It’s Perfectly Normal

“I wish every child could have a copy.”

—Penelope Leach, PhD.– author of Your Baby and Child

“I recommend it to parents and children who are coming into adolescence. They will love it.”

— T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., author of Touchpoints

New York Times “Notable Book of the Year” 1994

Wow. Where do I begin? This was, and still is, the biggest, most important project I’ve ever been involved with. It took three years to complete (five years for the author Robie Harris), with over 200 illustrations. It was the first book of it’s type the tiny children’s only publisher, Candlewick Press had attempted, and it’s first all American book. (They were a recent offshoot of Walker Books in the UK, and published mostly Walker titles at first).

Since I am not the author, I will leave most comments to Candlewick Press and Robie Harris, (who has a web site of her own. Check it out!) In the mean time, I’ll comment on the circumstances of the book’s beginning and one of many ways an author and artist get together to work on a book.

I met Robie at a group book signing near Boston many years ago (1991?) when she, along with her agent, were just beginning to work out how she would illustrate and sell this manuscript she had just completed. We chatted and not long after she called and asked if I wanted to illustrate a book on sexuality and puberty for adolescents. Not having tackled something like this before, I am embarrassed to admit I was not immediately convinced I should do it. I was sure I could do it, but not sure I wanted to. I knew there were people out there who were intolerant of more than their view on certain topics. And even some who thought banning books was a smart idea, and freedom of speech a privilege of a few and not a right for all.

Well, as I am extremely curious by nature, I thought the least I could do were some sketches for Robie to help explain the book to publishers. Her agent thought it best to have a selection of key images when presenting the project, as the question of how the art would be used would certainly come up immediately so why not have the answer ready. (Smart agent)  So I agreed to just do about a half dozen black and white images, carefully worked out between us. Robie assumed that whatever publisher was interested would naturally have me do the illustrations.  But publishers seldom work that way, preferring to do there own author/illustrator matchmaking, usually with them strategically separate from each other by hundreds of miles. In the end, the courageous editor, Amy Ehrlich, not only wanted the book, but wanted me as well. (Or at least wanted what Robie and her agent wanted)   We have been working together ever since.

Robie and I work very closely together on the design and illustrations of each book. After she writes the text and has it checked by various experts, then we begin, then more checking, then more work, then more checking, and so forth. Lots of long hours spent in the kitchen, lots of meetings at Candlewick. At the time, Robie, Candlewick Press, and I were all located in the same neighborhood, Cambridge, Massachusetts. I could cycle, or even walk to Robie’s house or to Candlewick. It made the constant back and forth work much easier.

(This was purely luck by the way. Robie and I did not know each other before, and did not meet in Cambridge. The fact that Candlewick press accepted the book was also unexpected as they are one of the few children’s publishers located outside New York, and this was not the type of book they normally publish.)

All of us learned a lot doing this book. It’s a wonder we didn’t kill each other. But in the end the results were worth it. The book has been enthusiastically throughout the US and by over 25 countries worldwide. It has been translated into more than 20 languages, including three different versions of Spanish (Castilian, Catalan, and American), Slovenian and Mongolian. (By the way, the Dutch have sold more copies than all the other foreign editions combined) It is the first book I have ever been thanked for being a part of. And I am truly only a part of it. For this is an organic project. It began as an idea by Robie Harris, who had the vision, and who guides every aspect of the book’s life. Candlewick and I help shape Robie’s ideas into reality. It was conceived as being part of a series, of which we have completed two and are currently (2003/2004) embarked on a third.

We recently completed work for a tenth anniversary edition. Along with fairly extensive text changes, I was given the chance to change and/or improve certain illustrations – which is something a book illustrator is seldom permitted to do. This book never ceases to surprise.

The illustrations for this book involved drawing nude people for an age group not previously overrun with nude imagery. Having no precedent for this was not unusual in this book so I tackled it as I tackled everything else – by just getting on with it. The human body is not a huge mystery to most artists. I did not, as so many have asked, use models. I used my imagination and experience. The reason I used tan lines for example, was because I notice the obvious things others ignore I guess. Everyone with light skin who has not been indoors all their life has some sun damage – tan lines. Just look under your hairline.

We had many arguments over the size of bellies and breasts, hairstyle and location, race and gender. We used study groups, parents, experts, pediatricians, scientists, teachers, etc. All weighed in. At times it was suffocating to create art by committee. The battle was often just to keep it fresh somehow under the crushing scrutiny, and quite often the less than objective commentary.  I had a radio reporter ask me once, in a nice way, if making all the bodies in the “nude spread” imperfect was a conscious decision. I responded, quite honestly, “what imperfect bodies?”   Intriguing issues surface when discussing this book. I have been asked if a certain kissing couple drawing was gay or not. I never intended them to be, but usually respond, “Does it matter?” The cartoon strip sections on the egg and sperm were done to link the “stories” visually, even though separated by necessity in different chapters. The story of reproduction is circular not linear, so it often means multiple answers to the question, “Where do we put this?” And conundrums such as what are you born with, when does it start working, and when are you supposed to start using it??? Make for puzzles of logic in trying to lay things out. This book has the most press of all my books. What follows is by necessity a small sampling. The publisher, Candlewick Press and author Robie Harris are both sources of further information and media coverage.

Boston Globe – Horn Book –  Honor, Nonfiction Award

An ALA “Notable Book”

American Bookseller “Pick of the List”

Assoc. of Booksellers for Children “Choice Award”

New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”

New York Public Library “top 100 titles of the year”

Publisher’s Weekly “Best Book of the Year”

Booklist “Editor’s Choice” of the Year

Parenting Magazine “Reading Magic Award”

School library Journal -”Best Books of the Year”

“Blue Ribbon” – Bulletin of the Center  of Children’s Books

Wilson Library Bulletin “Best Books of the Year”

“Caring, conscientious, and well crafted.” — Booklist, starred review

“A wonderful guide for the young adolescent setting sail on the stormy seas of puberty” —School Library Journal, starred review

“Intelligent, amiable, and carefully researched…Alternately playful and realistic.” -– The New York Times Book Review

“It’s Perfectly Normal gives growing children a chance to read an honest and explanatory view of their developing bodies. The text and the pictures will give them a chance to understand and value themselves. I recommend it to parents and children who are coming into adolescence. They will love it.”  — T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., author of Touchpoints