Sunday, September 23, 2007

Vigilante Censorship Leads to Book Reviews

Wow. Library Stuff linked to me. As that's one of my favorite sites I'm pleased and honored. In my post I talked about a case of vigilante censorship, in which a woman stole a book from a couple of libraries in order to protect children from the contents of the book. I visited my local library and flipped through the book, but then decided it deserved an even closer look, so I went back and checked it out. My library had two copies on the shelf. I may end up buying a copy of the book for myself. As I pointed out, vigilante censorship doesn't work, and in this case backfired big time.

The book in question is "It's Perfectly Normal". The book is aimed at children who are starting puberty. It's goal is to demystify the changes that a person goes through, and does so in a very straightforward way. It also has plenty of illustrations, in a gentle style that is not clinical, but not titillating.

I'm going to reiterate that I wish I'd had this book when I was going through puberty. My parents were great, don't get me wrong, but I didn't know what questions to ask. This book would have given me both the vocabulary I needed and answers to a number of questions I dared not ask. And it wouldn't have changed my religious beliefs at all, except perhaps to make me more confident. Something I desperately needed at that time in my life, and didn't get until many years later.

First off, there are about 40 penises in the artwork in this book. There are about an equal or slightly higher number of graphic depictions of female genitalia. Almost every picture is surrounded by text that explains something about the human body. My personal suspicion is that many kids who read this book may focus at first on the pictures, but the text is easy to understand and interesting enough quickly draw them in. And it's great text.

As guides throughout the book, we are introduced to a cartoon bird and bee. The bird is eager to learn, while the bee thinks sex is "gross". These characters appear on almost every page, commenting on the text. They are a way for some readers to distance themselves a bit from the intensity of the subject matter, and a clever narrative device.

The book first defines the word "sex": gender, reproduction system, desire, and the act itself. A quick three pages at the end of this first section describes what people mean by "straight" and "gay", and the last paragraph of this section reflects a theme the entire book takes: "If a person has any questions of thoughts about his or her sexual feelings, talking to someone he or she knows and trusts -- a parent, relative, good friend, teacher, doctor, nurse, or clergy member -- can be helpful." The book is constantly referring the reader (who is presumed to be a child) back to the adults in his or her life.

Of course, for some folks, just the fact that the book doesn't declare homosexuals to be sinners destined for hell makes it a bad book.

The next section of the book talks about the human body. And on page 20-21 there is an impressive double page spread of a bunch of naked people of every shape, size, color, and age. No doubt these pages would give fundamentalists a heart attack. What the fundamentalists don't seem to understand or remember is that children are extremely curious about the human body at that age. Isn't it better for them to look at cartoons in a book than seek out a fellow child to experiment with? Just because you do not acknowledge their curiousity does not mean it will go away. This book is all about satisfying curiousity.

The section continues with a detailed overview of the sexual parts of a female body, then an overview of the sexual parts of a male body. It's illustrated, of course, and there is a LOT of emphasis on the fact that these body parts are designed for making babies. It sure seems like a lot of the point of this book is to make sure children understand that sex generally results in babies... a fact that I would think any fundamentalist would want their child to learn.

The section ends with a bit about "dirty" words, and how sex is taboo. Again, it ends with the suggestion that children seek out a trusted adult if they have questions.

The third section is all about puberty and what happens to a body as it goes through puberty. This section talks about periods, wet dreams, and erections. Again, it emphasizes that having sex can result in pregnancy. Over and over. It also talks about acne (the bane of all youth), bras, and jockstraps. It discusses hygiene and health, and the new emotions that come along with puberty. And, horror of horrors, the very end of the section covers masturbation.

The fourth section talks about families and babies. It starts with the difficulties of caring for babies, then talks about genetics, then moves into the actual acts that lead to babies. Again, there is a massive emphasis on how likely it is for a baby to result from intercourse. This section also goes into birth control, and what doesn't work. There appear to be a lot of myths out there, and this book attempts to de-mystify and de-mythify. The rest of the section is devoted to actually having a baby, and what the woman goes through. Frankly, if that part doesn't convince girls to be careful, I'm not sure what would. The final bit of this section talks about other ways to have a child, including in vitro and adoption.

The fifth section is about decision making. It covers abstinence and birth control, and emphasizes that the only way to make sure you won't have a baby is to not have sex. The end of the birth control part again refers the child to a trusted adult. The last part of this section is about abortion, and covers it as fairly as I've seen. There's a slight overriding disapproval of the whole matter, which is only to be expected from a book celebrating the human body and life, but it doesn't condemn abortion. Again, the mere fact that it doesn't condemn it is probably enough to make it a bad book for some folks.

The last section deals with the very serious topics of sexual abuse and sexually transmitted disease. The book advises children to go to an adult if they are abused, and then to another if they are not listened to. It's good advice, and something that some children, sadly, really ought to know. Like the overview of pregnancy, the pages on STDs ought to scare some children into being careful. There is a longer part on AIDS, and then the book finishes up with more about making choices.

Again, this is a great book. I would not hesitate to hand it to my own children. I wouldn't give it to someone else's children, but I'd recommend it for the parents to read and decide for themselves. It's a book that requires an adult to be ready to answer questions. I don't consider that a bad thing at all.

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