PEN America Mourns the Death of Children’s Book Author Robie Harris, a Champion of Free Expression and the Right to Read
By Suzanne Trimel
(NEW YORK)— PEN America is mourning the death of Robie Harris, the prolific author who specialized in nonfiction books for children that explored their inner lives, guided their awakening to topics from emotions and sexuality to health and relationships, and exposed them to wide-ranging topics, from science to engineering. A former elementary school teacher, Harris was a longtime supporter of PEN America and the cause of free expression and served over many years on its Children’s and Young Adult Books Committee.
Harris, who wrote more than 30 books for children, died on Jan. 6 at age 83 in New York City. With rising banning of books in public schools, including her own titles, she inspired many through her unflinching defense of the right to read for all ages and rallied authors to the cause of standing against this censorship.
PEN America shares its sorrow over Harris’ death with her family and many friends in the writing community.
PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel said: “Robie was utterly fearless. She believed very strongly that children had the right to know about their own bodies, sexuality and puberty and as a former teacher of young children took it upon herself to make that happen. Her books were totally matter-of-fact in educating kids on these subjects and she was undaunted by the frequent challenges and bans against her well-praised books. Robie was indefatigable, going on at full steam well into her 80s and we will deeply miss her engagement and dedicated contribution to our work.”
Krystyna Poray Goddu and Paul Zelinsky, co-chairs of the Children’s and Young Adult Books Committee, said: “Robie was a calm and sage source of guidance for our committee. She stood against censorship with tact and firmness, serving as a model to all of us. And while she is known best for her groundbreaking children’s books about human sexuality—and for speaking out against book banning—she also wrote many outstanding books for young people on other subjects. Her grasp of the inner lives of young children was unequaled and she always addressed them with the honesty they deserve. Her death leaves a huge gap. We will miss Robie deeply, her humor and her wisdom.”
Harris’ subject interest was broad, including books that exposed children to engineering, architecture, nutrition, math, death, and genetics.
Her most famous book, It’s Perfectly Normal (illustrated by Michael Emberley), guided preadolescent children on the topic of puberty, their changing bodies, sexuality, and sexual health. It was translated into 27 languages and sold one million copies.
It was praised for normalizing questions about the topic and offering positive messages and accurate information about sexuality and bodily changes. Published in 1994, it was updated numerous times including a 25th anniversary edition. While the title won praise from physicians, child development specialists, and educators for its accuracy, reliability and for offering children clear guidance on the topic, the book was frequently banned and removed from school and public libraries in the United States with critics citing its unvarnished accuracy and visual representation of the subject and questioning its age-appropriateness.
The book was listed by the American Literature Association as a Notable Children’s Book in 1995 and by The New York Times and School Library Journal among its Best Books.
Addressing the censorship of the book, Harris had shared the story of a criminal case in Delaware involving the sexual abuse of a 10-year-old girl by her father. It’s Perfectly Normal was raised by the judge who presided in the case as the spark that led to the father’s prosecution and conviction. After checking the book out of a library, the girl showed her mother the chapter on sexual abuse and said, “This is me.” The judge in the case said: “There were heroes in this case. One was the child, and the other was the book.” Harris wrote that the girl’s mother was also a hero for listening to her daughter, and that the librarian who ordered the book and kept it stocked on shelves also made the prosecution possible.
The banning of her book led to her inclusion in a 2021 collection, You Can’t Say That! Writers for Young People Talk About Censorship, Free Expression, and the Stories They Have to Tell by literary critic Leonard S. Marcus. The book is a collection of interviews of popular children’s and young adult writers about their experiences with book censorship.
Harris was an ardent supporter of PEN America’s work to document and defend against the current rise of book banning in public schools nationwide.
Jonathan Friedman, director of PEN America’s Free Expression and Education program, said: “Robie was an avid advocate for young people, insisting that all children deserve to see themselves reflected in the books they read. Her unflinching stance in the face of efforts to ban her books has been an inspiration to many, including me. Her powerful legacy will be felt not just among family, friends, or scores of young readers, but among the authors and advocates carrying the fight against book censorship forward today.”
Harris’ works also included It’s So Amazing! The title answered children’s curiosity about reproduction and the birth process– how babies begin, what makes a baby male or female, how babies are born.
She was a hero to many in the LGBTQ community for her unapologetic inclusion of LGBTQ parents and sexuality in her books for children, and for her courageous refusal to be shut down by the opponents of free speech.
She was also a great supporter of diversity in publishing children’s books and wrote in a 2016 essay that she spent a great deal of time making sure that It’s Perfectly Normal reflected diverse readers as to “what each person in this book might say, look like, or wear; or who would be which race and/or ethnicity; or how gender, age, or disabilities might play into the text and the art; and who would have what body shape, skin color, hair, or eye shape; or what might various members of a family or a group of kids say, be like, or look like.”
Born into a family of scientists (her father was a radiologist, her mother worked in a biology laboratory and her brother was a neurosurgeon), Harris was educated at the Bank Street School of Education and became an elementary school teacher at its laboratory school, where she taught writing. Harris’ cousin, Elizabeth Levy, was also the author of numerous books for children.
She wrote that her background in teaching and her fascination with children’s curiosity, inspired her pursuit of writing, which she had loved from childhood. “I love to write about powerful emotions children have and how they express those legitimate and perfectly normal feelings. So, it’s no surprise that my picture books explore the inner life of children and deal with topics such as: love, joy, attachment, independence, fear, sibling rivalry, and even anger and hate. I love to write about everyday moments, those ‘Ah ha!’ moments when a child is puzzled or is confused by something and asks questions such as: How are babies made?”