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Robie Harris, who wrote an often-banned book about sexuality for kids, dies at 83

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The author of one of the most banned books in America has died. Here's Robie Harris on NPR in 2014.

ROBIE HARRIS: To me, it wasn't controversial. It's what every child has a right to know.

SHAPIRO: Harris wrote children's books that explained sexuality and puberty in simple, non-judgmental terms. Her best-known book, "It's Perfectly Normal," sold more than a million copies. It came out 30 years ago, has gone through several editions and been banned from many schools and libraries. NPR's Neda Ulaby has our remembrance.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Robie Harris was a mild-mannered children's author who knew "It's Perfectly Normal" would become perfectly notorious.

HARRIS: I was warned by several people not to do this book, that it would ruin my career. But I really didn't care.

ULABY: Harris came from a family that loved science. She grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., where her dad was a radiologist. Her mom had worked in a biology lab, and her brother became a surgeon. Harris studied to be a teacher before writing books for kids - more than 30 of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Reading) Some families eat bacon, eggs...

ULABY: You can see people on YouTube reading from Harris' kids' books. This one is called "Who's In My Family?" It shows different families around the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Reading) Some eat pita bread, hummus, cucumbers and olives. Yum.

ULABY: That book was banned in Singapore for showing families with same-sex parents. When it came to approaching sex and sexuality, Harris, who had studied child development, was upfront and careful. She ran everything she wrote past teachers, pediatricians, psychologists, parents and kids. Her book "It's Perfectly Normal" shows naked people in cheerful cartoons. Everyone is ordinary-looking and happy. But public response was not always positive.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN AMANCHUKWU: I'll read some of this for you.

ULABY: A pastor named John Amanchukwu brandished a copy of "It's Perfectly Normal" last year at a school board meeting in Asheville, N.C. He found it overly graphic and objected to its representation of LGBTQ people. In a scene that's played out in other school board meetings nationally, he demanded its removal from public schools and libraries. But that's exactly where Robie Harris believed her books belonged. She told NPR in 2014 they should not even be cordoned off in special sections.

HARRIS: No child's going to go up to a librarian and say, you know, I'm going through puberty and seem to have some pubic hairs, and maybe you could recommend something to me. So if a book is in a special section of a library, maybe the kids who need it the most are not going to get it.

ULABY: Early in her career, Harris had worked with underserved kids as a Head Start teacher. She cared deeply about the children who needed information the most. Robie Harris died last month in Manhattan. She was 83 years old. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINY'S "ORANGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Neda Ulaby
Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.