Robie H. Harris Blog Tour: FICTION AND NON-FICTION: Both Need to Tell a Story
It has been a while since I participated in a good old fashioned blog tour. The problem with blog tours is that you can’t do everybody. They take a lot of time, work, energy, etc. and really who has that kind of stuff in abundance? But when a blogger has a chance to interview someone like Robie H. Harris, that person would have to be a limey limned fool not to go for it.
In preparation for the release of her newest picture book Maybe a Bear Ate It, Ms. Harris is doing a good old-fashioned tour and guess who’s number one on her stop? Ye Olde Fuse #8, that’s who. This isn’t just any tour either. Over the next week Ms. Harris will be answering questions regarding writing, audience, and the fact that she is one of the most censored and banned children’s authors alive and working today. Check out the end of this post for her upcoming scheduled blog appearances.
Now some of you may not know who Ms. Harris is. I’ll just direct you to her bio to get the brain juices flowing. Chances are that if you’re a librarian and you’ve had parents asking you for a book to tell their kids about what to expect when they hit puberty, you’ve handed that person a copy of It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growin Up, Sex, and Sexual Health (Candlewick, 1994). She’s one of the best writers currently working in the field today. Thing I didn’t know about her: She was the co-author of daily segments on "The Captain Kangaroo Show". Awesome.
Each day Ms. Harris will be tackling a different theme. My theme?
Fuse #8: This may sound odd to you, but when a children’s librarian like myself thinks of books that discuss puberty with children, your name immediately comes to mind. Every year you usher in thousands of children into puberty. How did this come about? I take it that you didn’t set out to become "The Puberty Queen", so what was your impetus for writing books on that subject?
RHH: I did not set out to become the puberty queen, but thanks, I do like the title! And I did not set out to write a book on puberty. Here is the story of how IT’S PERFECTLY NORMAL came to be.
Almost twenty years ago, an editor asked me if I would be interested in writing a book on HIV and AIDS for elementary school age children — children who are pre-puberty age, or on the cusp of entering, or just entered, or are going through puberty.
My immediate response, both as a parent and a former elementary school teacher, was, “If I were going to write a book for children in this age range or talk with them about HIV and AIDS, I would write and talk about HIV and AIDS in the context of healthy sexuality. What I would do is to write a book for children on healthy sexuality and human development that included HIV and AIDS but would be comprehensive and answer almost every question because there are so many things about sex our kids and teens need to know in order to stay healthy in addition to the virus, and right then and there I came up the outline of the book — a book idea that had never crossed my mind.
That night at dinner, I asked my children who were then in high school, what information did we tell you that was useful? And what did we leave out? That evening I called my children’s science teacher, their pediatrician, the head of our Planned Parenthood, and our AIDS Action Committee and asked to meet as soon as possible, and I did. And almost immediately after, I met with parents and teachers and other experts in the fields of biology, education, sexuality education, pediatrics, adolescent health, reproductive health, obstetrics, urology, psychology, psychiatry, genetics, gender, sexual abuse and STDs, including HIV and AIDS. And I asked each of them the same three questions, “What are our children’s and teens’ questions and concerns about sexuality?” “What information do need they to know to stay healthy in terms of sexual health” “And at what age do they need to know what?” And five years later, IT’S PERFECTLY NORMAL was published, followed by the two books for younger children on sexuality, IT’S SO AMAZING! and IT’S NOT THE STORK! And now, these three books, so wonderfully illustrated by Michael Emberley, have become a family library of books on sexual health for children — starting age four and up and on through puberty and their teen years.
Fuse #8: You seem to have mastered the art of jack rabbiting between fiction and non-fiction with, what appears to be, relative ease. Which of the two came first? And if you were to identify yourself with one form or another, which of the two are you more comfortable with.
RHH: The first book I ever wrote and had published was co-written with fellow-children’s book author Elizabeth Levy, who happens to be my cousin. That book was called BEFORE YOU WERE THREE, and although it was a nonfiction book, it was the story of three different young children from birth to age three. So from the get-go as a children’s book author, I never felt that fiction and nonfiction were totally separate genres or all that different from each another. That notion sits well with me because my take is that every book, be it fiction or nonfiction, I write needs to have some sort of a story to engage the reader and/or in the case of my picture books, engage the child to whom these books are being read to.
In the nonfiction books I have written, each has its own story. IT’S PERFECTLY NORMAL tells the story of puberty and how our bodies change from being a child’s body to being a grown-up’s body and all the issues that accompany all that changing and growing. IT’S SO AMAZING! tells one of science’s most amazing stories, the story of a sperm and an egg, how they meet, and how a baby is made. IT’S NOT THE STORK! tells the story of what makes a girl a girl and a boy a boy, along with the story of “How did I begin?” And the BIRD and BEE characters I created for these books help to tell the story. I am now writing a book for very young children on pregnancy, and the story of that book is the story of pregnancy, and ends with the birth of a baby. That to me is a fascinating and amazing story and one that I feel young children wonder about all the time. Where did I come from? Where was I before I was a baby? And the story of pregnancy answers those
When I think about my newest picture book MAYBE A BEAR ATE IT!, the following question comes to mind: Is there really a difference between the concern/panic the young creature in this fiction book has when his or her favorite book of the moment goes missing, and the concern/panic that sets in for the BEE character in the nonfiction book IT’S NOT THE STORK!, or IT’S SO AMAZING!, or IT’S PERFECTLY NORMAL? In this last book, the BIRD wants to grow up right away, but the BEE wants to do anything but pop into puberty, and wants to stay being a child for as long as possible — and not grow up just yet. I don’t think there is a difference between the concern/panic the CREATURE in the fiction book feels and the BEE in the nonfiction books on sexuality feel. And both are part of the stories in their respective books. And when writing the story of the travels of a sperm and an egg in the books on sexuality, even though there are lots of facts in this text, it is still the stories — the travels of these two cells — that fascinate young and old alike.
Fuse #8: My topic is "Fiction and Nonfiction: Both Need to Tell a Story", so let’s discuss that a little. I think that there may be some people who believe non-fiction merely consists of facts in paragraph form. Books like It’s Perfectly Normal have a kind of narrative to them, though. How do you approach the "story" your factual titles need to tell? How does that differ from fiction?
RHH: I think of myself as a children’s book author who writes information books (nonfiction) and picture books (fiction) that I hope will help children understand that the day-to-day curiosity and concerns they have about themselves as they are growing up, and that the powerful and sometimes conflicting feelings and the myriad of questions they have about themselves as they are growing up are perfectly healthy and perfectly normal. So I don’t feel as if I am jumping back and forth between fiction and nonfiction at all. One topic lends itself to fiction; another to nonfiction. And that’s all that runs through my mind.
That’s perhaps why each time I come up with an idea for a new book, no matter what the genre, the first thing I do is sit down with a pad and pencil and try to figure out what the progression of events or facts will/should be to make a good story. Then I try to write, and this is only for myself, not for the book, a statement about what I am writing about. And then I try to figure what do I say first, what are those exact words, what is the first thing I need to say, to make a child want to hear or read the story in this book. Then I get pretty detailed about the progression of the book from start to finish, and finally will make the story I am trying to tell well appeal to children. And finally I start to write the book. All of this preparation before I write usually takes me a long time to figure out, often many months or even more to get the story to work, to hopefully be a story that engages children. I don’t work out all the details before I start to write. So it turns out that I don’t think I approach writing fiction and nonfiction in a different ways. In fact, I approach writing both genres in the same way.
Fuse #8: Is there any non-fiction topic you have considered covering in the past, only to pull back from later on down the line?
RHH: Yes, once. And the only reason I pulled back was not because of fear, but because once I began writing the book, I felt I did not have enough to say about the topic that would matter to kids to make it a book kids would want to read. And after spending about two months working on the idea, which at one point I had thought was an exciting idea, I became bored with the idea. So I dropped the idea and moved on to another book that I found both interesting and challenging. I have just finished that manuscript and am about to submit it to one of my publishers.
Also, to cite an example of not pulling back from a book that I believe in, no matter what others may say I never pulled back from writing a forthcoming book of mine, THE DAY LEO SAID ‘I HATE YOU!’ — even though many people asked me if I really thought is was wise or prudent to author a book about a child blurting out, I HATE YOU! — three words some people feel children should never say, but in fact do say even to those they love. Molly Bang has just finished illustrating this book and understands that the child in this story is not a bad child because those three words have popped out of his mouth; rather he is angry at someone who loves him, and whom he loves, his mother. So ultimately this book about saying ‘I hate you!” is a book about love. When I wrote my picture book, GOODBYE MOUSIE, a book about the death of a young child’s beloved pet, others asked me if I really wanted to write a book for young children about death. I did not back away from that book either. Children, even young children, experience loss and again, I wanted to validate through the story in this book, that their strong and powerful feelings about this topic are perfectly normal and perfectly healthy.
Fuse #8: Are there any non-fiction titles you’re inclined to tackle in the future? Do you feel that there are gaps in children’s literature that can be filled, or do you approach new topics in an entirely different manner.
RHH: I am sure there are gaps, and new stories or topics to write about, or stories or topics that have not been written about in a long time, or old themes that need to be done better, or need a version that makes sense to a 21st century child. Those are the kinds of stories, be they fiction or nonfiction, that I have on a long list of books I want to write in the future. But here’s an example of a story I have written in my forthcoming picture book, MAIL HARRY TO THE MOON!, This book’s story is about a topic that has been written about over and over again — sibling rivalry. But hopefully the story I wrote adds a new twist or insight to this perpetual story, the new twist being that when one wishes for the total disappearance of one’s adorable adored new baby sister or brother, once you send the baby away, you start to worry that your little baby brother or sister is too little to sent somewhere all by himself, and in the case of this book — too little to be on the moon. And when the big brother in this book realizes now that Harry is gone, he misses baby Harry, he knows he has to go to the moon right away to rescue baby Harry, and bring Harry back home. So a new twist or story about an old topic can work, and the challenge in writing this book was to make it work for the young child to whom this book would be read to. Just one more comment: the two most recent picture books manuscripts I have written, are written in a completely different manner from my previous picture books. And I find that very refreshing and exciting. Soon, I will find out what editors think about these two manuscripts and the new direction I have taken. And I am now trying to come up with a new idea for a nonfiction book. And yes, yet again, I need to come up with a nonfiction idea that will make a good story — exactly what I will need to do for the next picture book I write.
I’d like to thank Ms. Harris for taking the time to answer my questions.
Here’s the schedule for the rest of the Robie H. Harris Blog Tour for the coming week:
- Tuesday, February 5th: Book Buds – DON’T BE AFRAID! Writing with Honesty for Children and in the Best Interests of the Child
- Wednesday, February 6th: Mother Reader – WRITING FROM THE CHILD’S EYE-VIEW
- Thursday, February 7th: Kids Lit – FREEDOM TO READ/FREEDOM TO WRITE
- Friday, February 8th: bookshelves of doom – THE CHALLENGES OF BEING THE AUTHOR OF CHALLENGED BOOKS
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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