November 18, 2017

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Sex Education: Covering the Bases | Focus On

In school, as in life, the place where private values and public responsibility most frequently clash is located between the legs of our young people. In fact, many of the books recommended in this article may not fit comfortably within purchasing guidelines for your school district. But they are worth fighting for. Research studies and specialist educators agree—information about reproductive and sexual health is like the HPV vaccine: the earlier it is administered, the better chance it has of working. Often the school library may be a kid’s sole safe source of accurate information. Even kids who attend good sex ed programs process only the information that they’re ready for. So it’s important to have an up-to-date collection of age-appropriate books on hand when the time is right.

The titles below not only address the physical and emotional changes children can expect as they mature (puberty) and answer questions about why these changes occur (reproduction), but also touch on readers’ rights and responsibilities. Authors of these books frequently reassure readers that developmental differences are quite normal. Likewise, those that account for differences in gender, family makeup, and sexuality were preferred, while books that make heteronormative assumptions were rejected. Unusually negative or unrealistic statements about masturbation, odor, or bodily fluids kept other books off this list. Books that give girls advice on how not to be a target for harassment and how to say “no” loudly enough but do not tell boys that they share responsibility in these situations are not recommended. Other gender assumptions still exist, too. Almost all books written for boys will address sexual feelings and masturbation, while many books for girls ignore libido entirely, instead focusing on “high emotion” and “drama.” Any parent of a teen or preteen can tell you that “drama” is not confined to a specific gender, and while adults might want to pretend otherwise, neither is libido.

1605-FO-SexEd-CVs1Elementary

It is tempting for people who work with young children to think that they don’t “need” books that introduce information about private parts and body issues. But sex educators agree that a proactive approach is invaluable to provide a factual framework for more detailed information later and to establish a comfort level with asking questions. Accurate information and vocabulary forestall crises both big and small, including rude questions, teasing, and every parent’s nightmare—unreported exploitation.

HARRIS, Robbie H. It’s So Amazing! illus. by Michael Emberley. Candlewick. 2014. Tr $22.99. ISBN 9780763668730; pap. $12.99. ISBN 9780763668747.
Gr 2-6–The 15th-anniversary edition of this classic covers conception, anatomy, cell biology, and fetal development, with chapters on adoption, HIV/AIDS, genetics, and body autonomy. Warm and colorful illustrations depict loving families of diverse genders, races, ages, body types, and abilities. Fun analogies and anthropomorphized cartoon characters enhance the kid appeal.

SILVERBERG, Cory. Sex Is a Funny Word: A Book About Bodies, Feelings, and You. illus. by Fiona Smyth. Seven Stories. 2015. Tr $23.95. ISBN 9781609806064.
Gr 2 Up–Questions about bodies, gender, and touch prompt readers to explore their own feelings, both physical and emotional. The open, nothing-taken-for-granted, LGBTQ-friendly presentation allows kids to delve deeply into topics that concern or mystify them or skip over stuff they’re not ready for. Bold, full-page, color cartoon drawings accentuate diversity.

SPELMAN, Cornelia. Your Body Belongs to You . illus. by Teri Weidner. Albert Whitman. 1997. lib ed. $14.10. ISBN 9780613281492; pap. $6.99 ISBN 9780807594735.
PreS-Gr 2–Reassuring art featuring diverse kids and families and simple text deliver the message that children can say “no thank you” to hugs and kisses for any reason—even if they’re feeling shy around an older relative or just having a bad day.

Preteens

Although puberty books tend to look and sound alike, with their upbeat, cheerleadery tone (let’s hear it for hygiene!), they can vary in important ways, especially when it comes to gender parity. In fact, middle school books may be due for an update—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that the vaccine for human papillomavirus (HPV) be administered to children at 11 or 12. Children will naturally have questions about this vaccine and the virus, which is spread through sexual contact. Currently, very few puberty books contain information about HPV at all.

BURNINGHAM, Sarah O’Leary. Girl to Girl: Honest Talk About Growing Up and Your Changing Body. illus. by Alli Arnold. Chronicle. 2013. pap. $12.99. ISBN 9781452102429.
Gr 2-8–Gentle, supportive, and positive text is augmented by colorful cartoon illustrations of smiling girls and lots of sidebars. Though it doesn’t touch on sexuality or HPV, this smiley book is a great choice for girls experiencing early onset puberty.

COUWENHOVEN, Terri. The Boys’ Guide to Growing Up: Choices and Changes During Puberty . Woodbine House. 2012. ISBN 9781606130896.
––––. The Girls’ Guide to Growing Up: Choices and Changes in the Tween Years. Woodbine House. 2011. ISBN 9781606130261. pap. $16.99.
Gr 5-8–While these books are written specifically for children with intellectual disabilities, their behavior advice and especially the unequivocal guidelines around privacy—parts, places, activities, and speech—establish clear boundaries that are helpful to typically developing and non-neurotypical children alike. No cute euphemisms here, just: “If your penis itches, find a private place before you scratch.”

HARRIS, Robie H. It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health. illus. by Michael Emberley. Candlewick. 2014. Tr $22.99. ISBN 9780763668716.
Gr 6 Up–This inclusive guide was updated in 2014 with then-current information on HPV, abortion, birth control, and online activity, including sexting. Do children sometimes parade this book around the library open to the page of friendly watercolor illustrations of naked people of all shapes, colors, and ages? Yes, yes they do.

1605-FO-SexEd-CVs2LAVENDER, Missy & Jeni Donatelli Ihm. Below Your Belt: How To Be Queen of Your Pelvic Region. illus. by Jan Dolby. Women’s Health Foundation. 2015. pap. $18.95. ISBN 9780996535809.
Gr 4-8–Notable for treating not only the reproductive system but also digestion and the pelvic muscles, this guide includes stretches and exercises that can improve athletic performance and relieve cramps or constipation, all described with easy-to-follow diagrams. Cheerful, informal language and loopy illustrations deflect some of the embarrassment of reading about sensitive topics, such as the anus.

MADARAS, Lynda. On Your Mark, Get Set, Grow! illus. by Paul Gilligan. HarperCollins. 2008. Tr $22. ISBN 9781557047809; pap. $12. ISBN 9781557047816.
Gr 3-6–Longtime sex educator and author Madaras provides accurate, nonjudgmental information in her many books. This one covers the basics of development and hygiene for boys and sticks a toe into sexuality and romance. Most boys are reluctant to ask about masturbation, but it is the one subject they have the most questions about, and this book goes there.

MADARAS, Lynda with Area Madaras. The “What’s Happening to My Body?” Book for Boys. HarperCollins. 2007. Tr $24.99. ISBN 9781557047694; pap. $14.99. ISBN 9781557047694.
Gr 5-8–Masturbation is OK, being gay or bisexual is OK, and sexual fantasies—even weird ones—are OK. When discussing romantic and sexual feelings, Madaras emphasizes personal agency. This book is also notable for including a chapter on how girls experience puberty. “Not knowing what happens in the opposite sex can make puberty more confusing than it needs to be.”

MOVSESSIAN, Shushann. Puberty Girl. Allen & Unwin. 2004. pap. $15.95. ISBN 9781741141047.
Gr 4-8 –Energetic, earthy, even a little silly, this Australian import helps girls identify and name their feelings as well as their parts. Peppered with big photos of real girls, it has a contemporary, grown-up feel. A whole chapter on interpersonal conflict includes advice about one’s own behavior. Published in 2004, the book makes no mention of gender vs. biological sex, or HPV.

NATTERSON, Cara. The Care and Keeping of You 2: The Body Book for Older Girls. illus. by Josée Masse. American Girl. 2013. pap. $12.99. ISBN 9781609580421.
Gr 4-8–While this popular book covers the basics, it’s rather conventional in its expectations—girls are expected to want to remove body hair and are counseled to talk to their parents rather than given advice about what to do in the moment if they experience “unwanted attention from peers or strangers” about their changing bodies. A visually appealing, noncontroversial choice.

VERMOND, Kira. Growing Up Inside and Out. illus. by Carl Chin. Owlkids. 2013. Tr $18.95. ISBN 9781926973890; pap. $11.95. ISBN 9781771470049.
Gr 4-8–Calm, encouraging language unravels the psychological and emotional developments of puberty. Gender stereotypes collapse in sections about body image, mood, and good relationship behavior. Exceptional for placing the responsibility for harassment on the speaker and for outlining good bystander behavior. Few illustrations, but a three-column design keeps the pages turning.

WICKS, Maris. Human Body Theater. illus. by Maris Wicks. First Second. 2015. Tr $19.99. ISBN 9781626722774; pap. $14.99. ISBN 9781596439290.
Gr 4-7–Upbeat and straightforward, this graphic novel treats the reproductive system as just another set of smiling cartoon organs. About puberty, Wicks writes, “Emotions may feel stronger and this can be confusing” and “It is around puberty that people start to become romantically attracted to each other.” Superlatively natural in tone, this book is a winner.

1605-FO-SexEd-CVs3High School

The best books aimed at kids 14 and up embrace the full range of orientation and gender expression (acknowledging that these may be flexible) and describe healthy dating and sexual behaviors. Whether teens choose to abstain, to indulge in some fooling around, or to go “all the way,” whatever that means to them, these books never miss a chance to dish up a full plate of consent and respect, with a heaping helping of safety on the side. Most are garnished with humor—kids deserve a little reward for being brave enough to investigate these topics for themselves.

GEVINSON, Tavi , ed. Rookie Yearbook Four. Penguin. 2014. pap. $22.95. ISBN 9781595147950.
Gr 9 Up–The word frank doesn’t begin to describe the true stories of crushes, clothes, makeup, making out, and sex shared by the young, primarily female authors of these stories and essays. Liberally leavened with fashion, playlists, and how-tos, this collection is as authentic as they come and delivers hard-won wisdom and laughs for girls and the people who love them.

HASLER, Nikol. SEX: An Uncensored Introduction. Zest. 2015. pap. $14.99. ISBN 9781936 976843.
Gr 9 Up–The creator of the video podcast “Midwest Teen Sex Show” addresses everything from weird sex fantasies to online behavior. Sassy and sex-positive, but strict in insisting on mutually respectful behavior. Written for kids of all genders and orientations, up-to-date, and browsable, with lots of eye-catching Q&As and sidebars.

MARCUS, Eric. What If?: Answers to Questions About What It Means To Be Gay and Lesbian. S. & S./Simon Pulse. 2013. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9781442482982; pap. $12.99. ISBN 9781442482975.

Gr 9 Up–This gentle book answers all the big questions—about love, marriage, sex, and God—in friendly, open language with lots of real-life examples and quotes. Continuously reassuring, this work consistently reiterates the message “Being gay isn’t bad.”

PARDES, Bronwen. Doing It Right: Making Smart, Safe, and Satisfying Choices About Sex. S. & S./Simon Pulse. 2013. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9781442483705; pap. $12.99. ISBN 9781442483712.
Gr 9 Up–This near-encyclopedic book by a fearless author relentlessly and cheerfully validates the reader’s right to make choices. Female sexual pleasure shows up early and often, and consent gets a whole chapter, as do masturbation and the difference between sex and gender. Few illustrations, but the spirit and verve of the writing, plus large Q&A sections, will pull readers in.

Parents

Puberty freaks parents out at least as much as it does kids. Faced with questions they may not be comfortable answering and perhaps hazy on their facts, they could use a good book. Al Vernacchio’s For Goodness Sex: Changing the Way We Talk to Teens About Sexuality, Values, and Health (HarperCollins, 2014) gives parents thoughtful exercises for examining their own values. Terri Couwenhoven’s book Teaching Children with Down Syndrome About Their Bodies, Boundaries, and Sexuality: A Guide for Parents and Professionals (Woodbine House, 2007) similarly encourages parents to explore their own feelings in order to determine what messages they mean to communicate to their child. Both books emphasize taking a positive, proactive role in teaching verbal and physical boundaries.

Paula Willey is a librarian and blogger at unadulterated.us.

Digital Picks

Websites

Advocates for Youth. Advocates for Youth. (Accessed 3/22/16).
Gr 9 Up–This global organization dedicated to adolescent sexual and reproductive health has posted a well-organized array of resources for sex educators and parents. A tremendous source of information for young activists and their adult allies.

GLBT National Help Center. The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender (GLBT) National Help Center. (Accessed 3/22/16).
Gr 7 Up–Hotline counseling and a wealth of resources for GLBT teens and adults can be found here, including a peer support chat, a moderated weekly talk group for trans teens, and other thoughtful support options. There’s also a large database of local resources.

Planned Parenthood: Info for Teens. Planned Parenthood Federation of America. (Accessed 3/22/16).
Gr 7 Up–This site puts the big topics right up front—consent, coming out, sexting—they’re all there and easy to find. Live chat is available for urgent questions, plus games and quizzes just for fun.

San Francisco Sex Information. sfsi.org. SFSI. (Accessed 3/22/16).
Gr 9 Up–“Free, accurate, confidential, nonjudgmental information” via phone and email reference services are provided by qualified volunteers through this nonprofit organization. Lots of facts, zero fluff.

Scarleteen: Sex Ed for the Real World. scarleteen.com. Scarleteen/Heather Corinna. (Accessed 3/22/16).
Gr 8 Up–Candid, positive, and inclusive, this cheery site offers answers and food for thought. One-on-one options include text, online chat, message boards, and an advice column. There’s even an online condom shop! Best on a tablet, it can be hard to read on a computer.

Sex, Etc.: Sex Education by Teens, for Teens. sexetc.org. Answer, Rutgers University. (Accessed 3/22/16).
Gr 6 Up–A deep well of teen-created videos, blog posts, and instructional material are augmented with resources like a clinic finder and a state-by-state rights rundown. Conversation starters (how to tell a parent you have an STD, for example) and forums give this site a responsive feel.

Apps

Juicebox. Released: Apr 06, 2016. Version: 1.0. Size: 3.4 MB. Language: English. Seller: Juicebox It, Inc. ©2016 Juicebox It Inc.
Gr 9 Up–Billed as “a place to avoid the awkward,” this free app, currently available for iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch, puts accurate, sex-positive, inclusive information right where teens are most likely to find it—on their phones. Ask a question or post a confession—qualified sex educators are on board to give answers and advice. Users are required to be at least 17 years old, although the app is clearly aimed at high school students.

This article was published in School Library Journal's May 2016 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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Comments

  1. Thank you for such a great list of books! Parents, it’s so important that we be able to support our children with conversations to accompany these amazing books. If you’d like some support around that, check out this interview series: talktokidsaboutsexseries.com It’s 30 experts shareing how to talk to kids about sexual shame and sexual pleasure, preventing sexual abuse and sexual assault, porn and sexting, virginity, sex in the media, sexual orientation and gender identity, and it’s FREE. Plus there’s a Facebook support group so you can ask the experts your questions. Join us and get the support you need to ensure your kids have safe and healthy sexual relationships from the start!