It May Be 'Perfectly Normal', But It's Also Frequently Banned

It May Be 'Perfectly Normal', But It's Also Frequently Banned

7:48am Sep 22, 2014
Michael Emberley's illustrations, like this one showing an egg traveling through a fallopian tube, make sexual health information accessible to an elementary and middle school audience. But elements of the art, including naked bodies, make some parents un
Michael Emberley's illustrations, like this one showing an egg traveling through a fallopian tube, make sexual health information accessible to an elementary and middle school audience. But elements of the art, including naked bodies, make some parents un
Candlewick Press

Banned Books Week kicks off Sunday: Each year, the American Library Association takes this week to sponsor events all over the country to talk about the books that shock, offend and generally make Americans uncomfortable.

Violence and curse words are two of the top three reasons books get banned in the U.S.

The third reason is sexual content. For example, the Fifty Shades of Grey series has been frequently banned from libraries for its explicit descriptions of intercourse.

But when it comes to kids, the bar for inappropriate sexual language is much lower. In 2013, the top banned book in America was the kid's story Captain Underpants. It was most frequently challenged for potty language and toilet humor.

That's how a sex education book for children, titled It's Perfectly Normal, became one of the most banned books of the past two decades. The book is meant to teach children 10 and older about sexual health, emotional health and relationships, and contains sections on puberty, pregnancy and sexual orientation.

It also has full-color pictures of naked people, by illustrator Michael Emberley.

"What we see in this book is illustrations of the sex act," explains Barbara Jones, director of the Office of Intellectual Freedom for the American Library Association. Since the book's initial publication in 1994, her office has helped local libraries handle complaints about it. "I think for some people it's alarming," she says.

Author Robie Harris says she always knew the book could be controversial.

"I was warned by several people not to do this book, that it would ruin my career," she remembers. "But I really didn't care. To me it wasn't controversial. It's what every child has a right to know."

Now in its fourth edition, the book has sold more than a million copies. Harris asks experts like pediatricians, biologists and even lawyers to fact-check each edition, to make sure updates to AIDS prevention information or birth control laws are accurate.

Internet safety and sexting are new topics in this edition. "There can be a lot of inappropriate, weird, confusing, uncomfortable, creepy, scary or even dangerous websites that you can end up on when you're looking for information," she writes.

Harris also updated her explanations of gender and sexual abuse, and includes information about and for transgender youth.

A lot of parents say they don't want their kids learning about that kind of sensitive information without supervision.

Carey Fritz of Culver City, Calif., has two children in elementary school. He says he'd rather his kids not see the illustrations in the book without him present.

"If they saw this without me, I'd probably feel a little frustrated," he said, referring to a page with illustrations of various birth control methods and how to use them.

"It's talking about sexual activity, which I don't think a 10-year-old needs to worry about," he explains.

Over the years, many parents who share this sentiment have asked for the book to be put in a restricted section of the library.

It's not a ban — parents just don't want young children to come across it accidentally.

Author Robie Harris doesn't think that's a good solution.

"No child's going to go up to a librarian and say, 'You know, I'm going through puberty, I'm having these changes, I seem to have these pubic hairs, and could you recommend something to me?' " she says.

"If a book is in a special section of the library, maybe the kids who need it the most are not going to get it."

The latest edition of It's Perfectly Normal hit shelves earlier this month. So far, it has not been challenged.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's Banned Books Week. Time to assess which books make Americans most uncomfortable. Violence and curse words are two of the top three reasons books get banned in the U.S. The third reason - surprise - is sex, which is how a sex-education book for children became one of the most banned books in America. Did you hear that, parents? The story is about a sex-education book for kids 10 and older and it will last about three and a half minutes. You know what to do. Here is NPR's Rebecca Hersher.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: In the world of book banning, sex is a loose term. Last year, the top banned book in America was the kids story "Captain Underpants." It was banned for potty language and toilet humor.

The sex-ed book "It's Perfectly Normal," which is meant for kids 10 and over, is a little more explicit than that. Barbara Jones is the director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association.

BARBARA JONES: What we see in this book is illustrations of the sex act - women and men naked. And you see people with lumps here and lumps there. And whereas some people chuckle, I think for some people it's alarming.

HERSHER: Full-color illustrations of lumpy naked people have helped make "It's Perfectly Normal" one of the most banned books in America. Since its initial publication in 1994, the book has been challenged or banned every year. Michael Emberley illustrated the book. The author is Robie Harris.

ROBIE HARRIS: I was warned by several people not to do this book - that it would ruin my career. But I really didn't care. To me it wasn't controversial. It's what every child has a right to know.

HERSHER: The book includes sections on puberty, pregnancy and sexual orientation - all fact-checked by experts like pediatricians and biologists. Internet safety and sexting are new topics in this edition.

HARRIS: Here are some things you need to think about when you go on the Internet. There can be a lot of inappropriate, weird, confusing, uncomfortable, creepy, scary or even dangerous websites that you can end up on when looking for information.

HERSHER: This edition also has new explanations of gender and sexual abuse. Past editions have included other cultural changes, for example, birth-control laws, AIDS prevention and info for gay youth.

A lot of parents don't want their kids learning about that kind of sensitive information without supervision.

Carey Fritz of Culver City, California has two kids in elementary school. I caught up with him as he was waiting to pick them up from school and asked him his impressions of the book.

What do you think?

CAREY FRITZ: Well, I was shocked. I didn't read the cover.

HERSHER: He flips through the pages and stops at a full-color illustration of various birth-control methods and how to use them.

FRITZ: See, if they saw this without me, I'd probably feel a little frustrated. I mean, that would take time for me to have to explain.

HERSHER: What are you seeing there that's making you say that?

FRITZ: Well, right here - at least what it's doing here - it's just talking about sexual activity, which I don't think a 10-year-old needs to worry about.

HERSHER: Over the years, many parents, who share this sentiment, have asked for the book to be put in a restricted section of the library. It's not a ban. Parents just don't want their kids to come across it accidentally. Author Robie Harris doesn't think that's a good solution.

HARRIS: No child is going to go up to a library and say, you know, I'm going through puberty. I'm having these changes. I seem to have some pubic hairs. And maybe you could recommend something to me. So if a book is in a special section of a library, maybe the kids who need it the most are not going to get it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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