In my daughter’s third-grade class this spring, Friday mornings were devoted to the study of Human Growth and Development, a.k.a. sex ed. As a warm-up to each week’s discussion, her teachers would haul out a huge pile of books about sex and puberty — several of them with detailed anatomical drawings — and let the kids dive in during morning arrival. You have NEVER seen such focused eight and nine year olds; on these days, instead of idly chatting by their cubbies the kids would scramble into the meeting area and gather around the volumes like a pack of hungry animals. There they’d huddle in groups, goggle-eyed and totally silent save for the occasional chorus of “Gr-ooosss!” (And then we parents doing the drop-off would look at each other and mouth “Oh … my … god.”)
Fittingly, many of these book titles ended with question marks. There was one called Where Did I Come From? and another titled What’s the Big Secret?. On the slightly more panic-y side, you had What’s Happening to Me? and, for the boys, What’s Going on Down There?
Instead of a typical textbook, the class used It’s So Amazing (1999) by Robie H. Harris, which covers reproductive anatomy, reproduction and puberty in a comic-book style format. It’s a good choice for third graders — not too Nickelodeon, not too New England Journal of Medicine. That said, I couldn’t help but find myself drawn to the quirkier books in the pile. I mean, there was Dr. Ruth Westheimer smiling up at me, ready to explain masturbation to the younger generation [Dr. Ruth Talks To Kids: Where You Came From, How Your Body Changes, and What Sex Is All About (1998)].
I soon became mildly obsessed with finding more examples of oddball kids’ sex ed books and spent an inordinate amount of time in the library near Dewey Decimal section 612.6. Here are a few of my discoveries:
1) How You Were Born by Joanna Cole (1984 version)
The creator of the Magic School Bus series, Joanna Cole is also the author of this classic book for preschoolers. The 1993 revised edition in full color is what you’lll find on Amazon, but my library still had a copy of the original version, illustrated with black-and-white photos. The prose is soft and fuzzy, and the images are (for the most part) mild, with an emphasis on cute baby shots. But there are definitely a few yowza moments.
For instance, you don’t find this one in the revised edition:
2. Breasts by Genichiro Yagyu (1999)
This book, translated from the Japanese, will remind you of those modern Japanese classics, Everyone Poops by Taro Gomi and The Gas We Pass by Shinta Cho (all part of the same series, My Body Science). Like those books, the illustrations here have a charming, primitive quality and the text — what little there is of it — doesn’t shy from a deadpan joke or two.
The My Body Science series has been translated into multiple languages. Here’s the Spanish version of Breasts:
If I had grown up in a less Puritanical household, this is the book that I might have read as a kid growing up in the late 70s. It was evidently a huge hit when it came out, and it’s still in print (“over 1,000,000 copies sold!”). But I never laid eyes on it until this year, when a friend told me that he and his sister had loved it as kids. The illustrations have a very groovy Schoolhouse Rock vibe. The text is chatty and matter-of-fact (sex is compared to jumping rope; an orgasm is described as a sneeze). And I love the fact that it was written by Peter Mayle, he of the ubiquitous 90s novel, A Year in Provence.
Fascinating. Boys’ wet dreams in the 70s starred the Breck shampoo girl!