|Robie Harris||Interview with Robie Harris, April 2006|
Hello Benny!: What It's Like to Be a Baby
Children love to hear the stories about what they were like and all the wonderful, amazing, interesting, and funny things they did from birth through the first few years of their lives. They also have endless questions about those wonderful years:
Can a new baby see? What makes a baby smile?
Do babies only fuss, cry, sleep, and have their diapers changed?
Why do babies put everything they can in their mouths?
How do babies learn to talk? Can babies laugh? Do all babies crawl?
The award-winning team who created Happy Birth Day! and Hi New Baby! launches a brand-new picture-book series, Growing Up Stories -- books that tell enchanting stories and present fascinating facts about the first five years of life.
The first book of the series, Hello Benny!, tells the story of Benny and celebrates his first year of life -- from his very first sounds to his very first smile, to rolling over, sitting up, and standing, to finding out that he loves bananas and doesn't love peas, to shoving cake in his mouth on his first birthday! Hello Benny! captures the remarkable story of what it's like to be a baby and how babies "grow up."
Just Being Me Series for PreSchoolers
I'm NOT Sleepy! [the story of a child whose parents are very sleepy. But the child in the story is not sleepy at all.]
I LOVE Messes! [an inquisitive young child who makes a giant mixed-up mushy mess. But what happens when Daddy discovers what she has done?]
I'm All Dressed! [a young child, who dresses himself HIS WAY, and who likes the way he looks. But what happens when his Mommy and Daddy discover what he has done?]
A family book about what it feels like to say—and hear—those other three words.
ETC: What are your main interests and concerns in writing for children?
Harris: My main interest in writing books for children is that I find children's behavior and the way they go through a moment, or a day, or a week, not only fascinating, but a mirror of what all of us experience as we go through childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Young children are often dealing with feelings that all of us, including adults, continue to deal with throughout our lives -love, joy, anger, fear, separation. While my picture books deal with all of these emotions, each book has as an underpinning- the emotion of love. So it's no surprise that the children in my picture books feel so loved by their parent or parents, that they are able to express all of their feelings without the concern of losing that love.
ETC: What prompted you to start writing for children?
Harris: When I was in my mid-twenties, I was part of a team of three-Irma Simonton Black, William Hooks, and myself-who were part of the Bank Street Writers Lab. For fifty-two weeks we wrote a daily five-minute opening segment for ABC's Captain Kangaroo Show. Each day, for one year, the three of us would sit in a room together and write our daily segment. We would have the most wonderful arguments about what worked and what did not work, until we all felt that we had a script that was right for young children. Collaboration is the "name of the game" in writing books for children - collaboration between author, illustrator, editor, and designer, all to make the best book possible. This is something that I learned to do during that year of writing with Irma and Bill.
ETC: How do you respond to questions raised about the frank nature of your books?
Harris: I would describe the books that I write for children as "honest" - be they my picture books or my nonfiction books on sexual health. I believe that as parents, grandparents, teachers, health professionals, etc., if we are not "honest" with our children, then we have no credibility with them. For example: I write about the range of feelings one has when a parent or parents go out in the evening in my book Don't Forget To Come Back! In my book about the death of a pet, Goodbye Mousie, I write about the anger and sadness that young children feel when there is the loss of a pet, or a beloved grandparent, or anyone in their lives. If those strong emotions were not in my books, my sense is that they would not "ring true" for a child. They would feel flat and boring, and would not appeal to children and what they know to be true in their day-to-day experiences.
ETC: Do you do a lot of research when writing your Family Library books?
Harris: Illustrator Michael Emberley's and my three books on sexual health, It's Perfectly Normal, It's So Amazing! and our newest book to be published this coming August, It's Not The Stork! are all science-based. In order to do that, we vetted the text and illustrations in these books with the best experts, including parents, teachers, librarians, clergy, pediatricians, nurses, psychologists, child psychiatrists, reproductive health specialists, geneticists, and child development specialists. And we did not hesitate to go back to all of these generous professionals time and time again to make sure that all of the information in these three books is scientifically-accurate, age-appropriate, psychologically-appropriate, and as up-to-date as possible. That is why these books are updated each time they go back to press for another printing.
ETC: How do these books relate to the ways that you spoke with your own children?
Harris: All of my books relate to my own children and grandchildren, and here's how: When I get stumped while writing, be it just one sentence or even a whole page, I read what I have written out loud to myself. Then I ask the following questions: Is this the way I would talk with my own children or grandchildren about a particular topic or emotion? This is my test question, and if the answer is "Yes!" then I feel I have written what is in the best interests of a child, and that text stays in the book. If not, I go back and rewrite that particular piece of text until the answer is "Yes!"
ETC: What are the most common questions parents and teachers have when you give talks on your books?
Harris: The questions I am asked are mostly the same questions other children's book authors are asked: Why do you write for children? (It's what interests and challenges me.) Will you ever write for adults? (No, because I love what I do.) Do you write everyday? (Almost every day. And the days on which I write, I write all day long.) Where do you get your ideas? Why do you write books on sexuality? (To help kids and teens stay healthy.) Do you know the illustrators you work with? (Almost always.) Is writing hard for you? (Yes!) What will you write next? (Something for sure. Exactly what, I am not sure yet.) Are your books about you? (In many ways no, in many ways yes. For example: my Just Being Me picture books, I'm So Mad!, I'm Not Sleepy!, I Love Messes!, and I'm All Dressed! are all about me--me as a child, me as an adult, but also about my children growing up and the young children who are in my life now.)
ETC: What do kids ask you?
Harris: No surprise, but the questions kids ask are the very same questions adults ask.
ETC: How much feedback do you receive on the responses children have to your books?
Harris: Parents, teachers, librarians, and health professionals are always telling me stories about how a particular child or class responds to my books. And almost always, it is gratifying to know that one or another of my books strikes a responsive chord with a child, or a classroom of children, or with a nurse or pediatrician's child patient.
ETC: Who has inspired you in your work?
Harris: I would have to say my own mother Evie, who loved children, and whom children loved to be with-not just my brother and myself, but all of our friends and children in the neighborhood, from when I was very little and through my college years. She valued children and thought they had no lesser status than the adults in her life. And she listened to them, and talked with them, and always told them the truth.
ETC: What topics would you like to address in the future?
Harris: I know a lot has been written about this topic, but I would still like to write about fear. It feels to me, and I would want to check this with experts (and those experts would include today's parents) that the times we live in cause children, both young and older children, to be more fearful. I don't know if this book would be a picture book or a nonfiction book - or if this will really be my next book.
Young children are curious about almost everything, especially their bodies. And most young children are not afraid to ask questions. What makes me a girl? What makes me a boy? Why are some parts of girls' and boys' bodies the same and why are some parts different? How was I made? Where do babies come from? Is it true that a stork brings babies to mommies and daddies? It's Not the Stork! helps answer these endless and perfectly normal questions that preschool, kindergarten, and early elementary school children ask about how they began.
Through lively, comfortable language and sensitive, engaging artwork, Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberley address readers in a reassuring way, mindful of a child's healthy desire for straightforward information. Two irresistible cartoon characters, a curious bird and a squeamish bee, provide comic relief and give voice to the full range of emotions and reactions children experience while learning about their amazing bodies.