Marshmallow is reading about growing up and this week she wanted to talk about a recent book she read about puberty, growing up, and sex written for young people who are around her age: You Know, Sex: Bodies, Gender, Puberty, and Other Things by Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smyth. Sprinkles is taking notes and asking questions.
Sprinkles: First of all, as we begin this review, I want to thank you for reading this book, Marshmallow. After reviewing a collection of books about where babies come from, I had intended to write a post about a handful of books about puberty next. And one of the books I chose was this one, a huge, 432-page tome written in graphic novel form. But when I began to read it, I realized that my personal discomfort with the form (due to my poor eyesight) would mean I would probably not be able to give it its full due. So thank you for helping me out and checking the book out on your own.
Marshmallow: Well, that’s alright, Sprinkles. It was an interesting read.
S: That’s good to know. Can you tell us a bit about the specifics of the book?
M: Sure. You already said it is big, and has 432 pages. And you said it is written as a graphic novel.
S: The two who wrote this book also were the writer and the illustrator of What Makes A Baby?, one of the books I read for that review of books about where babies come from. And the pictures have the exact same style.
M: Yes, there are people with many different skin colors, like orange and purple and green and blue, and many different shapes and sizes.
S: Does that work well?
M: Yes, it is interesting. I think the people all look quite unique.
S: Well, I guess that makes the book more realistic, right? We are all quite different from one another.
S: So tell us more about the book.
M: There are eleven chapters. They are titled: What is Sex? Bodies, Gender, Puberty, Feelings, Consent, Talking, Relationships, Reproduction, Touching, and Safety.
S: So the book covers a lot of ground.
M: Yup. It is also very contemporary.
S: What do you mean by that?
M: It has some ideas which I think are contemporary. They talk about gender identity and sexual orientation, transgender and non-binary people, and people having relationships with multiple partners.
S: The last one does not sound too contemporary to me. Polygamy and polyamory have been around for a long time. They have not always been accepted or legal though. I guess the authors are trying to teach the reader to be open minded about different arrangements.
M: I am not sure all readers would be too open to all of these ideas at this point.
S: I agree with that. Actually I too find some of these ideas challenging, especially polygamy. Though rabbits are typically not monogamous, according to Wikipedia, “scientific studies classify the human mating system as primarily monogamous, with the cultural practice of polygamy in the minority”. In any case, it is good to learn about how different people can relate with others.
M: Well, the book does not talk so much about polygamy as polyamory. But yes, it is good to learn about these different things.
S: They also talk about the changes a young bunny goes through in puberty, and more generally about biology and mechanics of sexual reproduction, right?
M: Well, yes. There are also very vivid depictions of things. They make an effort to show all kinds of things, so that the reader does not end up assuming that a body part has to look in one specific way. And they show people doing all kinds of different things together or alone.
S: I did look through the pages a lot, too, and I’d say there really are a lot of illustrations that some parents may not be comfortable with.
M: The self-discovery and self-exploration parts might also be kind of touchy topics for some folks, I’d imagine.
S: I did see a section on pornography, and that too is a very challenging topic. Perhaps grownup bunnies should read this book together with their young ones when they feel like the conversations about the various themes and issues that come up will be constructive.
M: I’d agree with that.
S: What were some of the other topics in the book? What topics did you find were most important?
M: They talk a lot about relationships, and I thought it was useful to learn about that. They talk about consent and power in relationships, and sometimes how people talk about being with people as a competition.
S: Yes, I did see that page about how sometimes people talk about “scoring” and the book instead encourages young people to think about “trust, respect, justice, joy, and choice”.
M: Yes, I did find those parts useful. All in all, it is an interesting and useful book, but I think grownups should probably check it out before sharing with their little ones.
S: Agreed. So what would you tell our readers as we wrap up this review?
M: Stay tuned for more amazing book bunny reviews!
Today Sprinkles reviews a collection of children’s books that parents can share with little ones to help answer the curious question “Where do babies come from?”
Sprinkles has reviewed several books for the book bunnies blog before. Last October, she reviewed a handful of children’s books on gender identity. Today she once again discusses a selection of books on a topic that is both important and useful but may sometimes be challenging to talk about with little bunnies: Where do babies come from?
As a parent of young and growing children, I have occasionally needed to field curious questions such as “why is the sky blue?” or “why are there only seven colors in the rainbow?” or “why does ice cream taste so much better than cabbage?”. Sometimes these questions lead me to interesting discoveries, as the world is enormous and little ones have no limits to their curiosities but I certainly have a finite amount of knowledge. So often we look things up together online, or check out books, and learn something new together. And these turn out to be quite pleasant learning experiences for all. In fact many grownups I know love to rediscover the world through the questions of the children in their lives.
However there is one question that often challenges grownups: “Where do babies come from?” Some eventually figure out how to give an at least somewhat satisfying answer to this question, or children seem to lose interest eventually, seeing how their grownups are fumbling with words, and move on. But readers of the book bunny blog might want to know if there are smoother ways to talk about this question and the related ones about human sexuality. That is why I decided to read and write about a handful of books that explore these issues and claim to be age-appropriate.
I begin with the first book on this topic that I myself have read (because, yes, I was a curious young bunny once, too): Where Did I Come From? The Facts of Life Without Any Nonsense and With Illustrations. Written by Peter Mayle, illustrated by Arthur Robins, designed by Paul Walter, and published first in 1973, this book might perhaps be the first in this genre. Quite progressive for its time, I think the book holds up relatively well.
Where Did I Come From? The Facts of Life Without Any Nonsense and With Illustrations begins with the natural question almost all curious young bunnies ask their parents at some point. The answer is almost all accurate and illustrated with hilarious and quite anatomically detailed drawings. The explanation starts with a woman and a man wanting to be close to one another and then goes into some of the details of sexual intercourse (called “making love” here). These stages are illustrated with a cute and round mom-to-be and a cute and round dad-to-be. You do not see things in very graphic format, but you do get a full understanding of the mechanics of the process. Then there is a detailed and illustrated description of the uterus and the various stages of pregnancy, and the book ends with a message of love to the child addressed as “you” throughout the whole thing:
You might think it sounds like a lot of hard work for such a little person. But there’s a very good reason why your mother and father went through it all. And if you want to know what that reason is, just take a look in the mirror.
This is where I find that the book is somewhat not completely ready for our times. It assumes that the child asking the titular question is living with a mom and a dad, and that these folks are the child’s biological parents. There is no acknowledgment of other alternatives, such as adopted children or children being raised by people other than their biological parents. Other than this particular shortcoming, the one minor mistake I can find in the book is about baby math. That is, we are told that “one sperm plus one egg makes one baby; two sperm plus two eggs makes two babies, and so on.” This is of course not always true; twins and triplets can come from a single fertilized egg.
But perhaps adults might not want to complicate things, and perhaps theirs is a nuclear family structure made up of a mom and a dad who are the biological parents of the curious child. In that case, I think that Where Did I Come From? The Facts of Life Without Any Nonsense and With Illustrations is still quite capable of doing its job effectively, and all along the way, entertaining everyone involved. Depending on the parents’ level of comfort, the book might be appropriate for bunnies as young as 6 years of age. Readers should know that there are a lot of naked baby illustrations along the way and a few adult naked bodies, too; the inside covers are also full of over a hundred smiling sperm. Visually, the tendency is all on the cute and humorous, and there is absolutely nothing erotic or sexualized, but most characters depicted have no clothes on.
A book, or rather a pair of books, on the same topic where everybody except the unborn is fully clothed is Where Do Babies Come From: A Guide for the Christian Family. This is in fact two separate books, one written for boys aged 6-8 and the other written for girls in the same age range. Folks do not need to be Christian to have some concerns about having images without clothing in a book they are sharing with their young ones. So I thought it might be a good idea to see what this book pair had to offer.
This pair of books does not have a visible author; published by a Christian publisher the author voice is captured by an invisible “we” addressing the parent at the beginning and giving them some ideas about how to share this book with their little ones. Most of the rest of the book is written in the form of a story about a boy named Simon or a girl named Alisa, turning seven and wanting to learn about where babies come from. The Christian nature of the book is very tangible, with Christ being mentioned in the address to the parents; however, the rest of the book mainly focuses on a single God, who creates and loves, so it is possible other religious folks might be able to find it palatable for their context as well.
The books develop content in parallel for most of the time, and they make an effort to mention alternatives to the child living with biological mom and dad setup. There is mention of an adopted neighbor and possibly grandparents living with the child. But the focus seems to be the nuclear, mom and dad setup. The actual making of the baby event is described by mom and dad loving one another and “bringing their bodies together very close and in a special way.” There is not any more anatomical or mechanical details, though words like egg, sperm, uterus, and vagina do come up.
Then comes the part where children are told boys and girls are different and a boy cannot be the mother when playing house (though, thankfully, we are told men can be cooks and women can be firefighters or doctors). Then there is the part about how “sin has ruined God’s perfect plan” so some moms and dads don’t stay together. Furthermore the binary and biological essence of sex is emphasized throughout (boys are like this, girls are like that). These might make it harder for some grownups to choose these books for their little ones.
All in all, I found this pair of books to be an interesting attempt, and I thought that they provided lots of messages which might align with the values of some families. However, I believe they do not provide a concrete answer to the actual question. It was also not clear to me why the authors felt a need to make the two books separate; the only difference I could discern was the main character of the story was a boy for the book meant for boys and a girl for the book meant for girls.
Another book with a similar title is Where Do Babies Come From?, written by Katie Daynes, illustrated by Christine Pym, and designed by Suzie Harrison. Designed as a lift-the-flap book, this book also does not give away too much about the mechanics of how babies are made. We are told only that the father’s sperm and mother’s egg met and became one. It is not clear how or where the meeting happened, but somehow this egg and sperm pair made it into the mother’s body.
The main distinction of this book, in my opinion, other than the flaps that would most effectively engage young bunnies who would likely love to discover what is hidden under each, is that it puts the human process in the context of the larger animal kingdom. The pages of the book are colorful and full of all sorts of animals courting one another, mating, and taking care of their eggs and their young. Each of the animal groupings point to a flap which, when opened, explains a particular animal behavior which leads to the making of offspring (like a bird dancing to attract a mate). And in the middle of each two-page spread is a human mother or a pregnant woman, and a curious child asking her questions.
Where Do Babies Come From? in this way puts human reproduction in the context of natural animal behavior. This might appeal to grownups who know that their little ones like and enjoy books and documentaries about animals. The flappy design of the book makes it accessible to a younger readership; bunnies as young as four years of age might be able to enjoy and learn from the book. And perhaps the lack of information about some of the details of the baby-making process is perfectly fine for this particular audience.
Where Do Babies Come From? Our First Talk About Birth is yet another book with a similar title, aiming for the younger crowd. Written by the child psychologist Jillian Roberts and illustrated by Cindy Revell, this book is part of a new series called “Just Enough: Difficult Topics Made Easy.” As expected, the book does not give too many details, just enough to satisfy a curious five-year-old bunny perhaps. Where do babies come from? The mother’s body has a place named a womb, right under the stomach; that’s where. To make the baby an egg and a sperm need to meet. And how do they meet? “When it’s time to make a baby,” a mommy’s body which has an egg and a daddy’s body which has a sperm fit to one another and get the two pieces of the puzzle together. So again, there is a lot of handwaving and indirection, but the goal is to just say enough so the child is satisfied and not misled, but also does not get confused by the details.
Just like most of the books reviewed earlier in this post, Where Do Babies Come From? Our First Talk About Birth aligns itself more with the attitude that younger bunnies do not need too many details, but they can get to know about the sperm and the egg, and this allows them to think about how two humans came together to make one baby (no matter how vaguely that coming together is described).
For grownups who want their younger ones to have more of the details and who are not worried they will be confused, scared, or inordinately curious (some grownups do prefer less curious bunnies!), I can recommend It’s NOT The Stork: A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Families, and Friends. Written by Robie H. Harris and illustrated by Michael Emberley, this book is perhaps the best option for the 4-7 age group. The presenters are a bird and a bee, one curious and wanting to know more and the other a little embarrassed and kind of tentative about things. They start with the stork and other stories children may have heard about where babies come from, and then go into the facts. The illustrations are cute, fully colored, and very helpful.
Unlike any of the earlier books reviewed above, It’s NOT The Stork: A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Families, and Friends actually uses the phrase “having sex” and describes in detail the reproductive systems of the biologically male and biologically female human bodies. It also accounts for a range of families including adoptive ones. The binary nature of biological sex is still omnipresent in the book however. The differences and similarities between the body of a boy and a girl are explored in great detail.
One thing I really like about this book was the section on “Okay Touches, Not Okay Touches”. One of the reasons why young bunnies should learn something about their bodies and where babies come from is so that they are aware of the notion of the privacy of certain parts of their bodies. This book takes this concern to the next level and explicitly differentiates between good and natural and healthy ways people can touch them and the not-so-good, and unwanted ways. Reading this book together (maybe a couple sections at a time, as each two-page spread makes a rich section on its own), a grownup bunny and a young one can have some very important conversations.
It’s SO Amazing: A Book About Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families, written by Robie H. Harris and illustrated by Michael Emberley, the same team who produced It’s NOT The Stork, is also a neat book, in the same spirit, providing a lot of useful information in digestible chunks, this time for the 7-and-above age group. In fact It’s SO Amazing! was written first, in 1999, and then came It’s NOT The Stork for the younger crowd, in 2006. Both books are great options, in my opinion, if you want to answer your young bunnies’ questions fully.
If your young one has already read It’s NOT The Stork, they may already recognize the bird and the bee in It’s SO Amazing, who are once again the main narrators of the story. This book also talks about how babies are made, but also, as its intended readership is approaching puberty, there is some mention of the typical changes that a child’s body goes through during this time. The “Okay Touches, Not-Okay Touches” distinction shows up once again.
I was surprised to see that there is a whole section on HIV and AIDS in It’s SO Amazing: A Book About Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families. First I wondered why the section was not more broadly on sexually transmitted diseases. My explanation for myself is that the point was probably not to explain HIV / AIDS as one of many sexually transmitted diseases, but rather to make sure that young readers know and understand the context of HIV / AIDS. Sexually transmitted diseases are not typically discussed in mainstream conversations involving young people, and many may not have heard of them. And perhaps it is okay for a seven-year-old to not learn more details just yet. However, HIV / AIDS is a topic that many will hear about before they turn ten, and some will know people who are living with HIV / AIDS. There are a lot of myths about how the HIV virus is transmitted and the two pages dedicated to it aim to dispel some of these.
The team who created It’s NOT The Stork and It’s SO Amazing! also wrote a book for older children, age 10 and up. I plan on reviewing that book together with a few other books about puberty. Stay tuned for that, coming up in a few more weeks.
Finally, I wanted to share with you some thoughts about a slightly more recent book, What Makes A Baby, written in 2012 by Cory Silverberg and illustrated by Fiona Smyth. Formatted as a picture book, this book, too, seems directed towards the younger crowd. As the most recent book among those I am writing about here, this book is perhaps the most flexible in terms of audience and inclusivity. The subtitle of the book says it explicitly; this is “a book for every kind of family and every kind of kid.”
The book mentions people who have sperms and people who have eggs and people who have uteruses. The words boy, girl, woman, man, mother, father do not appear anywhere. But there is repeated mention of those who wanted you, those who cared for you, those who loved you. There is also a lyrical description of the conception process, involving the stories of the egg joining the stories of the sperm, and being ready to tell a new story together. In other words, a baby is made by love, bringing together stories of multiple people and generations, and is to be loved by the people around them. Anatomy is mentioned to an extent; we hear of the baby coming out of the vagina, we learn how to say the word uterus, but the mechanics of the baby-making process is not included.
I think What Makes A Baby is a neat book which offers grownups the opportunity to share a more inclusive and metaphorical explanation of how babies are made with the young bunnies they love. This will be especially helpful for young ones who themselves do not feel like their identities are captured by words like boy or girl, and those whose families may not fit the traditional biological parents living with their offspring template. However, many young bunnies are ready to love and be loved, and so sharing this version of the story of the beginning of their life when they are not yet ready for the full technical story might be a good idea.
More generally, I think that What Makes A Baby is a good first read for all young bunnies and their grownups. For the ones interested in nature and animals, the flapbook Where Do Babies Come From? might also be very appropriate. For young ones who have a pregnant person close to them and are curious about the process, Where Do Babies Come From? Our First Talk About Birth might also offer a feasible option. If and when the young ones ask for more information, you can move on to some of the more detailed texts, such as Where Did I Come From? The Facts of Life Without Any Nonsense and With Illustrations, or either of the birds-and-bees books (It’s NOT The Stork and It’s SO Amazing!) All in all, I think there are a lot of interesting options out there!