In Britain, it’s hard to be honest with youngsters about sex … but even harder in the USA.
Stephanie Nettell interviews Robie H Harris about her new book for Walker
It was a three-minute spot on an NBC-network show in Atlanta, Georgia. They had taken the male and female drawings of pre-puberty, puberty and young adult from Let’s Talk About Sex (called in America It’s Perfectly Normal), and carefully drawn a black box right across the torsos, leaving only legs and heads. You might, like Robie Harris, wonder why they were showing them at all.
‘It was such a quick shot, I thought “I’m losing my mind, they couldn’t have done this! Do I comment? But with three minutes that would be the whole interview…” So I talked instead about how important it was to keep kids healthy, to give them this information before they’re sexually active. I’m still not convinced I did the right thing, but I’d decided not to get into the combative role.’
She was pre-armed. Back home in Cambridge, Mass, she had consulted ‘a wonderful non-profit group called Political Research Associates, who have been tracking the right wing in our country for 17 years’, about probable accusations that she’s positively ordering kids to have sex, that it’ll be her fault when they become pregnant, get infected and die… She had no intention of speaking in deepest Florida, say, or parts of Texas. Even in Massachusetts, which defied the recent surge to the right by sticking to a Kennedy, there have been 41 challenges to the health curriculum, AIDS education and sexuality, in the last 18 months. ‘Stealth candidates, highly funded and trained, come into the State, running for School Boards and local councils, and they really do terrify parents by distorting one sentence out of context.
‘Most of the challenges die when parents, realising what’s being taken away, fight back – although that doesn’t mean every community in the country will do that.’ She’s encouraged by enthusiastic mainstream support from Publisher’s Weekly and the American Library Association -some libraries even considering removing the anti-theft sensor in the book to allow a child to quietly walk away with it. Indeed, in the first month of promoting her book, the response was an overwhelming welcome tinged with near-despairing relief. ‘There is a great big middle out there. A survey showed 90% of American parents want their children to have this education, want their children to stay healthy in the nineties.’ Nevertheless, she emphasises, the choice remains theirs.
Implacable opponents still question her including homosexuality. ‘I talk about Sappho and Spartan warriors because I want to give the kids some historical perspective, to show that this didn’t just happen in the seventies in San Francisco! The rate of depression and suicide among gay teens is absolutely alarming, and not to talk about it would have been an enormous omission. I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror in the morning if I’d left it out.’
Robie (her own version of Roberta as an insistent three-year-old) seems to have prepared all her life for this work. Growing up in Buffalo, an English major at college, she went to New York intending to train as a teacher at Columbia, but was irresistibly drawn to Bank Street graduate college of education, ‘an extraordinary place, psychoanalytically oriented, centred on child observation, and still at that time with some of the fascinating women who’d founded it in 1917.’ Here she helped design and run one of the first Headstart programmes with poor families on the West Side; when CBS were worried at the seduction of their child-education talents by the blossoming Sesame Street on public TV, they turned to Bank Street. She became one of three writers of five-minute slots, five days a week. ‘We worked all day, every day – and really learned to write!’
Her husband, a PhD in urban studies and planning, runs a PAC (Political Action Committee) lobbying the House and Senate to support issues concerning poverty and deprived children, teenage mothers and pre-natal care. The argument common to Headstart, pre-natal needs and Let’s Talk About Sex says intervention saves later social and emotional costs, and is, she insists, an issue of health rather than sex.
Her small nephews’ narcissistic fascination with her first baby (her sons are 22 and 24) led to Before You Were Three, written with her close friend, children’s writer Elizabeth Levy. It was the first of many titles, fiction and non-fiction, but few have demanded the consuming six-year labour of this latest. When the family moved from New York to Cambridge, she tapped into the wealth of knowledge such university towns nourish, and became engrossed by infant and toddler research ‘with a lower-case R – not data gathering’. She was given multitudinous open-ended help, from Planned Parenthood and the Aids Action Committee, lab professors and doctoral students, to her own boys and their friends. The stimulating contact with so many has made fiction seem dauntingly lonely!
Her next book, Happy Birthday – a picture book on all the things a baby can do on its first day of life – is again illustrated by Michael Emberley, whom she first approached wholly instinctively after having met him at a book-signing. Everything, including the Bird and Bee dialogues, was already written, but she wanted to offer a complete package to an editor, with honest but not voyeuristic illustrations of real Americans, not Hollywood myths, in respectful, caring relationships. It proved a miraculously sympathetic collaboration, with visual explanations replacing text whenever possible while reflecting the balance and tone she had struggled to achieve.
Beneath that comfortingly maternal exterior and calm voice there is unflinching commitment. ‘I really do believe in the separation of Church and State: it may sound simplistic and naive to expect people to practise their own beliefs without messing with other people’s, but our whole nation was founded on different groups coming together for freedom.’
Let’s Talk About Sex by Robie H Harris, illustrated by Michael Emberley, is published by Walker Books (0 7445 3252 3) at £12.99. For a fuller review of the book, see Val Randall’s Sex Books Round-Up on page 20.