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New Wave of “Concerned Citizens” Discover and Challenge Classic IT’S PERFECTLY NORMAL

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Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health by Robie Harris and illustrated by Michael Emberley was first published in 1994, with updates to content over the course of its lifetime. Harris’s title aims to inform and educate young people about their bodies, health, and about sexuality in honest language. It encourages normalizing the changing body during adolescence, detaching shame from curiosity.

Image of the cover for the most updated version of IT'S PERFECTLY NORMAL.

The latest edition published in May of this year to include more inclusive language, expanding topics relating to LGBTQ+ experiences when it comes to gender and sexuality, exploration of abortion rights and challenges, the necessity of consent, and more. Each edition expands upon the first, and it’s become a massive seller with over 1.5 million copies in print. The book has been translated in 27 different languages and includes a wealth of illustrations to guide children ages 10 and older through a wide range of possible experiences.

Despite its wealth of accolades, It’s Perfectly Normal is one of the most challenged books in the United States. Because of its depiction of nudity, of non-heterosexual sex, and inclusivity of gender, as well as frankness about AIDS/HIV, consent, abortion and other politically-fraught topics, many raise concerns of their “too young” children having access to such a book.

The book, despite having landed in the top ten challenged books every decade since its release, hasn’t continued to earn such honors. The last time was in 2014, and since, it’s been pushed out by challenges to books that confront the very topics within the book in more depth — a look at the top challenged books every year since is a wealth of diverse, inclusive titles about queer people, about people of color, and those at the intersections of each.

But 2021, with its new edition of the classic, as well as a rise in conservative political rallying at the local level, means It’s Perfectly Normal is back in the spotlight and finding itself being challenged across the country.

In late spring, Illinois passed a progressive bill to offer more comprehensive health and sexual education in school. Students in kindergarten through fifth grade will have better access to information about health and safety, while students in sixth through twelfth grade will have more access to sexual health, including topics relating to non-heterosexual intercourse, relationships, consent, gender identity, and more. It’s a step toward providing as much information for young people to understand themselves and others, with the goal of ensuring they can make the best and smartest choices for themselves.

It is, though, not a welcomed change for right-wing conservatives.

In a Facebook post, an Illinois politician shared images from It’s Perfectly Normal following the bill’s passage. The hand-picked photos for the post showcase perfectly normal things that those who are 10 or older are curious about when it comes to their bodies and sex. Those alone rile up followers, but it’s the language used in the post that purposefully misinterprets the state’s new bill and sets the wheels in motion: “I wanted you all to see a few of the pictures from a recommended book (ages 10 and up) that would align with the National Sex Education Standards! NSES will be the standards that will be required for schools to use!”

Indeed, the book aligns with the new standards. But that’s it. It’s not required to be used in classrooms or libraries. It’s not required for anything. It’s simply a tool that would align with the new standards that expand access to information about physical and sexual health for all ages.

This is where things turn ugly.

A video, since deleted, began to circulate on social media a couple weeks ago. In it, a young white man made his way to a local library — his second in a week — and after fumbling with how to enter the library, he struggled for an additional few minutes looking to find It’s Perfectly Normal on shelf. When he did find it, he marched to the first librarian he could find and began to harass the librarian about the book being in the collection. The “discussion” went on for nearly 10 minutes, even after the librarian explained why it was in the collection, the purpose of a public library’s collection, and offered a guide to how to submit a formal complaint.

He continued to badger the librarian, walked out, and shared the video online, encouraging others to head to their local libraries and do the same thing.

As of writing, no formal complaint was submitted.

Another Illinois library had the same experience.

“[T]here was lots of yelling on his end about the “inappropriate” and “porn” images in this book (and pointing it all out in the book), how I’m “disturbing” and “disgusting” for thinking that it is ok for this title to be in my library, and about how taxpayers should have the right to determine which books go in the library,” said the librarian at this library. “There were vague mentions of his group and how there were lots of them and they wouldn’t be letting this go […] I asked him repeatedly what he wanted out of this conversation and what he hoped to happen, neither of which he could answer.”

Again, no formal complaint was made.

The video shows the individual complaining that his tax money goes to fund libraries and therefore, his and others like him, deserve to have their voices heard. Unfortunately, the two libraries in question are not in the same district and, indeed, his tax money may be helping to fund one, but it’s certainly not being used to fund both unless he has residences in both districts.

Illinois librarians are spreading the word via professional list servs and social media, giving one another a heads up about the wave of phone calls, emails, and surprise in-person visits to challenge It’s Perfectly Normal.

But it’s not just in Illinois.

A recent lawsuit filed in Broward County, Florida, by a group of parents, demanded to see a list of the county schools’ 42 books believed to be “very pornographic.” Though It’s Perfectly Normal is not on the list of books being requested by the group, the same group pulled these tactics in 2019, wherein they sought to remove Harris’s book. Comments on the above article encourage parents to look this particular book up now and pursue its removal.

The religiously-aligned group pursuing the current lawsuit seeks to remove any books they deem inappropriate from children within the district, including in classrooms and school libraries.

Perhaps what’s noteworthy in both of these cases is that challengers have been especially scandalized by one particular section in It’s Perfectly Normal. The page features an individual with a vulva, looking at the various parts of their anatomy with a mirror. In Florida, the challenger called seeing that page a “jaw-dropping experience.”

On the post by the Illinois politician, conservative followers called it “disgusting,” and one said they are okay with their children learning basic anatomy but they want to be the ones to teach them.

A letter to the editor in Minnesota begs parents to look up It’s Perfectly Normal, calling it part of the Planned Parenthood agenda to “normalize” non-heterosexual relationships and identities.

“CSE will remove the natural and protective boundaries for children and teens, encouraging early sexual exploration in graphic detail. One recommended teaching book uses pornographic illustrations and graphic descriptions to teach children as young as 10 that all “consensual” sexual activity is their “right.” It teaches kids how to “consent” to sex, masturbate, experience climax, promote multiple sexual orientations and gender identities, and how to have “safe” vaginal, oral and anal sex. Look it up, “It’s Perfectly Normal” by Robie H. Harris, and see what you think,” it reads, with a paragraph following attempting to define this as “grooming,” per the FBI’s definition.

It’s not.

Ten year olds have the right to access books like It’s Perfectly Normal, a title that has been in print as long as it has, with frequent updates, for a reason. The average age of menstruation is 12 in the United States, with puberty and its associated physical, mental, and emotional changes beginning as young as 7 or 8 years old. New standards in teaching sexual health aren’t here to indoctrinate children into any particular agenda. Rather, they serve as tools to provide as much information as possible so young people are equipped to make decisions for themselves, while also understanding choices and changes occurring in those around them.

It’s Perfectly Normal is not required reading in any classroom, nor will it ever become such. It’s a reference tool, with just as much right to be on shelves alongside books about puberty and sexual health that offer less depth or insight, both of which need to be presented without an agenda attached to them. The challenge, though, is that Harris’s book comes under fire by groups with that agenda — in the case of Illinois, it’s conservative backlash, in Florida, conservative Christian backlash, and in other states around the country, some combination of either or both.

What’s at stake here may not seem huge, but little by little, power is being pulled from both children and other adults to make choices about education and access to reliable information. For defenders of intellectual freedom, it’s too easy to fall asleep believing that without a spotlight on the big stories, the small challenges aren’t there or don’t merit flagging and pursuit.

The reality is different.

Little by little, books like these slip out of collections, either because of mounting pressure from groups like those noted above, from the titles being “borrowed” and never returned, and from those who fear what happens to them in their job when they’re not given the proper protections from administration when confronted. Little by little, we forget that books like these are favorites to be held up as “proof” of an “agenda” of “indoctrination,” rather than what they are: vital tools.

And what happens as more of these encounters are recorded and distributed?

If these tactics are what’s being employed during the summer, as communities gear up for fall, it’s only going to amplify, especially as COVID cases rise, mask debates wage on, and equity becomes the standard in education. Though the angle in Illinois hinges on its new sexual education bill as well, groups like this one — as well as those who’ve been responsible for years of challenges and protest in Irving, Texas — will find places where they can step in to pursue their agenda, chipping away at those working on the front lines.

Many are at the end of their patience and it’s not unlikely more public servants will leave, knowing they can work in private industries with better pay and stronger protections.

Any Citizen Can Take Action

If you’re a library user, write letters to your library and speak up for what they’re doing. Submit those letters to the individuals you see working in the library, be it at a service desk or shelving materials. Those letters will move up the chain, and in most cases, a department lead will submit them to the director, who will pass them along to the library board.

Show up to board meetings for your library and school, whether or not you have children. The folks in these groups are doing it, and so should you. See if you can team up with a local organization to flood these meetings and express support during public comment time.

Write letters to your local news outlets in support of these public institutions and when you know there’s a challenge or a group trying to get things changed to align with their agenda, call it out. You are your community’s best advocate.

Run for the board or volunteer on committees within the community to not only understand how these organizations work, but to be a voice within them. As we’ve seen in Niles, uncontested races can completely shift what happens within these spaces.

Vote. Get out to even the smallest of local elections and cast a ballot. The low voter turnout in Niles/Maine Township impacted who was elected on the library board.

Donate money if you can to groups working in support of public institutions. Those funds are vital and they’re what anti-access groups have in abundance.

Report hate groups to local authorities and submit evidence. See groups like the above? Report them on social media when they cross the line into hate and when they enter into public spaces, be ready to reach out to local authorities. Send these things to your local representatives and demand that they work to address the hate in their communities.

Don’t fall asleep. It’s easy to become complicit, especially during busy seasons. But it’s during these times those who wish to dismantle public institutions gain ground, recruit members with their ideologies and propaganda, and act as a group or individuals to tear things apart.

For library workers and administration: and update your policies around filming in the library. If a video is released and recording is against policy, pursue action as appropriate.

For administration in libraries and schools: recognize your staff in meaningful ways. Be their backbone and listen to them when they raise these issues to you. A member of the library administration stepping in to take over the challenge that was being recorded could have helped take the heat off a librarian who’d been surprised and left unsure of how to respond when every option in their pocket had been utilized. Recognition for following procedure — and having it posted to thousands of people eager to mock the response — could include verbal support, but also tools for ensuring that librarian doesn’t need to be public-facing for work until they feel comfortable enough to return, as well as support via therapy.

Constant vigilance is exhausting, but if freedom of information and access to ideas is foundational to you, the work is essential.