Paige Schilt

The Lazy Queer Parent's Guide to Sex Ed Books for Kids

Filed By Paige Schilt | October 04, 2009 11:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Living, Living
Tags: children's literature, feminism, genderqueer, learning about sex, parenting, queer, Queer Parenting, sex ed, sexuality education

One night in the bath, my five-year-old son poked at his testicles. "What are these things called again?"

"They're called testicles, but sometimes people call them balls," I said.

He seemed momentarily satisfied, but the next night, on the toilet, he returned to the subject.

"These tentacles..." he started.

"Testicles."

"Testicles," he repeated. "What are they for?"

We've always talked about bodies and used correct language for anatomy. But this conversation felt different. Waylon's questions were self-initiated and specific. After offering a hastily constructed answer, I consulted my parenting books. They counseled me to offer my child correct, technical, and honest information and to avoid overwhelming him with any information that wasn't age-appropriate and that he didn't need to know yet.

Sure, that sounds easy. Just like walking a tightrope. My son has the disposition of an attorney. His favorite questions are "Why?" and "What about...?"

I thought it would make things easier to keep the conversation factual and age-appropriate if I had some nice, feminist, LGBT-affirming book for talking to kids about their bodies. So I did the laziest thing in the world. I went to Amazon.com and searched for children's books about sexuality.

My first search turned up several books from Concordia's Learning About Sex for the Christian Family series and books from Navpress's God's Design for Sex series. These books featured dialogue like this line from Where Do Babies Come From?:

"It was God who thought of putting us into families," Daddy said. "Wasn't it a good idea?"

Christians, I realized, have been busy imagining the needs of parents and families and thinking about ways to meet those needs while simultaneously operationalizing their values about gender, sexuality, and the family.

But gender, sexuality, and the family are equally important and contested terrain for feminists. Critiques of patriarchal families and reproductive sexuality have been a feminist staple since the 19th century. Surely, I thought, some feminist authors have penned children's books about bodies and sexuality that operationalize feminist values for parents and kids.

Scrolling through the secular offerings on Amazon, I found my way to, What's the Big Secret? by Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown. School Library Journal calls this book "the gold standard for sex ed for young children." I ordered a copy and read the first sentence with high hopes.

"From the moment your life begins, you are either a boy or a girl."

Hmm. My partner, Katy--Waylon's other Mommy--identifies as somewhere in the middle of gender. Waylon has grown up in a feminist, genderqueer community. He has aunties and uncles and auntie-uncles with multiple gender identities. The kid is a bigger critic of binary gender paradigms than most adults. (I've been trying to teach him old protest songs like "If I Had a Hammer," but he won't let me sing the line about "love between the brothers and the sisters" without throwing in a couple of other identities to make it more inclusive.)

To be fair, What's the Big Secret? does spend several pages deconstructing gendered ideas about children's play, clothing, and emotions. Ultimately, however, the book locates differences between boys and girls firmly in biology:

"Actually, the only sure way to tell boys and girls apart is by their bodies."

And, like a lot of the secular children's books I looked at, What's the Big Secret? explains binary gender as natural and necessary to reproduction. In fact, the section called "Why Boys and Girls Differ" is subtitled "A Little Lesson in Reproduction."

I knew this book was not going to work for my queer family (we made Waylon with a friend, a plastic syringe, and a Mason jar). And it probably wouldn't work for other LGBTQ families either. Moreover, as a queer feminist dedicated to questioning biological narratives about the naturalness of gender and reproduction, I was hoping for something more.

At the very least, I was hoping for a children's book about bodies that didn't assume heterosexual reproduction as the alpha and omega. Was that too much to ask?

The time had come to do something slightly less lazy. I visited my local feminist bookstore, Bookwoman.

At Bookwoman, I found several copies of A Very Touching Book by Jan Hindman. Written from the perspective of preventing sexual abuse, this book has several things to recommend it. It's body and sex positive. Using touch as the central concept, the book leads children through decision-making processes about good and bad touching. In the process, it discusses physical attributes without resorting to reproduction as the ultimate explanation.

In fact, A Very Touching Book does not reference reproductive sex at all. Rather than explaining adult sexuality as a function of reproduction, Hindman (who passed away in 2007) defines adult sexuality in terms of safety, pleasure, and informed decision-making:

"The second reason that the sharing of those parts is such a big deal is that grown-ups need to spend a lot of time thinking about who the special person will be that they decide to share their bodies with."

Throughout the book's discussion of adult sexuality, Hindman uses gender-neutral language. In the text and the pictures, heterosexuality is not assumed. With a few slight adaptations, this book could work for my family.

There are, however, a few things I don't love about A Very Touching Book. The illustrations are distractingly busy. The jokes are cheesey. And Hindman sometimes illustrates her points with longish analogies (like the one comparing private parts to Christmas) that detract from the main point.

Although I don't expect to find the perfect book, I was curious whether other feminist writers had addressed the need for children's books about bodies and sexuality. In keeping with my lazy mode of inquiry, I decided to have lunch with a feminist librarian. So I made a date with Dr. Kristen Hogan, an expert on women's bookstores and feminist publishing.

The woman brought a bibliography to our lunch date. I really, really love that.

Kris's book list, which I will reproduce below, helped me see that feminist authors and presses are producing books about bodies and sexuality for young people. However, the majority of these books were for children approaching puberty. In the category of books for young children, Kris suggested the book I'd found at Bookwoman, A Very Touching Book, and a book about sexual abuse, Not in Room 204.

Kris's List

Sweet Secrets: Stories of Menstruation
Kathleen O'Grady and Paula Wansbrough
Second Story Press, 1997

Growing Up: It's a Girl Thing: Straight Talk about First Bras, First Periods, and Your Changing Body
Mavis Jukes and Debbie Tilley
Knopf Books for Young Readers, 1998

On Your Mark, Get Set, Grow!: A 'What's Happening to My Body?' Book for Younger Boys
Lynda Madaras
Newmarket Press, 2008

My Body, My Self for Boys
Lynda Madaras
Newmarket Press, 2007

Not In Room 204
Shannon Riggs and Jaime Zollars
Albert Whitman & Co., 2007

Your Body Belongs to You
Cornelia Maude Spelman and Teri Weidner
Albert Whitman & Co., 2003

Changing Bodies, Changing Lives
Ruth Bell
Three Rivers Press, 1998

I'm still thinking about why children's books about bodies and sexuality have been such productive terrain for religious conservatives and (seemingly) neglected terrain for feminists. I suspect it comes back to what's viable in the publishing industry. In the introduction to Harmful to Minors: the Perils of Protecting Children from Sex, Judith Levine talks about her struggles to publish an adult book about cultural anxieties surrounding children's sexuality. In the arena of children's publishing, narratives about reproductive families and child protection function to contain discomfort about children's sexuality.

Although we never found the perfect book, I think my partner and I are managing to answer my son's questions about his body through improvisation, recurring dialogue, and a mish-mash of the available resources. But the lazy part of me still hopes that feminist, queer-affirming, sex-positive children's writers will add more and more options to the available resources.

*Cross-posted at feministsforchoice.com


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I ran into similar problems when my mother got a couple of books for my preadolescent brother. One of them didn't mention queerness at all; the other emphasized that "we don't know if homosexuality is biological or psychological in origin" (only in simpler words) and of course didn't acknowledge the difference between gender and sex at all. I wound up making sure my brother knew its deficiencies, because I couldn't think of a better resource.

The sex ed book I got when I was an adolescent wasn't much better. It taught me to assume that I was doomed to AIDS unless I insisted on a condom at all times, which is somewhat less useful for me than for the audience it always assumed it was talking to, i. e. female-bodied people likely to interact frequently with penes. No, it didn't mention queerness of any sort. Kind of useless for a wee dykeling, really....

And, when will your book launch? No, seriously! You're aware of a missing piece in the market. You're a writer. Doesn't look like anybody else has written it before. They definitely haven't written it the way you would. You're in the midst of learning how to speak with your son about the issue. He's right there with you to talk you through it. You know lots of folks who would support you. An author creates residual income through royalties so it's possible you could create income that grows as you sleep at night. I'm a new publisher in Hawaii. Let me know if I can be of assistance.

I never found and books that i would use with my kids. I just tended to talk to them myself. I avoided the "Big Talk" model and broke things down into a series of talks.
I remember when my 16 year old was having to speed up his coming out because a helpful church in Florida has a program for finding LGBT kids on the internet and outing them. His mother looked at me and said that she thinks that he needed another talk only more specific about what boys do with boys because she doesn't mind her son being gay but she doesn't want him to be inept and she couldn't think of anyone better qualified than me.
I told him that his mother wanted us to revisit our previous talks and he said that she needs a hobby. I told him that this was going to be one most American dads don't expect to have with their sons and he responded with pointing out that it isn't a talk most gay sons expect their dad to be able to have with them.

I avoided books w/this particular subject w/all five of my Philistines. I went w/my instinct. I had 1boy and four girls all under the age of 5 when the twins were born.

This is your eye. This is your chin. This is your elbow. This is your penis [[w/the boy]] This is your vagina [[w/the 4girls]]. I decided that making it as mater as fact as an elbow was the best way to go.

No one is embarrassed about an elbow. So why would anyone be embarrassed about a vagina or penis?

It made sense to me at the time.
Then my oldest daughter Quin who was in kindergarten chased around a grown man repeating over and over again... I have a vagina. My mother has a vagina. You are a man and have a penis.

When said grown adult male recoiled in shock... it only served to instigate her kindergarten mind. Kept repeating in a sing-song voice, over and over again...

Vagina. Vagina. Vagina. Vagina..."

He begged for mercy and asked me to make her stop.
She didn't have a problem w/her vagina... he did. So I didn't see the need in helping him from his fetal position w/a kindergarten female child in his cornered fetal position.

It's a cute song when you sing it right.

Where Do I Come From? was the book I read when it was "time for the talk." The talk consisted of "Do you have any questions?" after I read the book. I said, "No." Mom said, "Good."

End of story. That was it.

I've heard good things about It's Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health by Robie H. Harris. There's a new edition out as of last month. I haven't read it myself, but it explains puberty and sexuality--straight and not. I don't know how good it is about gender/trans issues, though.

It's been one of the top banned/challenged books in the country, which is reason enough for me to give it a try. I think it's really aimed at that second stage of sex ed as kids get closer to puberty, but it might be worth a read even now.

Well, the younger kids' version of It's Perfectly Normal is called It's Not the Stork. I didn't look at that one, because I felt like the title pretty much indicates that sexuality is going to be explained in terms of how babies are made. The narrative of almost all of the younger kids' books goes like this: 1)Boys and girls are different. 2) Why are they different? Because this is where babies come from.

As an alternative, I've been looking back at Riki Ann Wilchins' essay called "It's Your Gender, Stupid." She writes, "The debate over the naturalness of binary sex is circular. Whatever reproduces must be one of two sexes because there are only two sexes to be." Wilchins does this great reading of a sea horse gender, hyena gender, and garter snake gender...incidentally, great characters for a children's book...

R. K. Anderson | October 9, 2009 10:05 AM

I found this post through Mombian.com. I have five year old sons and I really am grateful for their questions and the chance to have dialogue with them about their bodies.

There is a great K - adult human sexuality curriculum called Our Whole Lives (OWL), created jointly by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. It is queer positive and age appropriate. It can be used in a "secular" way. I grew up in a Unitarian Universalist church and attended About Your Sexuality classes which were the precursor to OWL. I think that AYS curriculum helped in my coming out as a lesbian 10 years later and really informed and shaped my understanding of human sexuality.

http://www.uua.org/religiouseducation/curricula/ourwhole/

Thanks for the post.

Nancy Walbek | October 22, 2009 10:37 PM

Here's another book that may be helpful:

"From Diapers to Dating: A Parent's Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children From Infancy to Middle School, Second Edition" by Debra W. Haffner.

I taught a college course on sexuality and told every class that "sex education starts on the changing table." This book elaborates on the this comment.

Debra Haffner also has a blog and additional web presence worth checking out.