One summer weekend in 1990, my friend G. and I—then 9 and 11 years old, respectively—spent a weekend giggling over the book What’s Happening to Me?, a cartoon-illustrated guide to puberty. We would have laughed nervous preteen chuckles even if the book, which came out in 1975, were serious in tone, but it was often deliberately funny. (A section describing pubic hair explained, “It’s possible to be a blonde and a brunette at the same time,” accompanied by an explanatory drawing.) All the same, it provided us with a valuable insight into sexual education that may have otherwise been unavailable.
What’s Happening to Me?, and its creators’ reproduction-focused counterpart, Where Did I Come From?, took a no-nonsense approach to education that explicitly encouraged kids not to feel shame about their bodies or their sexual feelings. But they—along with the majority of other guides to puberty, sexuality, or reproduction available at the time—assumed their readers all identified as straight and cis, and that their parents did too. The sections about where babies came from explained to kids that their (straight, cis) parents had met, had intercourse, gotten pregnant and that had been that. In vitro fertilization was a few years out when What’s Happening to Me? was published, but even in 1990, adoption, surrogacy, stepfamilies and other variants on the nuclear family were rarely mentioned in books about reproduction.
Unfortunately, in two decades, that situation apparently hasn’t changed much. Too often, sex education materials meant to explain the “basics” to kids are not written with a broader understanding of what those basics are: What families are, how they start, what puberty can feel like, and how to navigate sexuality and sexual communication. This is particularly evident considering the dearth of books describing reproduction, puberty, and sexuality in a way that acknowledges—implicitly or explicitly—LGBTQ identities.
Today, about 9 percent of teenagers identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or questioning; as many as six million Americans have an LGBT-identified parent. Yet when I reached out to friends raising young children, advocacy groups, and a local bookstore for recommendations on more diverse sex-ed books aimed at adolescents, there were few options to be found.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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The choices that were available, however, were encouraging in terms of potential material to come. What Makes a Baby, written by Cory Silverberg and illustrated by Fiona Smyth, was published in 2013 for “every kind of family and every kind of kid.” Suitable for preschoolers through 8-year-olds, it effectively describes conception and reproduction without gendering people or anatomy: “Not all bodies have eggs in them. Some do, and some do not.” The illustrations are bright, colorful, and somewhat abstract (bodies come in bright colors like purple and blue, and families are portrayed in multiple colors with different disability statuses). The text is light but earnest; I was particularly charmed by the statements that inside both sperm and eggs, “there are so many stories about the body [it] came from,” a rather pretty and succinct way to describe DNA. Rather than delineate the many types of families, or specific identities, the result is a basic, beautiful template parents and other caregivers can use to start conversations about those topics. According to Silverberg’s website, the book will be part of a series.
Where Silverberg’s book aims to be wide-ranging, but not comprehensive, Robie H. Harris’ trilogy—It’s NOT the Stork, It’s So Amazing!, and It’s Perfectly Normal—takes a different approach. Rather than trying to be a template for describing many types of origin stories, it’s thorough and in-depth. The books, illustrated by Michael Emberley, describe sexuality, reproduction, and development with age-appropriate degrees of detail, and cover a substantial breadth of topics: Harris describes masturbation, homosexuality, bisexuality, abortion, and sexually transmitted infections in matter-of-fact, medically accurate, progressive ways. (A cartoon bird and bee guide the reader through each topic; the bird is generally enthusiastic, while the bee is skeptical and sometimes grossed out, suggesting both sets of feelings are normal.)
In It’s So Amazing, for instance, sections describing male and female anatomy are prefaced by a two-page spread of cartoon naked bodies. The drawings portray a variety of races and body shapes, and some of the naked folks have visible disabilities. The books also discuss different types of families and provide sensitively written, appropriate information on sexual abuse, consent, and healthy boundaries. Unfortunately, the sections defining “sex” and “gender” use the terms almost interchangeably, and in early versions, the author does not discuss trans* identities at all. The books have been updated and reprinted several times since their first appearance in 1999; the latest editions, published in August of this year, do include a broader definition of gender and discussions of transgender identities.
In fact, although there are now a handful of (non-puberty or sexuality-focused) children’s books featuring kids with trans* identities—here are a few recommended by the Human Rights Campaign’s Welcoming Schools campaign, for example—I wasn’t able to find any specifically describing puberty, sexuality, or reproduction in a way that would address trans* kids’ concerns. Instead, all of the books on the market seem to be about introducing the concept of transgender identities to young kids.
Harris’ and Silverberg’s books are clearly a great starting point, but there should be far more choices available when it comes to addressing kids’ and teens’ full range of identities and experiences. Unfortunately, whether out of fear of backlash or an unwillingness to recognize a changing society, mainstream publishers seem unwilling to commit resources toward including other narratives as options. Silverberg’s book, for example, was the result of a Kickstarter campaign.
The puberty guides or sex ed pamphlets I read growing up—both the aforementioned What’s Happening to Me? and the booklets we got in school—tended to assure me that I might not like my changing body at first, but that eventually, I’d get comfortable with it. They also noted that boys would start looking at me differently, and that I might start to look at them differently; they assured me that would also be awkward at first, but eventually it would be fun. Though the books themselves may have changed, the same messaging tends to appear in modern sex ed texts today.
But these statements may not turn out to be true for everybody: Some trans*-identified teenagers report suicidal thoughts at the onset of puberty, plenty of teenage girls aren’t all that interested in boys, and “being looked at differently” carries a range of implications, some of which never get to be fun.
The puberty guide I’d like to see would describe the process of growing up using a variety of authors and voices with a variety of experiences and gender identities. They could describe how puberty blockers work, and why some kids use them; what it can feel like to develop too late or too early; what’s weird about dealing with a changing body and changing emotions; and what parts of developing sexuality are actually fun. The prevailing narrative—that puberty is a similar process for everyone, that it is an embarrassing phase, and everything gets better at the end of it—is offensively simple, and sells kids short.
UPDATE: This piece has been updated to reflect the content of the latest editions of Robie H. Harris’ books.