The Perfectly Amazing Robie Harris
An Interview with Robie Harris
by Tana Elias
Robie H. Harris is the well-recognized author of It’s Perfectly Normal: A Book About Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex and Sexual Health. Her newest book on healthy sexuality and reproduction is It’s So Amazing!: A Book About Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families and is for a younger audience. Both books are collaborations with illustrator Michael Emberley. Harris and Emberley have also collaborated on two picture books: Happy Birth Day! and Hi, New Baby! , the latter to be published this fall. Harris received a B.A. from Wheaton College and a M.A.T. from the Bank Street College of Education. She has been a teacher at Bank Street College of Education’s School for Children and in public schools, and been involved in a variety of collaborative efforts concerning children and education. Her many books for children include fiction and nonfiction and have won critical acclaim from parents, reviewers, and children themselves. She is married, has two grown sons, and lives in Massachusetts.
Robie Harris spoke in Madison on October 17, 2000, at a workshop for teachers.
TE: You’ve held a variety of interesting jobs, including, according to Something About the Author, designing parks for children. How did you become involved in park design?
RH: When my first child was a baby, we lived in New York City and I took him to Central Park to play almost every day, which had wonderful equipment for toddlers and pre-schoolers. We moved and when I went to the park in our new city, I met many other mothers who were concerned that in this park there was little for young children to play on or feel safe on. I invited the mothers to come to my house one morning with their toddlers. The result was that we designed equipment and worked with the city and the parks department to create a park for young children. By the time the city finished building the park, my two children were too old for it. But every time I pass by it, I love seeing so many young children playing in and having a wonderful and safe time in the park we created.
TE: Your most recent books have all included collaboration with artist Michael Emberley. It seems unusual for an author and illustrator to work together so closely. How did that come about?
RH: It’s not the norm for publishers to put illustrators and authors together. But I knew that it would be essential for me to work very closely with an illustrator on both books on sexual health because the topic was so sensitive and every drawing — as well as every word — had to work well and work together. I also knew that some of my text would turn into art. So I began to look for an illustrator even before I sold my first book on sexuality, It’s Perfectly Normal. I met Michael at a local bookstore signing and saw his picture book Ruby for the first time. Wow, could he could draw! And his drawings had humor. Six months later, when I finished the manuscript, I remembered Ruby and called him and asked if he would be interested in doing a few drawings for the book, and then we’d submit the text and drawings to a publisher. Thank goodness, he said, “Yes!” Now I believe, at least for me, that it’s essential to work closely with an illustrator on any book I’m working on, if possible. And of course, I could not have found a more perfect and talented illustrator than Michael to work on the books we have created together — It’s Perfectly Normal, Happy Birth Day!, It’s So Amazing!, and our latest book, Hi New Baby.
TE: You mentioned that you knew some of your text would become art - how did you decide, cooperatively, what information went into the “regular” text of the book and what information was to be included in the dialogue between the bird, the bee, and other characters in It’s Perfectly Normal and It’s So Amazing?
RH: I write the manuscript first, including the bird and bee comments and then meet with Michael. I meet with numerous experts who work with and/or study children or how are in the reproductive or biological sciences. I then talk with all of them about what is healthy and age appropriate information that children want to know and need to know in order to stay healthy. After the text is written, I go back to all these experts, and Michael and I do the same with the art, and then the art and text together, until we feel that what we have created is “in the best interest of the child.” This process is extremely time-consuming and that’s why it takes us a long time to create these books. But it would be irresponsible not to do the endless checking. And what we learn from these experts is so fascinating and helpful, as well as what Michael and I learn from each other. I feel 100% free to make suggestions or even disagree with Michael about his work and the same is true for him about my work. Most always though, I am delighted with his work.
TE: You’ve collaborated with many other professionals, including religious leaders, parents, teachers, and experts in many fields (in It’s So Amazing you thank no less than sixty-six people!) How did you locate these experts, and how involved were they in the book-writing process?
RH: Some of these experts are people in my community I know; others are people whose works I’ve read or people I’ve even read about in the newspaper. The reproductive biologist we have been lucky to work with was mentioned in an article in the science section of The New York Times. I found out where he works, called him, and told him I was working on a book for children on sexual health, told him my questions, and met with him the next week. Michael and I met with him time and time again as we continued to work on both It’s Perfectly Normal and It’s So Amazing! We also use the same process with the picture books we have created, Happy Birth Day! and Hi, New Baby!
TE: The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books has said of your humorous approach in It’s Perfectly Normal,“…where some kids’ books on sex leave themselves open for giggling silliness by trying to avoid it, this one accepts those giggles, acknowledging that readers may be both individually and collectively a blend of curiosity, disinterest, and apprehension, and giving so much to giggle at that eventually nervousness will die down and interest will proceed unimpeded.” How have the children you’ve worked with or heard from responded to the humor in the design of It’s Perfectly Normal or It’s So Amazing?
RH: When talking about bodies, sex, growing up, how babies are made, and sexual health, we all know that children and teens find these topics serious, silly, funny, interesting, fascinating, scary, and/or gross. So we knew children and teens would have a variety of responses to this complex topic. I decided early on that to show all of these responses, including the humor, giggling, and embarrassment, would convey the sense that however you react is perfectly normal and healthy. And besides humor can make a book fun and accessible, and many things about these topics are funny. And from what I’m told and I think I know — the kids and teens love the humor.
TE: It’s Perfectly Normal has provoked quite a bit of controversy since it was published in 1994. Do you anticipate that It’s So Amazing! will produce a similar response in the media and in libraries?
RH: Yes, it has provoked library challenges. And there’s a good chance that librarians will hear from those who objected to It’s Perfectly Normal about It's So Amazing! But the truth is that most parents want to educate their children and want their children to be educated about sexual health, even though some do not and may try to have books removed from libraries. But I believe that librarians are the real heroes, standing up for the right of children and teens to have access to information that children may seek out and/or need to have, or allowing children to come across new information or ideas that they may have never thought about. I would never say that every family, school, or library must have the books I write, but I do believe that any family, school, or library that chooses to have our books should be free to do so. Isn’t this what our democracy is about? Freedom.
TE: Are you working on any books now?
RH: Yes, Michael and I have just finished a picture book Hi, New Baby! that is about the day an older child meets the new baby in his or her family. And we are working on a nonfiction picture book on the first year of life, which is the first of a series of books entitled Growing Up Stories. Late next year, we will start work on a book on sexuality for children ages 3 and up, called It’s a Girl! It’s a Boy! And I am working on two picture books with the U.K. illustrator Jan Ormerod, entitled, Goodbye, Mousie, about a mouse that dies, and a second book with Jan entitled I’m Not Going to School Today! I feel very lucky to be working with such talented and “wonderful-to-work with” illustrators.
TE: I can’t wait to read all of them! And I’m glad to see that you’re writing some more fiction along the lines of Don’t Forget to Come Back. Do you have plans to write more fiction for children in the future?
RH: Yes, I plan to write more fiction and also more nonfiction. For me, writing is hard, challenging, often fun, and often frustrating, but I love doing this work and hope to never stop. I find children and the issues they face endlessly interesting — and that’s what I love to write about.
About Robie Harris:
McCullough, Bob. “Toward a Younger Audience: Author, illustrator gear sex ed book for readers 10 and up.” Boston Globe. October 23, 1994.
Something About the Author, volume 90. Gale, 1997. p. 112-114.
Stevenson, Deborah. “The Big Picture.” Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books. October 1994. p. 35-36.
Zvirin, Stephanie. “The Booklist Interview: Robie Harris.” Booklist. May 1, 1996. p.1495.
Selected Books by Robie Harris:
Before You Were Three: How You Began to Walk, Talk, Explore, and Have Feelings. With Elizabeth Levy. Photographs by Henry Gordillo. Delacorte, 1977.
Don’t Forget to Come Back. Illustrated by Tony de Luna. Knopf, 1978.
I Hate Kisses. Illustrated by Diane Paterson. Knopf, 1981.
It’s So Amazing! A Book About Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families. Illustrated by Michael Emberley. Candlewick Press, 1999.
It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health. Illustrated by Michael Emberley. Candlewick Press, 1994.
Happy Birth Day! Illustrated by Michael Emberley. Candlewick Press, 1996.
Hi, New Baby! Illustrated by Michael Emberly. Candlewick, 2000.
Reprinted from Friends of the CCBC Newsletter 2000, Number 2 with permission of Tana Elias and the Friends of the CCBC, Inc. ©2000 Friends of the CCBC, Inc.