Welcome to Banned Books Week 2015! I love Banned Books Week, and not just for the obvious reason that it’s about books. This annual celebration is actually less about books than it’s about freedom of thought, of exploration, and of the opportunity for each person to decide for herself what’s appropriate for her family.
(Look below for an opportunity to enter a Banned Books Week giveaway as part of our annual celebration with Book Journey!)
You don’t want your kid to read something? Okay. I suppose that’s your decision. But don’t tell me my kid can’t read the same book. That’s not your decision. It’s mine, or, more likely, it’s my kid’s. If you don’t believe a particular book that the teacher has selected as part of the curriculum is appropriate or you personally think it has “no educational value,” you are absolutely free to raise an objection. Feel free to discuss it with the teacher. But why should you get to say that none of the kids in a class or a public school get to learn from the book just because you don’t like it?
Each year, I peruse the list of the previous year’s top ten list of banned books and pick one to read and review for Banned Books Week. This year, I knew as soon as I saw the list which book I would read: It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health, by Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberley.
You undoubtedly could anticipate the reason for the challenges to this book before you finished reading its title. Despite its universal application, the book delves into an area of adolescence that makes some adults uncomfortable—even squeamish. Some find it immoral. So let’s look at the book’s approach to the subject.
It’s Perfectly Normal is divided into an introduction followed by six sections: “What is Sex?”; “Our Bodies”; “Puberty”; “Families and Babies”; “Decisions”; and “Staying Healthy.” Together, the material covers everything from the basics of how a baby is made to gender identity to puberty to deciding to have sex to staying safe on the internet to making healthy choices when sexually active. That’s a lot of ground for about 100 pages. Cartoonish drawings of a genderless bee and bird take opposing viewpoints of the material as they accompany the adolescent reader through the pages, with the bird feeling confident about its changing body and feelings, and the bee tapping into a tween or teen’s uneasy side.
There’s much that’s good about this book. Its straightforward take on topics that are part of just about every kid’s adolescence is laudable; the book neither talks down to kids nor uses overly clinical terms. The book employs cartoon-style drawings throughout to illustrate the concepts being covered, and while the drawings depict nude boys and girls (and sometimes men and women), they always serve the material and aren’t prurient. The book introduces necessary information, including topics like wet dreams and the sex organs of both boys and girls, that many parents feel uncomfortable discussing, and lays out basic facts on topics like sexually transmitted diseases and birth control, about which teens often seem not to possess an accurate understanding.
The book isn’t perfect, however. While it provides an excellent introduction to the topics included, it isn’t comprehensive. This may be just as well, as it’s probably best not to overwhelm the younger teens at whom the book is aimed with too much information. But parents should follow-up with discussions and other sources of information later, after kids have read and absorbed the book.
In addition, an occasional terminology point doesn’t quite succeed in helping kids learn how to verbalize their new feelings. For example, the book suggests that these new and unfamiliar sensations kids might feel when they are aroused are often called “feeling sexy.” Perhaps this is true where the authors are from, but no one I know says this. If your teen has not already picked up a term from media, you might want to supply him with a more useful vocabulary word. But this is a minor point in a book that overall is replete with solid material.
Here’s the truth about books meant to educate kids about their bodies and sex: they are necessary. Some kids will not get accurate information about sex anywhere else, and some of those kids will end up pregnant, fathering a child, and/or with sexually transmitted diseases as a result. Some kids go through adolescence or part(s) of adolescence terrified that something is wrong with them because they feel attracted to their best friends, or because they masturbate, or because they’re not sure how a girl gets pregnant, or because they fear that sixteen is too old not to have had their first kiss yet. Not all kids are comfortable talking to their parents or any other adult. “Sex ed” in schools is varied and often spotty where it does exist. As for what kids learn from their friends…well, that’s not going to pass any accuracy tests, is it? Kids need another source of information. Where better to go than books?
Banning books about changing bodies and sexuality will not make kids less interested in sex. Kids grow up whether they read about the process or not. Their bodies will change; their hormones will surge. We can help them understand what’s happening to them, or we can leave them in the dark. I’d much rather my kids be equipped with accurate information about their bodies and the capabilities, risks, pleasures and responsibilities ahead so they can make wise and responsible choices as they get older than just toss them into a world with potentially serious consequences without the tools they need to live there.
It’s Perfectly Normal. Kids need to know that. Reading this book—and talking about it—is a good start.
Do you read banned books? Name a banned book you love in the comments, and I’ll put your name in a hat for a giveaway of It’s Perfectly Normal! (Tell me why you love the book and I’ll put your name in twice.)