, being married, raising children—are mostly the same whether they are straight, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or questioning.   

Or intersex or gender creative or agender or pansexual or asexual…The language is important to respect, but equally important is Harris and Emberley’s message—the same since 1994 — that it’s all perfectly, wonderfully normal.

From the September/October 2019 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. Response from Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberley in the November/December 2019 Horn Book Magazine.

Kitty Flynn
Kitty Flynn is consulting editor for The Horn Book, Inc.

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