Friday, April 30, 2010

You're STILL Working on the Same Book?

As writers of nonfiction for children, we all know that when people ask us, “What do you do?” and we answer, “I write children’s books,” the next question that comes tumbling out is, “So what are you working on now?” Several times when I’ve responded, “I just finished updating a nonfiction science-based book of mine that was published some fifteen years ago” and go on to say that I’d spent four months doing so, people look incredulous. Their responses range from, “You’re still working on the same book?” to “Why change it at all if it’s still in print and doing well?” to “Aren’t you bored with the topic?”

The truth is that when I wrote IT’S PERFECTLY NORMAL, Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health many long years ago, I never, ever thought I would STILL be working on the same book some fifteen years later. But soon after the book was published, I read in the newspaper that new methods of contraception were available. And that’s when I realized that as an nonfiction author, it was my responsibility to make sure that kids and teens, the audiences for this book, would have the latest and most accurate science and medical information in order to help them stay healthy. At that moment I knew that as long as this book was in print and went back to reprint, I would have more work to do.

But I figured that since I had spent so many hours, days and years creating this book, any new material that needed to be added would be easy as pie to integrate into the existing book. So no problem. Just write up the new material and plunk it into the book. But doing that was not easy and it did not happen fast. Adding new science material or new legal material still meant hours of research, hours of talking with experts about the new material and how to write about it in an age-appropriate manner, hours pondering over how to say something with as few words as possible while making sure that the science remained accurate, and hours of working with my editor and designer to fit the text and new art by Michael Emberley on existing pages. Each updated or new topic demanded as much work as I had done in the original book.

The most recent topics I’ve added is information about the HPV vaccine and a brand-new chapter on staying safe and healthy on the Internet. (The Internet was not a part of our lives when this book was first written and published.) Once I learned that the HPV vaccine can prevent girls and women from getting HPV and cervical cancer, it was clear to me that girls need to have this information, including the fact that in the U.S., girls as young as nine and women up to age twenty-six can be given this vaccination. So why not just write this up? What else did I need to do? Well, first I had to understand how and to whom the vaccine is given as well as the feelings that girls and parents had about this new vaccine, and then figure out how to write up this material in a nonbiased manner. When I talked with nine and ten-year-old girls, many knew about the vaccine and said things such as, “Hey, it’s just another shot the doctor gives you. And nobody wants to get cancer!” Most pediatricians and parents I talked with agreed that giving the vaccine could keep girls healthy. But other parents were concerned that if girls as young as nine learn that HPV is a sexually transmitted disease, these young girls may become sexually active before it is healthy to do so. And other parents for legitimate religious and cultural reasons choose not to have their daughters vaccinated. I had to take all of this into consideration before adding this new material, and writing it in tone that would not scare kids, but give them the facts they needed.

In the midst of updating IT’S PERFECTLY NORMAL for the recent fifteenth anniversary edition, I realized that given that the Internet is so prevalent in our pre-teens’ and teens’ lives, the only responsible thing for me to do was write a new chapter about staying healthy and safe on the Internet. Everywhere I spoke, parents and educators were highly concerned about the Internet and the number of kids who were sexting, the number of kids who were being bullied, and the inappropriate sites kids and teens were going to. For the most part, kids and teens were not all that concerned, but I felt that they needed to understand the risks and responsibilities for themselves and their friends when it came to Internet use. But how much did I know about this? Not a lot. What would I say about this? I had some ideas. So again, I began to research this topic by talking with kids and teens and their parents and teachers, and to experts who were dealing with these issues. Researching and writing this one chapter took me about four months. One of the biggest challenges to was to acknowledge that while kids and teens can find great and responsible information about sex, sexual health, and puberty on the Internet, they can also find information that is wrong, outdated or even harmful or dangerous. Another challenge was to figure out what to tell kids to do if they land on a site that is upsetting, confusing, scary, or even exciting. This information is now part of the new chapter I wrote called HELPFUL, FUN, CREEPY, DANGEROUS, Getting Information and Staying Safe on the Internet.

This chapter also lets kids know what personal information about themselves or their family and friends is or is not safe to post on the Internet, to text, or send in an e-mail, or in any other electronic form that exists. It also talks about the serious risks that can ensue when kids use the Internet or other electronic devices to communicate with friends or sometimes even with strangers. It states that it is not safe and can even be dangerous to meet someone in person, someone you have met only online. And it counsels them that once information is online in any form—the written word or photos—that something you intended to be private can be sent on to anyone, even other friends, your parents, your principal, or all around the world. That’s why I caution kids to think carefully about what they say or send online about themselves or another person, and that they need to understand that cyber-bullying another person online can be harmful to that person and to themselves as well. And the truth is that no matter how hard it was for me to write that chapter, I loved the challenge and loved writing it.

A couple of times a week, I still find myself scanning the news and reading reproductive and pediatric heath websites. And often, many of the wonderful experts I’ve met over the last twenty years email me when something new comes up that kids and teens need to know about to stay healthy. And then the process of researching and rewriting begins all over again. And the truth is that each time I update the material, it’s still a challenge for me to find the words and tone to talk with today’s kids and teens. But perhaps it’s the challenge that makes me want to do the research and rewrite or perhaps it’s also my sense that kids and teens deserve and have a right to have the latest and best information about their health. So I suspect that soon again, “I’ll be working on the same book.”

—Robie H. Harris


Christina Wilsdon said...

I remember first reading your book when the university program my husband works for, which surveyed elementary school kids, preteens, and teens regarding attitudes toward and knowledge about health and sexual issues, commended it as an excellent resource. Thanks for updating it. I should pick up the revised edition now that my own child is entering her teens! The world has indeed changed a lot in 15 years, evidenced in so many ways...the first question my kid asked me at 5:30 a.m. this morning was "Mom, what is a" followed by a slang word for a prostitute. Apparently a boy had used it as an insult for another boy at school the day before. I heard plenty of rude words in school when I was a kid, but it seems kids today have an even larger arsenal of them and some pretty obscure ones...Anyway, quite the way to start the day before even a sip of coffee!

Anonymous said...

I said it when my kids were young, and I'll say it again: thank you, thank you, thank you for this book! Maybe you want to do one for middle-aged people now?

Susan E. Goodman said...

Robie, Nice to see you writing here, you have so much to add. It's also nice that you have the opportunity to update. I hate the fact that I have a book in libraries that mentions we have nine planets. Or other ones that I feel like I could add so much new information if...

Melissa Stewart said...

Readers are so lucky that you are continuing to follow the topic and update it so they get the best, most thorough information about sex and sexuality.

Susan Kuklin said...

Terrific post, Robie. Thank you for sharing your research and writing process. It reinforces the nonfiction writer's persistent search for truth with a clear, thorough, innovative narrative.

I can't wait to buy the updated version of It's Perfectly Normal, and learning more about Staying Safe on the Internet.

Brava! And welcome aboard INK.