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Robie Harris, often-banned children’s author, is dead at 83

Robie Harris, a children’s book author and former teacher whose writing about sexuality made her among the most banned authors in America, died Jan. 6 in the New York City borough of Manhattan. She was 83.

Her death, in a hospital, was confirmed by her sons David and Ben Harris.

Ms. Harris’s most well-known book, “It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, and Sexual Health” (1994), with its explicit illustrations, has been pulled from library shelves all over the country and has regularly made the American Library Association’s list of Frequently Challenged Children’s Books.

The book has been fought over from Virginia to Idaho, with detractors calling it pornography and supporters saying it is merely a frank and honest guide to sexuality for children and teenagers. It is geared for children 10 and up.

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Updated several times, “It’s Perfectly Normal” has sold more than 1 million copies and been translated into 27 languages, according to PEN America. Writer and pediatrician Dr. Perri Klass called it a “classic” in The New York Times in 2017. Suzanne Nossel, the executive director of PEN America, said in a statement that Ms. Harris’s books “were totally matter-of-fact in educating kids on these subjects.”

Those books still raise hackles. In Elkhart County, Indiana, a year ago, the board of county commissioners declared at a meeting that “It’s Perfectly Normal” “depicts and describes sexual conduct in a patently offensive way.” A parent, Rhonda Miller, rose to say that Indiana’s schools and libraries “have become the distribution point for the pornography industry.”

In Provo, Utah; Clover Park, Washington; and Chester County, Pennsylvania, religious groups fought to keep it out of libraries in 1998. In Polk County, Florida, in 2022, a parents group submitted the book to the school district for review, claiming it was one of 16 books that were “age inappropriate” and that “hypersexualize children.” There were many other such complaints.

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Ms. Harris confronted the hostility without rancor. “I think that in this country there’s a range of opinions about what children should know,” she told an interviewer for LibrarySparks magazine in 2006, “and I think that many people feel that our children shouldn’t know about some of these things that have to do with sexuality, because, as adults, many of us weren’t talked to about these things.”

Even some who praised her have wondered if she had pushed too far in “It’s Perfectly Normal.”

“Is this too much? Harris wisely allows that it might be,” Jill Lepore wrote in The New Yorker in 2010, about an explicit part of the book. In Slate, Aymann Ismail wrote, “On virtually every page I stopped to examine, I was confronted with detailed drawings of genitals.”

But Ms. Harris told the interviewer: “Our kids already know about 99.9% of this stuff. What concerned me is that they have a lot of misinformation, no matter how much they tell us, and I wanted them to get accurate information.”

Ms. Harris wrote more than 30 children’s books, including “Don’t Forget to Come Back” (1978); “I Hate Kisses” (1981); “It’s So Amazing!: A Book About Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families” (1999); and “It’s NOT the Stork!: A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families, and Friends” (2006).

But it was “It’s Perfectly Normal,” with its illustrations by Michael Emberly, that drew the most attention. Ms. Harris explained to LibrarySparks that her publisher had asked for a children’s book about HIV and AIDS, and that she responded by saying she would write a book on “healthy sexuality” that included both.

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For her research she spoke with pediatricians and “anybody who had to do with the health and well-being of kids,” she said. She “read everything I could” and talked to dozens of people. “I wanted the book to be comprehensive,” she said, “and I wanted it to be a place where kids, preteens and teens could go and find the answer to almost every question that they might ask.”

That quality is evident in a film she made with her students in 1967 as a teacher at the Bank Street School for Children in New York City. In the film, “A Child’s Eye View,” she listens carefully to her students, questioning them gently and respectfully. “One of the things we did all the time was to observe the children, and have meetings and talk about the children’s behavior,” she told LibrarySparks.

Ms. Harris was born Robie Heilbrun on April 3, 1940, in Buffalo, New York, to Norman and Evelyn (Levy) Heilbrun. Her father was a radiologist. She graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois in 1962 with a bachelor’s degree in English, moved to New York City and earned a master’s in teaching in 1966 from the Bank Street College of Education. Her first book, “Before You Were Three: How You Began to Walk, Talk, Explore, and Have Feelings” (1977), was co-written with her cousin Elizabeth Levy.

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In addition to her sons, Ms. Harris, who lived in Manhattan, is survived by her husband, William Harris, and four grandchildren.

Her son David recalled that for a children’s math book called “Crash! Boom!,” which is centered on toy building blocks, his mother, then in her 70s, dropped to the floor to see for herself how a castle she had built also fell apart.

“She dealt with kids’ emotions,” David Harris said. “The thing about her was, it was always children, first.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.