Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Who Has What? A Guest Post by Robie Harris

 Creating Nonfiction for Our Youngest Children

 I should have known better. But for a few days, I was fooled again, as are so many of us, when we think about writing nonfiction for very young children. “Simple,” one friend told me. “You’re writing a book for little kids. They don’t need a lot of information.” A colleague who writes for older children said, “Only about fourteen pages of text, and a couple of short paragraphs per page. And oh yes, two of your characters talk. Can’t take all that long… can it?”

 That question sent me right back to reality as I answered in my most calm voice, “Yes, it can,” At least, it takes me a very long time to write any picture book for young children.” And yes, it did. It took me a lot longer than I had expected to write my newest nonfiction picture book for very young children—WHO HAS WHAT? All About Girls’ Bodies and Boys’ Bodies, illustrated by Nadine Bernard Westcott and published by Candlewick Press.

 The idea for this book came to me one day when I heard a young child sing, “Head, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes. And eyes, and ears, and mouth,
and nose…” While listening to the child, it crossed my mind that not all parts of the body are named in that song and I wondered what that omission meant for young children. And that’s what led to my writing a book for them that would name all the parts of the body, including the genitals. I wanted to write this book because it matters that children know and understand at an early age that every part of the body, including the genitals, is a perfectly healthy and perfectly normal part and that there is nothing shameful or dirty about one’s private body parts or even knowing and saying the names of those parts such as “the vagina” or “the penis."

 “Okay,” I thought to myself as I began to collect and outline the information that would be in this book. “Easy to do. Just name the parts. Label them. The illustrator will create charming art and labels for each body that will make naming all the parts make fun and easy for young children.”

 However, it turned out that this book was neither simple nor easy to create. I did know from the get-go that the text had to be short. But only a few days after I began writing, I realized that the text could not be all that short. It became clear that there were some explanatory details that had to be added to help young children understand the information that I was including in this book. For example: in order to help young children know just where some of these parts are located—in particular their genitals and the fact that your genitals are what make you either a girl or a boy—I knew I would have to include more information and that would result in a longer text. I wondered if the amount of text would be too long for a young child. I also worried that I was underestimating a young child’s yearning to know. A few days later, I thought about the fact young children are fascinated by—to use their language—“pee” and “poop.” I suspected that they would want it confirmed that the opening where pee comes out is located in different places for girls and boys and that poop comes out of the same opening for both boys and girls.

 I also realized that it would be helpful to include boys’ and girls’ “inside parts”—parts that they can’t see—parts that also make them either a boy or a girl. Soon, I was writing about gender differences between male and female anatomy in a book for young children. I wondered if this was “too much information.” I worried I that the more information I added, the more complicated the text would become, resulting in a longer text. After several weeks of indecision, I made the decision to go with more rather than less information resulting in more text. That’s because I felt that even our very young children want to know and have the right to have honest information that is also age-appropriate. And I felt that it would be irresponsible to ignore the fact that most young children ask endless questions about their own and other people’s bodies. They are simply curious and this is their way about learning about themselves. More specifically, most wonder about and often have some concerns about what makes them male or female. My hope was I could write a book that would answer most of their questions and respond to most of their concerns.

 So what began as a very simple book that was just going to name all the parts became a book that needed to talk about the function of some of those parts. I also realized that I needed to make the point that most parts of the body are the same for girls and boys, but some parts are different. I hoped my text would help them understand that whatever parts you have are normal parts—whether its your elbow, your neck, your penis or your vagina, your ears, your toes—and that each is simply another part of our amazing bodies.

 After several rewrites, I finally knew that I had to include all this additional information. This was based on the fact that the more young children know about all the parts of their amazing bodies and how they work, the better they feel about their own bodies and themselves. Understanding that each part of one’s body is a normal and healthy part contributes to a child’s positive sense of self and a healthy respect for and understanding of their own bodies and other people’s bodies.

 Then I struggled with trying to figure out how could I include this information and still make it understandable to a young audience. Some days, I felt I had to include all this information. Other days I regressed and felt I should only label the parts. Then much to my relief, I finally realized that the book had to do both. Label the body parts and talk about those parts that make one a girl or a boy. After even more time, I figured out how to do just that.

 —I had to keep the sentences short. But sometimes, when I’d take out a phrase to shorten a piece of science writing, the science suddenly became inaccurate. I feel that even our youngest children need to have accurate information. So in some places, I left those phrases in, even though it resulted in a text being a tad longer. By the time I finished the book, I felt that wherever I had written longer text, it read out loud just fine.

 —I also had make those tough choices that every writer has to make. I had to decide what information young children absolutely positively needed to have about their bodies. I put only that information in the book, nothing else. The result: I left out some fascinating and fun facts. But in the end, I hardly missed those facts and know that children won’t either. I also had to leave space on the page for Nadine to create the visual narrative that would accompany the text and the two main characters’ speech bubbles. All in all, there was not a lot of room for text.

 —The question that nagged me the most was, “Could I keep the text on each double-page spread short enough and at the same time include enough information so that the text would make sense and young children would not lose interest as the text was being read aloud to them?” My test was to vet the text with experts, including parents, early childhood professionals, pediatricians, child analysts and psychologists, to make sure that my text was not too long and would resonate with young children. I did that before Nadine even saw the text.

 I spent about a year and a bit more writing the text for WHO HAS WHAT? But in doing so, I learned that though I had to “keep it simple,” I also could not forget that even our young and very young children crave information about themselves and the world around them. As writers we have to give them enough information so they can actually understand what we are trying to “say” to them and also write in a manner that will hopefully strike a responsive chord in them. I also realized that I had to put in any information that young children might seek or need, even if there were people who would object to some of the information that I was going to and did include in WHO HAS WHAT? Being honest in our writing matters. If we are not honest, even with our youngest children and we leave out information they have a right to know and want to know, then the words we write will have no credibility with them. When we make our choices about what information to include in the nonfiction children’s books we write, if putting a piece of information in our books is “in the best interests of the child,” we owe it to children to include that information. These kinds of challenges and tenets are what I find so fascinating about writing nonfiction. That’s why I can’t wait to start in on my next nonfiction book for young children. Maybe this one won’t take as much time to write. Uh-oh! I suspect I’m fooling myself again. —Robie H. Harris


Susan E. Goodman said...

Great post, Robie. It's perfectly amazing how hard it is to write simple, isn't it?

Susan Kuklin said...

I read WHO HAS WHAT with great pleasure. Now I'm dying to know what was left out. Congratulations Robie! It's a must read for young and somewhat old.

Loreen Leedy said...

So nice to hear about your thinking about the writing of WHO HAS WHAT? The book will answer a lot of questions and no doubt prevent quite a few misconceptions. I remember having some pretty silly ideas prior to getting the correct information.