Okay, now that I have your attention, let's talk to Robie Harris, who's not afraid to tell little kids about boy parts and girl parts and what they do.
She writes books about the emotional roller coaster known as childhood, and she's endlessly fascinated by how kids grow, both inside and out.
Her website yields all kinds of useful factoids, beginning with the first book she ever wrote--in kindergarten! She's on blog tour this week, and I snagged a topic near to my heart: Don't Be Afraid! Writing with Honesty and in the Best Interests of the Child.
Book Buds: In books as different as It's Not the Stork! and Maybe a Bear Ate It!, you address sensitive subjects with candor, but you also add some whimsy and humor. How important is the tone you set in writing for kids?
Robie Harris: My take is that humor always matters — at least in writing, and I’d venture to say, in life. Humor is one way in which my family gets through the ups and the downs of daily life. And it is especially one of the ways we get through tough moments and times. In my picture book, Goodbye Mousie, a book about death, after the young child in this book tells his mother he isn’t hungry, (his pet mouse has just died) he does become hungry. But now his toast is gone — all gone! (His mother ate it, something I confess I did when my children were little, and of course, they always got mad at me when I did this and rightfully so…) And the little boy in this book shouts at his mother, “My toast! Where’d it go? Did it die too?” This humorous, but serious line breaks the tension of sadness in this book and allows the child to move on the burial and leave-taking of Mousie. And I have heard many a young child finally laughs when a parent or teacher reads this part of the book out loud.
In Maybe a Bear Ate It!, yes the panic that sets in when you have lost your beloved book of the moment is palpable, but the humor in this picture book leavens that fear by helping a young child realize that the fear that MAYBE A BEAR ATE IT! or MAYBE AN ELEPHANT SAT ON IT! is not just a frightening thought, but a thought of that also sends you into gales of laughter, and helps the character in this book get through the hard times.
And in It's Not the Stork!
having the Bird and Bee comment back and forth and often in hilarious
ways helps to make the straight-ahead facts of life normal and a part
of everyday life, which is in fact, just what facts of life should be.
Here’s an example of Bird and Bee comments that I wrote just to do that
very thing when wondering where babies come from: THE BIRD: Maybe the
mommy swallows a watermelon seed and it grow so big it grows into a
baby? THE BEE: Or maybe the daddy types on the computer, “Send a baby!
And that’s where babies come from!” So tone matters in making kids
feel comfortable about topics that are private, such as naming parts of
your body, ALL the parts of your body, or finding out just where a baby
comes from. A humorous comment or antic helps children and adults as
well get through the ups and downs of daily life. That is one of the
reasons I try in my writing to include humor and whimsy. Our children
also speak in irreverent ways and do irreverent things, so why not have
those honest feelings and events in books for young children, so that
they see themselves in the stories we create for them, and realize that
they are not alone in having those feelings? And that most always, it’s
okay to have those feelings.
A humorous comment or antic helps children and adults as well get through the ups and downs of daily life. That is one of the reasons I try in my writing to include humor and whimsy. Our children also speak in irreverent ways and do irreverent things, so why not have those honest feelings and events in books for young children, so that they see themselves in the stories we create for them, and realize that they are not alone in having those feelings? And that most always, it’s okay to have those feelings.
BB: What do you mean by "the best interest of the child?" That seems like a loaded term. Certainly, many people think they have a child's best interests at heart when they try to ban one of your books from their library. How does your criteria differ from theirs?
RH: Funny, I don’t feet that phrase is a loaded phrase; rather for me, it is a guiding principle for both the picture books I write and the nonfiction I write because it is the underpinning of every single decision I make — starting with what to write about, how to write about a particular topic, what to say or not say or what to include in a book I am writing, and even though I am not an illustrator, the way in which the book is illustrated, and who illustrates this or that book of mine. Every illustrator I have worked with on a book has had this same principle, and I feel that is one of the things that makes our books work for children and am so lucky to have worked with each and every one of them. And yes, of course, people, and that includes some in the publishing world, may have a different notion as to what is truly in the best interest of the child. That’s real. That’s fine with me. And I respect anyone’s right to disagree with my values or my point of view about a particular topic I write about or story I write.
For example, in a forthcoming picture book of mine, The Day Leo Said 'I Hate You!' the fact that the child says “I hate you!” will elicit a myriad of responses from adults, starting with mine which is that this a perfectly normal, loving child who gets angry at his mother and then angry words pop out of his mouth, and he wishes he could stuff those three words right back into his mouth. But the fact that Leo has a loving mother, who loves him no matter what he does, but does let him know in no uncertain terms that those are words that make people feel really bad, is what helps Leo express his greatest fear of all, that his mother will not love him anymore. And that’s why he is able to ask her in a stammering voice, “Do you hate me for saying “I hate you!’?” This book, illustrated by Molly Bang, is for me a perfect example of writing a picture book that “is in the best interests of the child.” And I feel this is also the essence of the way Molly’s art depicts this story of a mother and child, which is ultimately not about a story about hate, but a story about love. Also, I have added below what I say when I speak about the phrase you asked about:
“I had and still have one guiding value/principal as I wrote these books — and for all of my books, even my picture books for young children — and that is the phrase “IN THE BEST INTERESTS OF THE CHILD” the title of a book by Anna Freud the great child psychoanalyst, and Al Solnit, also a world-class psychoanalyst, past director of the Yale Child Study Center, and Joseph and Sonia Goldstein.
In my very first meeting with illustrator Michael Emberley before he even agreed to illustrate IT’S PERFECTLY NORMAL, I said to him that the question “WHAT IS “IN THE BEST INTERESTS OF THE CHILD?” is the question we needed to ask every time we thought about what words and images and information would be in our book. I said we would have to put on blinders to what a parent or teacher or librarian or bookseller or reviewer or editor would think, or tell us, that is when they said, “No one will buy your book if you put that in, the book is too long, too much information, or the child’s feeling are too strong or too powerful.” but rather only make decisions based on what we judged to be in the best interests of the child and that was the bottom line on how we made decisions on what to include and what not to include in these books, and how to write and illustrate what we felt children would want to know, need to know and/or find fascinating or interesting. And that’s what we did. And what I continue to do.”
BB: In an excerpt from one of your speeches I found online, you say that if someone objects to your topics or tough wording, "I will keep the strong feeling or feelings or scene in the book, no matter what." Is it the kids or their parents who have more trouble confronting such feelings? Where does their reluctance come from?
RH: Oh, it is definitely we the adults, not our children, who have most difficulty dealing with the powerful feelings young children express--might I say feelings that are most often, and yes, not every time, perfectly healthy and legitimate feelings. A quote I have used for years and find so useful about words and young children is, “Children can understand language much earlier than they can speak it. When the parent is able to translate the infant’s and toddler’s, (and I would add respectfully “children of all ages,”) experiences into words of understanding, this helps to contain the child’s negative feelings and makes them bearable. In this sense, talking can represent relief from amorphous feelings because it puts some order into chaos.” This quote is from Alicia Lieberman, Ph.D.’s book, The Emotional Life of the Toddler, from a section within a chapter called, "Putting Feelings Into Words."
I find her words, “puts some order into chaos” central to my writing for children and writing about the emotional life of children. And in some small way, I feel that children’s books can provide those words — words that can help to ameliorate the perfectly normal and terrifying feelings young children have, and — for most children — can help make fearful feelings bearable.
Strong and yet normal and yet terrifying feelings are front and center in another forthcoming picture book of mine, Mail Harry to the Moon!, which is illustrated by Michael Emberley. In this book, baby Harry’s older brother just wants Harry to disappear, to go away, and he lets us know how he feels about baby Harry by shouting out such pronouncements as “THROW HARRY IN THE TRASH!” and when he cannot bear to share Grandma with Harry, he shouts out, PUT HARRY BACK INSIDE MOMMY!” — the ultimate way to get rid of Harry, since nothing else has worked. And then he adds, “MAIL HARRY TO THE MOON!” — the moon being the farthest away he can possibly send Harry. These words help this older brother, who feels like all older siblings do, to deal with his strong feelings, and as in the book about Leo, once expressed, those feelings become “bearable,” as Dr. Lieberman so eloquently tells us.
BB: One of the aspects of "Stork" I loved best is that you don't patronize little kids. You talk to them on their level. How important is that?
RH: I just don’t understand why adults patronize little kids. I just don’t get it. Little kids are fun to be with and interesting. Okay, a tantrum is not fun and other moments like that, but they are interesting, and I even wrote a book about that called I'm So Mad! But what I find fascinating is that little kids ask the most profound questions, questions that often stump us, and cause us to stop in our tracks and think hard, because we may not be sure of the answer, or of the correct answer, or may even not know the answer(s). And I am talking about such profound questions, and I do think they are profound, such as, “Why is the sky blue?” or “Where did I come from?”— one of the questions It's Not the Stork! answers. I like talking to little kids and spending time with little kids, and finding out what they think and how they feel about things, and watching them play and interact with both children and adults.
And talking with little kids is what I think I do, at least I hope I do, in the fiction/picture books and nonfiction books I write. That talking is the voice of the books I write. And little children are good thinkers and can even understand a science word such as “cell.” Because hey, we all came from cells, so why not use that word in a book for them? It’s fun for them to know and then spout out facts such as : “I came from a cell. And I grew and grew and grew until I was big enough and strong enough and ready to be born!” These are words I am using in a book for very young children, ages 2 ½ to about 4, a book I have not completed yet.
The other thing about little kids that I find fascinating and illuminating is the unfiltered expression of feelings that are not tamped town by adult norms. In my picture book, Don't Forget to Come Back!, illustrated by Harry Bliss, I include those kinds of “untamped” (is there such a word as that?) feelings because they are real to a young child and provide an honest way of telling a story that makes them feel that they are not alone in the strong feelings they have, and in this book in particular, not wanting your parents to go out for the evening and the ever-present fear that they will not come back!
So how does talking with them on their level happen? Here is an example: In writing It's Not the Stork!, one I actually found myself sitting in a chair, pretending that my children were still young and sitting next to me, and I was talking with them about where babies came from. And I typed on to my computer the words I was saying out loud. Of course, in many spots, it was rough and didn’t read well or the science was not quite correct, but parts of it did work. Then I’d work on it, revise it, and smooth it out. And then I’d read it out loud to hear what it would sound like if you were reading these words to a young child. The truth is if you had walked into my office when I did that, you would have carted me off to the loony bin. But it really helped me write in a voice that I hope will never be patronizing to a child. I only did that on one day, but ever since, I do read what I have written out loud at the end of the day to see and hear what it would sound like to a young child. That’s the test for me.
BB: I also noticed you're careful not to moralize in your books. You let the story or the facts speak for themselves. Do kids realize the difference? How do they respond to your books? Do their reactions ever surprise you?
RH: I agree, most of the time, moralizing gets in the way of both facts and story. So I try not to moralize in my books, because most of the time, it is not necessary. For example, in The Day Leo Said "I Hate You!", neither Leo nor his Mommy says, “I’m sorry!” “Why Not?”, you may ask. That’s because neither Leo nor his Mommy did anything wrong. Leo’s Mommy has to say “No!’ to him over and over again knowing full well that as he says, I hate “NO!” Finally, he just can’t listen to anymore NO’s and his feelings pop out, feelings of anger he could not control anymore.
But the point is is that this was just a moment in a day, nothing more than that, but a moment that made Leo worry. But that worry is reconciled because Leo had a mother who told him how she felt as well, making it possible for this young boy and his mother to get back together, literally in her arms in the form of a hug, and now, both could get on with their day, which is what one hopes young children will learn to do. Also, I hoped that children and in this case adults too, would understand through Leo’s story that saying I hate you!” does not make you a bad person and that everyone has those same feelings once in a while, including adults. Now I am moralizing a bit in what I just wrote. But I would never put that tone in a picture book.
Now I am going to let the cat out of the bag. Actually, I do moralize in some books, where and when I think I absolutely have to, when the topic or text may call for that. In It's Not the Stork! in the chapter on how a sperm and egg get together, I do say the following, “Children are much too young to do the special kind of loving — called sex — that grown-ups do.” I felt is would be irresponsible both as a writer and an adult NOT to say that to young children. I do tend to do this in some places in the nonfiction I write, but I try to do it only when absolutely necessary, or to come full-circle, “in the best interests of the child.”
And as for kids’ reactions, I am never really that surprised and most always delighted!