Remembering Robie Harris: Educator, Children’s Book Author, and Freedom Fighter

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February 21, 2024

By Joshua Sparrow, MD

Berry Brazelton’s next-door neighbor, good friend, and colleague, Robie Harris — the celebrated children’s book author, educator, and fighter for freedom of expression — died at the age of 83 on January 6, 2024. Robie was best known for her best-selling and most frequently banned of all books for children about reproduction, sexuality, and sexual health, but those were just one part of her much more ambitious vision, according to pediatrician and New York University journalism professor Perri Klass.

A Child’s Eye View
headshot of Robie Harris
Robie Harris
Photo Credit: Michele Cardamone

Robie brought her deep interest in child development and education to everything she wrote. Robie and Ellen Galinsky, author of Mind in the Making and The Breakthrough Years, were both School for Children teachers and master’s program classmates in the early 1960s at the Bank Street College of Education in New York City. Ellen says that at Bank Street they learned about children through careful, quiet classroom observation over many months — often of just one child at a time. Already, Robie was deeply curious about how children see their worlds. After graduating, Robie taught at Bank Street College of Education’s Early Childhood and Family Resources Center, one of the first Head Start demonstration projects, located in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen.

In the 1960s, Hell’s Kitchen was often seen as a place that was not safe for children. Many rarely ventured out of their apartments, and a number of them were frightened of the world beyond. Some had no idea that the Hudson River was just a few blocks away. “There’s no river around here,” one of these children told Robie in the film that she made with them. With a small grant, Robie purchased Super 8 movie cameras for 28 primary school–age children to film their surroundings, study their neighborhood, and ask the questions they may never have voiced. Children’s book author and illustrator Michael Emberley said, “Robie believed that children are born brilliant. They just haven’t lived long enough to have much experience.” She knew that without experience young children had good reason to be fearful — and that they needed and deserved simple, clear, truthful information, not necessarily to overcome their fears but to learn how to go on with life despite them.

The Story Is Us! by Students at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Charter School for Science and Technology, New Orleans, Louisiana book cover

The children’s films are featured in A Child’s Eye View, made with filmmaker Philip Courter, and shown at the 1968 Lincoln Center Film Festival. The film depicts how these children’s ability to learn had been paralyzed by fear and then remobilized as Robie scaffolded opportunities for them to explore their environments. Today, this documentary remains a stunning glimpse into the ways that New York’s most materially under-resourced neighborhoods can deprive children of experience, and how a skillful teacher can rekindle their innate need to wonder, explore, and learn. Forty years later, shortly after Hurricane Katrina, Robie — along with children’s book authors, Susan Kuklin, Elizabeth Levy, and Fatima Shaik — went to New Orleans to the only school left standing in the 9th Ward. There, they helped children tell their stories of fear and survival, collected their illustrations, and published them in The Story Is Us!

Speaking the Language of Children

From early on, Robie’s goal was to help children understand their experiences and surroundings, and the phenomena that even adults struggle to comprehend — the miracles of conception, birth and love, and the mystery of death. She also wanted to help them understand themselves, each other, and all kinds of feelings, as she did in books like When Lions Roar, Maybe the Bear Ate It, Don’t Forget to Come Back, Goodbye Mousie, Mail Harry to the Moon, and When You Were Three: How You Began to Walk, Talk, Explore, and Have Feelings. As child psychologist and trauma expert Alicia Lieberman said, “She had a gift for speaking the language of children — she understood their fears, angers, and longings, and she knew how to translate these huge feelings into child-sized words that spoke both to children and to adults. She really was one of a kind.”

When Robie depicted a child shrieking at his mother, “I hate you,” she wanted young children to see that it was perfectly normal to have big scary feelings. Liz Levy said that Robie wanted them to know that they could face those feelings, that “they’ll survive. They’ll be ok.”  But Robie herself was not always fearless, Liz told me. Facing fear was a part of her life and heritage.

Robie had learned to ski as a young child and long before adulthood became a daredevil skier staring down the most treacherous slopes. Robie’s grandmother was widowed in her early 20s, left to raise two small children on her own. She bought herself a Model T Ford to get around —  and on with their lives. Not ever realizing that the car could be operated in reverse, she just always went forward, circling around if she had to, to get where she needed to go. When Robie was barely 20 years old, her mother died. Life provided plenty of good reasons to be afraid. Rather than being fearless, Liz thinks that life taught Robie early on that she could live with fears — some are inescapable — and find her way through them, and forward, to get where she wanted to go. Her books were intended to help children and teenagers see how they might do the same.

It's Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, Gender, and Sexual Health book cover

It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, Gender, and Sexual Health, for ages 10 and up, was one of those books. Periodically updated and translated into 27 languages, it sold more than a million copies and led to a suite of related age-appropriate books: It’s So Amazing, for ages 7 and up; It’s Not the Stork, for ages 4 and up; and a series of picture books for younger children titled Let’s Talk About You and Me, for ages 3–7.

With chapters with titles like “Straight and Gay” and “All Sorts of Families,” pictures of people with differing abilities, and — as in so many of her books — images of a wide array of people of different races and skin colors, Robie meant for It’s Perfectly Normal to welcome readers representing the full range of human diversity. Michael Emberley, who illustrated It’s Perfectly Normal and It’s Not the Stork, and Liz Levy both told me the same, little-known origin story for this most famous of Robie’s books for children and teenagers about bodies, love, and sex.

Breaking the Silence

Liz, who is also Robie’s cousin, says that Robie’s drive to help parents and children talk about the things that are often unspoken grew out of the eras of fear and silence that they both lived through — the Jewish holocaust and the repressive McCarthy communist witch hunts. The idea for this book was hatched at the peak of the HIV AIDS epidemic — an epoch of judgment, shame, and silence that delayed the search for the treatments that would only belatedly transform AIDS from death sentence to chronic illness. It is thought to have been an AIDS activist who asked Robie to write a book about the disease.

Her first book, written when she was in second grade, was titled, Robie’s Story. By the time she was asked to do this one, she’d already written several books for children, and knew that the story of AIDS would need to be embedded in a broader context. She had no interest in writing a book about AIDS that might make children frightened of love, sex, and homosexuality. She envisioned, instead, a book that she and her husband, Bill, could give to their two sons to provide them with the knowledge children need to understand themselves, to love, and to be healthy.

Robie and Michael Emberley both knew that this book would spark controversy — and that they had to get it right. Robie was renowned for her meticulous research and craft — colleagues called her approach “perfectionist,” even “obsessive.” Robie consulted extensively with medical experts and spent the next several years in her kitchen hashing out the details with Michael. She also took great care to consult with children about this and all her manuscripts. When grandchildren came along, they were proud to serve as her advisors, too.

Michael says that in their partnership, Robie was the child development expert and “I was the child.” He and Robie evolved a few mantras to shepherd themselves through the admonitions — to make a book in which children could see themselves and feel seen, hear their own voices (the book’s bird and bee characters) and be heard; to make a book that left children with an experience that became part of them, that they could take with them; to tell the truth, simply, clearly, with gentle humor, and without fear. “She felt she owed it to kids to include topics that we adults aren’t always comfortable talking about with our kids, but that help them grow up healthy, happy, and safe,” pediatrician and Founding Dean and CEO of the Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine Mark Schuster wrote me. 

Who Has What: All About Girls' Bodies and Boy's Bodies book cover

Robie also believed that children and grownups do better when they call things what they are (see Who Has What: All about Girls’ Bodies and Boys’ Bodies), especially when discomfort shuts down simple, clear, and honest information. Attempts to protect children from uncomfortable truths makes them fragile by failing to recognize their strength and intelligence, silencing discussion, and withholding knowledge that they need to protect themselves, for example, from sexual abuse. A 10-year-old girl from Delaware showed her mother a chapter of It’s Perfectly Normal and said, “this is about me.” Her father was subsequently sentenced to 62 years in prison. According to a 1997 Philadelphia Inquirer story, the state Deputy Attorney General Robert Goff told the jury, “the biggest hero in this case, other than the child, is the book.”

It’s Perfectly Normal, a groundbreaking classic — cherished by so many children, parents, and pediatricians — might never have been published had it not been for serendipity. Candlewick Press had just opened up shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and its new and founding children’s book editor, Amy Ehrlich was a writer, new to editing, and ready to take this risk. Robie’s work, and her way of working, shaped collaborations requiring open expression of uncomfortable disagreement, and a shared respect for children’s innate brilliance and need to know. There was an urgency to the collaboration on this book that included Michael, Amy, the editors, art directors, publishers, medical experts, as well as Robie’s circle of children’s book author friends who always reviewed each other’s manuscripts.

Freedom to Read

Decades before today’s frenzy of book banning and censorship, It’s Perfectly Normal was banned and burned in the United States and abroad, topping the American Library Association’s 2005 list of Most Challenged Books, with It’s So Amazing making the Top Ten that year too. Robie had not set out to become a fighter for freedom of expression. Yet she grew into this role, joining PEN New England and then PEN America and the National Coalition Against Censorship’s board. Paul O. Zelinsky, co chair of PEN’s Children and Young Adults Book Committee, said that Robie took her many years of being on every list of banned books — and often at the top —- as a point of pride.

“She kept her wits about her — and her sense of humor,” he said. Robie’s years of experience with censorship made her an extraordinary source of “advice, support, and sanity” for children’s books authors who only more recently have had to field teachers’ and librarians’ cries for help, Zelinsky added.

Susan Kuklin turned to Robie when her book, Beyond Magenta, was banned. “I couldn’t have gone through that without her. Most helpful of all was to see Robie’s strength in standing up for what she knew children and parents needed, and how — throughout these attacks — she never focused on herself, but on her concern for the safety of teachers and librarians, and children’s rights.” Robie’s publisher, Candlewick Press, had been willing to take the risk of publishing Susan’s book on trans teens, according to Senior Executive Editor Hilary Van Dusen, because It’s Perfectly Normal had set the publisher on a path that had become central to its ethos.

Robie also worked closely with both the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom and the Freedom to Read Foundation, and the founder of both, Judith Krug. The Freedom to Read Foundation honored Robie with its 2021 Roll of Honor Award. Its announcement of this honor quoted her as follows:

“I don’t choose what to write to be controversial, I choose to write what children are thinking about or have questions or worries and want to know about. They have the right to have accurate and honest information,” said Harris. ”If it is in the best interest of children, then it goes in the book no matter what anyone says to me.”

Regarding censorship she added, “I would never say that every teacher, parent, or publisher needs to buy the books I write,” but notes that, “anybody who chooses to have a book of mine or anyone else’s should have the right to have that book.” She also shared her conviction that librarians, teachers and booksellers are the guardians of our democracy by having books with different points of view available to all.


It's so Amazing: A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, Gender, and Families book cover

Along with censorship, poverty — of course — also puts books out of reach for many children. Reach Out and Read sprang from a pediatrician’s observation at Boston Medical Center — which serves many of Boston’s most materially under-resourced communities — that children’s books were disappearing from the clinic waiting room. The solution: a national network that has grown since 1989 to more than 4,000 book-prescribing pediatric practices across the U.S. Early in her career, Robie put Super 8 cameras in the hands of Hell’s Kitchen’s children. In her last years, Robie, a Reach Out and Read board member, was working on a book whose proceeds would have supported Reach Out and Read, according to co-founder and pediatrician Robert Needleman, and research director Nikki Shearman. All the way through and up until the end, Robie had always wanted every child and parent, regardless of their circumstances, to have opportunities to learn and grow, and books in their homes — including books that would help them find their own words to surface fears covered up by silence.

Robie was also my friend and colleague. I treasure the times she shared with me her manuscripts and her questions about every detail, the juxtaposition of images on a page, and the meaning and music of every word. I don’t think Robie would want us to cover up or silence hard, scary feelings about death. She might have wanted us to simply say “died,” rather than “passed away” (where did she go?) or “lost” (will we find her?) or any of the euphemisms for death that are so confusing for children. For Michael Emberley, Robie lives on in the characters that first came to life in his collaborations with her, now morphing into new ones in one of his new books. “I couldn’t tell you which ideas in the books we did together were hers and which were mine — we became one,” Michael said. For so many of us, for so many children and families, Robie lives on in our own efforts to keep on going, to embrace life as we face and share together our fears of all the things that are hard to understand and say out loud about birth and love, life and death, ourselves, and each other.

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