Not Your Mom’s Puberty Books: What Today’s Kids Really Need to Read
Euphemisms, scare tactics, and a whole lot of gendered language. The United States has a sex and sexuality education problem. Today, only 27 states and the District of Columbia require sex-ed courses that also teach about HIV, and even then, only 17 states mandate that the teaching material is “medically accurate,” according to the Guttmacher Institute. Even worse, the majority of states require educators to stress the importance of abstinence; in some instances, abstinence-only is the only education school children receive. Additionally, only 10 states call for educators to be inclusive in discussions about sexual orientation.
The education kids receive at home may not be that much better, as some parents don’t know how to talk about puberty and sex. That uncertainty can sometimes lead parents to oversimplify their lessons, sexuality educator Ellen Friedrichs tells SheKnows over email.
“I feel like we tend to withhold information from kids then expect them to suddenly understand sexuality the second we decide they are old enough to explore it with a partner,” she says. “That approach has been a disaster. So many of the messages kids get about sex reinforce dangerous practices. A lot of them default to old gender tropes about girls having to play hard to get, and boys never taking no for an answer.”
Honesty, she says, is always best when talking to kids about sex. “If we can interrupt this narrative with accurate, positive information, then I think we will help grow a far healthier generation of young people,” she adds.
It isn’t enough to rely on some of the books our parents grew up reading, either, as many of these options lack material on consent, sexual orientation, internet usage, different body types, and gender identification. Friedrichs, who authored the book Good Sexual Citizenship: How to Create a (Sexually) Safer World, says that today’s parents should seek out more inclusive literature and start talking to kids about diversity at a young age.
“Obviously, one’s own identity will shape those conversations, but broadly, it is helpful to think about the stories you tell,” she says. “Are they always about people like you? If your own circles aren’t that broad, try to bring home books about experiences different than your own and ask yourself if you are defaulting to one script. And if your children repeat something problematic (even as benign as a comment about things only girls or only boys can do), don’t hesitate to jump in and add a different point of view.”
Ahead, we’ve rounded up some of the best books about puberty, bodies, and sex with recommendations from Friedrichs and Carol Queen, Ph.D., who’s a Good Vibrations staff sexologist and curator of the Antique Vibrator Museum, as well as the author of The Sex & Pleasure Book: Good Vibrations Guide to Good Sex for Everyone.
Good Sexual Citizenship: How to Create a (Sexually) Safer World
Friedrichs’ book, Good Sexual Citizenship, is an excellent primer for parents, educators, older teens, and young adults who want to learn how to make the world a sexually safer space for all. Within its pages, readers will learn about everything from women’s rights and gender disparities to hook-up culture and teen relationships.
“The heart of the book is simply that sexuality should not be imposed on anyone, and that all sex should be wanted by all participants and enjoyed by all participants,” Friedrichs says. “That shouldn’t be such a hard ask, but when it so often it, it is clear we have a lot more work to do.”
Reading this book, and the ones ahead, is a great start.
Good Sexual Citizenship, $17.95 at Amazon
S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College
S.E.X. is a behemouth of a handguide for teens and young adults. Author Heather Corinna packs the book’s 480 pages with useful information, including anatomical guides, a breakdown of gender and sexual identities, consent, contraception, STIs, and relationships. Additionally, Corinna tackles important subjects often overlooked in sex-ed courses, like sexual assault and abuse.
S.E.X, $17.99 at Good Vibrations
Sex Is a Funny Word
Friedrich says she loves anything sex educator Cory Silverberg writes, and it’s easy to see why. Sex Is a Funny Word is an approachable comic book aimed at children ages eight to 10 that covers how to set boundaries and respect others’, anatomy, crushes, gender identity, and gender roles. It’s also inclusive of LGBTQ, gender non-conforming, and intersex kids, making it one of the most progressive, well-rounded books on the market.
Silverberg’s site notes that the book “allows adults to convey their values and beliefs,” making it a great starting point for deeper family conversations.
Sex Is a Funny Word, $16.63 at Amazon
It’s Perfectly Normal
Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberley’s book It’s Perfectly Normal is a “classic,” says Queen. But that doesn’t mean it’s dated. This book is tailored for children as young as 10, and it gives a straightforward overview of topics like sex, puberty, birth control, HIV/AIDS, and even how to stay safe online. The illustrations portray a variety of body types too, giving kids a more realistic understanding of the world at large than they might have seen on TV or in magazines.
It’s Perfectly Normal, $12.99 at Good Vibrations
It’s So Amazing: A Book About Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families
Another classic by Harris, It’s So Amazing! helps parents navigate the inevitable “where do babies come from” question by giving factual informtion in an age-appropriate format. The book explains reproductive systems and the science behind conception in easy-to-read terms and fun illustrations from Michael Emberly. Parents can also use this book as a foundation before talking to kids about alternative reproductive technologies and methods, such as IVF, adoption, and surrogacy.
It’s So Amazing!, $11.69 at Amazon
Celebrate Your Body (And It’s Changes, Too!)
Though tailored toward girls, this book can be a helpful guide for kids of all genders. Author Sonya Renee Taylor explores all aspects of puberty, including periods, physical and emotional changes, and relationships in a conversational tone that’s appropriate for kids as young as eight years old. The illustrations are also informative, while not looking like they’ve come straight out of a medical textbook.
One of the best things about this book is that it emphasizes that bodies of all shapes are beautiful and worthy of celebration.
Celebrate Your Body, $9.39 at Amazon
The Gender Quest Workbook: A Guide for Teens & Young Adults Exploring Gender Identity
Gender identity is a hot topic lately, and rightfully so. More teens are freeing themselves of dated societal norms by rejecting the gender binary. That’s not to say they’ve got it all figured out, though. (Honestly, who amongst us can say that we have?) Navigating gender identity can leave many kids and young adults feeling vulnerable, and it’s vital that they feel loved and supported.
To help with the process, Queen recommends The Gender Quest Book, which offers professional, judgment-free resources for kids exploring who they are, whether they identify as trans, gender non-conforming, or are unsure of where they fall on the gender spectrum. In addition to definitions, this book offers advice on how to deal with anxiety, depression, physical and emotional changes, peer pressure, and relationships.
Of course, this book isn’t just for people who are exploring their identities. Caregivers, teachers, and friends will also find its contents useful as they aim to create safe, supportive spaces.
The Gender Quest Workbook, $16.95 at Good Vibrations
The Sex & Pleasure Book: Good Vibrations Guide to Great Sex for Everyone
You’re never too old or experienced to expand your sexual horizons. While most of the books included in this list are for children, this book is a handy guide for parents (though older teens could definitely learn from it too!).
Written by Queen and Shar Rednour, The Sex & Pleasure Book explores it all: sex toys and tech, sex positions for people of all abilities, gender, and identity. But it also gives helpful tips on how to engage with children of all ages when they inevitably have questions. Keep it on your shelf — or on your nightstand. We have a feeling you’ll reference this book often.
The Sex & Pleasure Book, $24.95 at Good Vibrations
These Are My Eyes, This Is My Nose, This Is My Vulva, These Are My Toes
Did reading the word “vulva” in the title of a kids’ book make you feel uncomfortable? We get it; vulva is far from the prettiest word. But when it comes to talking to children about bodies, it’s important to use the correct terms with no shame attached. Dr. Lexx Brown-James’ picture book normalizes anatomical terms in a way that’s approachable — and dare we say fun — for young children. Plus, it’s inclusive of gender and physical abilities so all kids find themselves represented.
These Are My Eyes, This Is My Nose, This Is My Vulva, These Are My Toes, $14.99 at Amazon
Wait, What?: A Comic Book Guide to Relationships, Bodies, and Growing Up
Puberty is confusing and, naturally, kids have a lot of questions and feelings. While it’s great to be a resource for your kids, sometimes, they may want to feel a bit more independent as they figure this whole growing up thing out. Wait, What? provides a safe way for them to get started, with coloful comics that answer some of their most pressing questions about identity, sexuality, dating, sex in the media, and consent.
Wait, What?, $11.99 at Amazon
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