Posted on Leave a comment

You can’t be what you can’t see – why teachers shouldn’t live in the closet

When we first start to learn important life skills, our success hinges on watching someone else model the task before we try. Leading our own lives isn’t any different from mastering basic life skills; we all have the desire to form human connections that influence us and form our ways of being in the world. We know that young people look up to the world around them and so we try to steer them towards good role models to fight against the negative messages they will undoubtedly consume from the wider world.

Although there are positive role models everywhere, it is more meaningful when a child sees a person just like them in a position of success, in a place where they can connect with them. Young people adopt habits and attitudes by looking at people who share their gender, cultural background, or other life circumstances. When a child belongs to a group that is in the minority and over-represented in suicide and mental health statistics, knowing individuals who have succeeded in spite of stereotypes offers hope that their future can be bright. The most common place for a child to connect with a role model is at school.

This is why I find it so perplexing that being a gay teacher in Australia is still such a silent idea. To be fair, nobody is going to stop a gay person from attaining a Bachelor of Education, but implicit forces that propagate institutionalised heterosexual norms can crush an early career teacher into silence. It happens frequently in the independent sector where parental satisfaction = business and lifestyle clauses (aka religious “freedom”) can make it very easy to sack those who do not comply. Even if you don’t consider these factors, the impact of silence on teacher wellbeing and mental health can make some of these positions untenable. In many schooling contexts, there is an underlying message that having an out teacher encourages children to believe that it is okay to be gay. For some parents, this represents a fear of the unknown.

One of the most significant “no” arguments that got a lot of airplay during the lead up to the plebiscite was that gay marriage would pave the way for talking about homosexuality in schools. My question is, why aren’t we talking about it? In any classroom, there will be students who have homosexuality in their lives – whether it is through having a gay relative, gay parents, or even being gay themselves. At some point throughout their life, they will likely meet a gay person or work with one. For some students, they may not yet realise that they are gay, but are grappling internally with feelings that they can’t explain. They might be looking for confirmation that they are completely normal and loved regardless.

100_1249

Thinking about this takes me back to 2004. My family had relocated to a regional city in Queensland, and the intent was to lead a quieter life while my father developed his business. I had always known I had those feelings and had never said anything because I wasn’t certain that I actually was gay, because I lacked life experience. In my family and friendship groups, nobody spoke about it. Popular culture at the time didn’t contain many visible role models, or at least none that I had been exposed to. YouTube and social media were in their infancy and so I was somewhat in the dark. Furthermore, the Christian education program at my school had explicitly stated that being gay was not an option if you were to lead an acceptable, moral life.

Towards the end of that year, I developed a close friendship with a girl that turned into a somewhat-relationship behind closed doors. We never spoke to anyone about it because we attended a very conservative Christian school, and we knew there would be consequences. I finally plucked up the courage to pull one of my favourite teachers aside to tell her about what had been going on. I was not seeking spiritual guidance nor did I need advice about how to change my feelings; what I was seeking was reassurance. Instead, I was forced to see a counsellor and forbidden from telling my parents. When the ‘counselling’ did not produce the desired result, my parents were called into the school. I was asked to leave and walked out in a cloud of absolute humiliation.

After enrolling in a public school, I felt lost and scarred by shame. I never spoke about my past relationship and threw myself headfirst into dating boys, drinking, and other destructive behaviour. I went from being a straight-A student to barely handing in assessments. Towards the end of Year 11, I honestly thought that I had completely screwed up my future prospects. Instead of looking forward to graduation, I feared the future because I had been told that gay adults didn’t have functional relationships and I knew that my career prospects would be very dim considering how little work I had submitted towards my senior certificate. The most traumatic aspect was that I thought I would never recover my academic prowess because of the dark night that had descended upon my mind, sucking all the life out from the inside.

Dsc_0084

During that year, my senior music teacher resigned and was replaced by a bright and talented teacher who played numerous instruments and rocked a shaved head like nobody’s business. She unabashedly wore jackets with gay patches stitched onto them, and considering where the world (particularly Bundaberg) was at in 2007, this was a bold move. Not only did she impart her amazing musical taste on all of us, but she spoke about the life she had built, complete with a career, mortgage, world travels, a dog, and a (nearly) wife. Suddenly, here was this person who profoundly disrupted everything I had been told at my previous school, who was living proof that I could have the aspirational life I dreamed of with a wife by my side. This realisation was the wind that changed the direction of my sails.

Screen Shot 2017-12-12 at 7.35.25 pm

Not long after I met this teacher, I came out to my parents. I wrote a song about a woman I loved and sang it on school assembly. I stopped caring what other people thought about my life and lived as my true, authentic self. A decade on, I have a successful career, an impressive passport, a published book, a dream home, plans to have children, and a beautiful wife, whom I will marry now that the laws are in place. I did not fall into some mythical drug scene. I did not catch a disease. I did not become an outcast of society because of who I am. However, it would have taken me a lot longer to figure this all out, had I not had a visible role model available to me at a very formative and vulnerable time in my life. Without a strong, like-minded influence to model the possibility of a good life, I could have become another statistic.

This is why the idea of silencing gay teachers is anathema to me. If we are to fulfill the mission of the Educational Goals for Young Australians as set out in the Melbourne Declaration, then we need to help young people find their voice. It is challenging to do that if we must cower behind our desks and hide our wedding photos from plain sight. Having a gay teacher will not make a child gay, and furthermore, there is absolutely nothing wrong with identifying as a gay person. What visible role models will provide are two very important messages to our young people;

  1. You are not alone.
  2. Those of you who identify as gay have equal worth and you have just as much chance of fulfilling your dreams as anyone else. Here are people who have walked similar paths to you and succeeded. It is possible for you. 

In the past, gay students have had to navigate these paths without any guidance and I don’t believe it needs to be like that now or in the future. By keeping our teachers in the closet, we are limiting our young people and contributing to a world that divides and separates people on the basis of unchangeable differences. Learning more about these differences will challenge the discomfort and biases that people have and in time, most people will realise that there is nothing to worry about in allowing people to be more open. A child can’t be what they can’t see and pushing their role models into the closet is sending the message that who they are isn’t part of the conversation.

I think every child’s diversity should be represented visibly in the schooling system, through teachers, coaches, parents, students and curriculum materials that acknowledge a variety of life narratives. Only then will we see change and open up a brighter future, not just for some students, but for every student. I think that’s worth standing up for, don’t you?

Posted on Leave a comment

The importance of bodily autonomy – and resources you can use to start the conversation

Imagine if you didn’t have control over what others could do to your body. Imagine if someone else got to call the shots – they chose haircuts for you, forced you to hug and kiss them for their own satisfaction, and wouldn’t even let you choose your own clothing. Most people would be uncomfortable with this situation, but this is the reality for most children – that their bodies are not theirs to have control over. The idea that a child can and should assert boundaries about their body is one that is gaining awareness in early childhood educational settings. It responds to the need for children to learn protective behaviours that aim to keep them safe for life – not just from sexual abuse, but situations where someone is not being respectful of personal space.

A person's hands are visible, operating a mechanical remote controller in Putten

Like adults, children possess intuition and comfort levels around physical touch that need to be acknowledged and treated with respect. Communicating personal boundaries confidently is a skill that children can use to own their bodies and to interact in ways that support their innate tendencies. For some children, particularly ones who are naturally introverted or slow-to-warm, it can be distressing when a person encroaches on their physical space. It isn’t about teaching a child that every adult is a predator, but that they are the boss of their own body and they control how others interact with it. Even the most extroverted, cuddly child will need space at times – and that is completely okay.

When developing these assertive capabilities in children, it is important to present the conversation at their level. The following resources are a good starting point for these discussions.

NO MEANS NO!

Click here to buy the book 

This is a book I have personally used within the classroom with middle-to-upper primary school students, but it is suitable for younger students as well. My favourite part of this book is that the adult characters are portrayed as well-meaning, close people who just want to hug or wrestle with the child characters. They respond positively when the main character politely declines. The story also provides language for children to use in creating respectful boundaries – for instance, firmly saying no and offering a high-five instead. This equips children with a polite ‘out’ to boundary-pushing situations, without it seeming as if every person who wants a cuddle has an ulterior motive. The author, Jayneen Sanders, has another book called ‘My Body! What I Say, Goes!’ which has a similar theme.

Your Body Belongs to You

 

Click here to buy the book 

This book is another one that explains the idea of bodily autonomy with simple language. It conveys the idea that you can still form a friendship with someone, even if you politely decline a hug or physical touch when you’re getting to know someone. It is a dated book (1997), but reassuring and appropriate.

Do You Have a Secret? 

Click here to buy the book 

Although the previous titles are more about helping children to set comfortable boundaries, this book also encourages children to talk to adults about situations that have made them feel uncomfortable. It acknowledges that worrying is normal when something isn’t right and that trusting your instinct is a valuable thing to do. It also differentiates between secrets to be kept and secrets that need to be shared with a trusted adult.

I Said No!

 

Click here to buy the book 

This simple and direct book is more aimed towards situations that could be predatory. It contains simple language for children to use when they are in situations that make them feel uncomfortable. Although it is important to teach children about the value of their bodily autonomy, this needs to be supported by giving children appropriate responses to these situations. Like with anything, children need to practice these short statements in verbal role-plays so that it becomes memorable.

It really is important for us to start these conversations. Although some people may be taken aback when a child asserts themselves to decline physical touch, what we ultimately want is to equip children to be firm in protecting their personal safety. 

 

Posted on Leave a comment

Secret Boys’ Business and Secret Girls’ Business!

It has been a short while since my last book review, so I thought I would present my thoughts about a sex and puberty education series I bought recently. As a primary classroom teacher, I deliver a program called Bodies and Relationships. All of the resources I use are provided, but having a quick and colourful reference helped me with nailing the terminology in a child-friendly, succinct manner when I was planning ahead for my lessons. That is why I purchased these two books originally.

The entire collection is called the Secret Business series and contains titles such as Secret Boys’ Business, Secret Girls’ Business, The Secret Business of Relationships, Love and Sex, and two titles for boys and girls with special learning needs.

I only bought Secret Boys’ Business and Secret Girls’ Business to start with. When I first opened both of these books, the first thing I noticed was the body positive language used to describe changes and the differences between individuals. Each book contains a few simple sentences with the message that every body changes differently and that each person should feel proud of their body as it changes. The girls’ book contains a range of illustrations that present some different-shaped bodies, but the boys’ book contains illustrations that portray boys’ bodies as fit and slim. Possibly, this could have been considered when creating the storyboard, but otherwise, these are two excellent books that I would recommend.

Title: Secret Boys’ Business and Secret Girls’ Business

Authors: Rose Stewart, Fay Angelo, Heather Anderson

Illustrators: Jeff Taylor, Julie Davey

Age range: 8 and older

Themes/genre: Puberty, sex education

Click here to purchase copies of the Secret Business books

BoysGirlsBusiness

Even though children are beginning puberty at younger ages in our modern time, adults still seem to find it an awkward topic. The fact that children’s hormones are starting to shift as early as Year 3 to prepare their bodies for change means that the outward markers of puberty are often occurring between the ages of 8-10. This trend demonstrates that the start of adolescence is encroaching further into childhood than it did in previous generations. An earlier start is a big deal – it means that educating children about what is going on with their bodies can no longer wait until the last year of primary school. Whether we like it or not, it is undeniable that the ‘tween’ age category (8-12 year olds) needs simple, positive, age-appropriate information about what is happening to them.

The girls’ book contains simple, illustrated information about body changes for both sexes. It also provides information that is intended to dispel common fears about development. For instance, that it is normal for one breast may develop earlier. I can remember wondering if that was normal when it happened to me (it’s totally normal!)

The girls’ book is mostly dedicated to puberty and periods, which reflects the fact that this change is the most overwhelming for girls to deal with. It is an ideal resource for girls in middle primary school to prepare for body changes. Seperate books titled More Secret Girls’ Business, and The Secret Business of Relationships, Love, and Sex are targeted towards older girls and contain more detailed information about sexuality and feelings.

Secret Boys’ Business contains more information by comparison, with double the pages and added information about masturbation, sex and fertilisation, which isn’t presented in the first girls’ book. There are many logical explanations for this, but above anything else, the girls’ edition contains a lot of information about periods, because this event can be overwhelming on its own. The other books in the series cover these topics in more detail for girls.

same sex

The boys’ edition acknowledges the idea that boys can be attracted to either sex and presents it as a normal reality of how people can be different. It also talks about consent, personal hygiene, emotional intelligence, and how to take care of testicles.

Although the boys’ edition contains lots of information, I would suggest that it is the kind of resource that needs to be explored with a growing boy, and probably in bite-sized sessions, as there are more topics than the girls’ version. The amount of information available, while comprehensive, could be overwhelming to a young boy, especially if he is adverse to reading – or prefers to avoid topics he finds embarrassing!

The other noteworthy feature of both of these books is the Hints for Mums, Dads and other Significant Adults section in the back. In the past, many parents would provide their children with books about puberty to avoid talking about it. However, it is far more beneficial for this to be an ongoing conversation between parents and children. The guide in the back provides succinct dot points about vocabulary, forward-planning, age-appropriateness, privacy, feelings and how to have open conversations that don’t harm a developing child’s self-esteem. Same-sex attraction is also approached in this section, and the authors suggest that parents respond positively to this topic to ensure their child doesn’t receive negative messages about sexual orientation

Overall, I would recommend purchasing the whole series (including the sequels) and reading the books first to familiarise yourself with the content. That will make it easy to determine which topics need to be discussed first and how much you will share at each stage. Everyone is different and the approach you take will depend on the age and development of the individual child. These books are not resources to be given to a child without discussion, rather they serve to provide an excellent, positive introduction to body changes and sexuality that is easy to read and age-appropriate.

Happy reading!

Posted on Leave a comment

YES! YES! YES!

This week has been a satisfying one. I have completed my report cards and am currently kicking back at the hair salon, getting my six-monthly cut and colour before I leave the country for six weeks. In just under a month, I’ll be setting off on a much-needed adventure to Sri Lanka, Qatar, and the Caucasus (Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan).

No automatic alt text available.

I have also seen the first full-colour illustration from my book, One in Many Millions. It has been a very positive week for me. However, the highlight was being able to witness the YES vote ruling the same-sex marriage postal survey. What a glorious time to be alive. As unfair as the process was, the result is history in the making and it brings us one step closer to being a more just, compassionate society where people are not excluded from legal rights and privileges afforded to the majority. .

The ‘no’ camp has put forward the view that same-sex marriage will bring forth an ideological rampage in our schools that will see gay and lesbian topics explored in sex education. Personally, I think the time has come to ensure that every child is equipped with the knowledge to make sound decisions regarding their sexual health, regardless of their orientation. If history has taught us anything about disease and social attitudes, having a culture of silence can only bring negative consequences.

I say YES to love, YES to legal recognition of adult relationships and YES to comprehensive sexuality education!

No automatic alt text available.

Posted on Leave a comment

Sex under the Southern Cross – Six of the most interesting facts about Australia’s sexual history

I originally started this blog to share my book with the world, although it seems to have morphed into a space where I can talk about all things relevant to life and sex education.

As well as being an author, I am also an advocate for comprehensive sexual education and I believe that every child, regardless of their orientation or family structure, needs to be represented in these discussions. I have found that some people protest such openness. How can something that binds us all be so controversial? What I have learned is that these ideas have evolved over a long, historical journey. I predict that our responses to this topic will never stop evolving. I also firmly believe that we need to keep the conversation alive as the world changes.

The topic of sex throughout history is so complex, I could write a doctoral thesis about it. As tempting as that may be, I will stick to presenting six of the most interesting gems from my reading. I hope you find them as interesting as I do!

  1. The early 20th century was the silent era for sex in education.

Man sitting on bench watching exhibition film at Bangkok Art and Culture Centre

Although human physiology was covered academically, the reproductive system was almost completely disregarded in all classroom discussions. Sex was considered such a taboo that the directors of education openly stated that they could not bear the embarrassment of hearing female teachers talk about germination and pistils, let alone human reproduction. Likewise, they believed any educational programs would open the floodgates to immorality and detract from the teaching of the Three Rs. It was considered foolhardy to rush into the rabbits-and-butterflies chase of sexuality education. Nonetheless, these attitudes kept society in the dark for quite some time. The debate about who should be responsible for the birds and bees talk handballed back and forth between schools, parents, the church, and the medical profession for most of the 20th century. There were some early attempts to introduce handbooks and public lectures to educate school leavers, but these initiatives were always met with resistance and indifference from every direction.

  1. War comes, and venereal disease follows.

With no appropriate sexual education in their back pocket, Australian soldiers leapt into the shocking and destructive climate of World War 1. The trauma of war was so significant and widespread that it profoundly disrupted the traditional Christian values that represented most of the populace at the time. Facing their own mortality and being far from their family home, many soldiers chose to be adventurous and have sexual affairs during their service. In many ways, this was an outward expression of shock to cope with the reality that they might not come home at all. However, without being properly informed about their sexual health, around 60,000 Australian soldiers returned from World War 1 with venereal diseases. Rather than viewing this outbreak as an indictment of the taboos surrounding sexual activity, it was used as a yardstick to measure perceived immorality. Purity movements used the prevalence of venereal diseases to further the cause of abstinence and shame around sexual activity. Infected soldiers hung their heads in shame, rather than experiencing the appropriate honour of a hero’s welcome home.

  1. There’s a handbook for that.

Early in the 20th century, a purity movement swept much of the Western world in response to the rising rates of sexually transmitted diseases. A number of community organisations used public lectures and handbooks about sexual purity to educate adolescents about their body, but rather than providing comprehensive and accurate resources to all students, these booklets portrayed sexuality as a necessary evil for reproduction. The handbooks had titles like Purity and Impurity and The Needs and Methods of Purity Teaching. Sex was referred to as filthy and coarse, masturbation was termed ‘self-abuse’ and it was suggested that boys not engage in this, lest they stunt their growth or make themselves unfit for sport. As well as the teachings on masturbation (which we now know to be incorrect), the language used to describe sexual organs and functions was full of euphemisms – like ‘seed’ for semen and ‘involuntary passages’ for wet dreams, or ‘flower and fruit’ for the parts of fertilisation. Every sexual function was seen as related to God’s great plan and the teaching of correct reproductive health measures was secondary to preventing disease by not having sex to begin with.

  1. Leave it to the doctors and parents!

Most advocates agreed that sex education was necessary, but they also thought that it was the responsibility of parents. The problem is that these discussions were rarely had in the home in the early part of the 20th century because many parents felt that discussing sex would encourage it. The Teacher’s Union of the time felt that sex education was necessary, but the ‘ordinary teacher’ was ill-equipped to provide it. Medical practitioners were the next choice to parents, but when war broke out, doctors were tied up with other duties. The only other interest group was the church, and although they had a vested interest in spreading the purity movement, there was rivalry between the Protestant and Catholic churches during the war years. Much of the early debate was caught up in these religious differences. Eventually, the Catholics withdrew from most teaching on sexual education and Protestant groups such as the White Cross League created handbooks. This back-and-forth handballing of responsibility propagated the culture of silence about sex, which took the better part of a century to dissolve.

  1. Different strokes for different folksFunny sculpture of a male/female pair with electrical body parts

Prior to World War I, it was believed that male sexuality was highly aggressive whereas the female sexuality was passive and almost absent. This belief produced markedly different attitudes and expectations about the sexual behaviours and desires of males and females. Despite the Christian influence in Australia, there was a very tolerant blind eye towards a man’s supposedly unique natural inclination to sleep around before marriage. This was believed to be in the best interests of future marital success. By comparison, sleeping around would mean certain social ruin for a female. One must ask the question, though – if a man was expected to sow his wild oats before marriage, with whom was he doing this, if women were expected to be chaste? These sexual inequalities continued as history wore on and although attitudes towards female sexuality became more liberal by the 1960s, it has never really been quite as acceptable for a woman to enjoy sex as openly as men.

  1. Sex for pleasure, not just procreation!
    A large number of colorful pills and capsules

The contraceptive pill was introduced to Australia in 1961. No longer did Australian husbands need to sleep on the back porch to prevent pregnancies, an innovation that produced one giant leap for women in controlling their bodies and family outcomes. Having more control over family planning meant that women could participate in the workforce without restraint. This contributed to greater representation of women in the world outside the home. This life-changing invention wasn’t without drawbacks, however. Although the pills were inexpensive to produce, they incurred a 27% luxury tax and were only made available to married women. This just meant that some women would get their married friends to pretend they had lost their pills so they could obtain an extra packet. The doctors didn’t seem to cotton on. Beg, borrow, steal, have pre-marital sex…. No worries!

So there you have it – some interesting gems from Australia’s sexy history, though this blog entry really only touches the surface. It is clear that there has always been an incredible amount of ignorance, fear and shame surrounding sex – and although the situation has improved in a century, many people would prefer to keep some aspects of human sexuality in the closet, away from children in particular. Not talking about these important topics holds us all back and the lack of knowledge can inflict scars that define whole generations of people.

I want to live to see a world where inclusive, comprehensive education on sexual health is just standard operating procedure, and sexual activity isn’t used a barometer for immorality.

One can dream – but we sometimes need to look at our past to shape the future.

Sources

Greg Logan – Sex Education in Queensland – A History of the Debate 1900-1980

National Museum of Australia http://www.nma.gov.au/online_features/defining_moments/featured/the_pill

Stefania Siedlecki and Diana Wyndham – Populate and Perish (1990)

Posted on Leave a comment

Review: I am EXTRA Special. An IVF Story.

My apologies that this post has taken so long. I was out of action for most of this weekend with an ovarian cyst rupture. The upside is that I got to go out for sushi afterwards. Turns out that sitting in hospital on a weekend afternoon makes you rather hungry… hmmm.

SushiToday’s reviewed book is one that I happened upon in my IVF clinic – how very fitting when you consider the theme. This particular title has been self-published by two Brisbane authors, Belinda Messer and Rosie Luik. Both of these authors have published numerous books on similar topics and I would encourage you to explore the resources on their websites. Belinda’s can be found here and Rosie’s can be found here. You can also buy a copy here. 

For those of you who have started on the journey of fertility treatment, you would understand how confronting it can be. For my partner and I, walking into a clinic for the first time and seeing folders filled with reams of research about infertility was…. well, rather upsetting, especially because I had issues with how IVF was going to fit into my working situation when we first started the process. I used to worry about how I could time appointments around limited leave time was hard. Additionally, knowing that needles, scans and the ‘waiting game’ were all on the other side of that clinic door was another level of tough. Rather than flicking through the asinine magazines or the clinic statistics, I found great comfort in noticing this beautiful book on the bench….

An IVF Story

Title: I am EXTRA Special! An IVF Story

Author/Illustrator: Belinda Messer and Rosie Luik, illustrated by Jessica Smith

Age range: 5 and older

Themes/genre: Fiction narrative, IVF conception

From the very start of this process, my partner and I were always of the opinion that full disclosure to our child about their origins was really important to us. Not only is this recommended by research, but trust and truth are two of our family values. We both wanted our future child to not only be given their truth from day one, but to feel proud and strong in it. We were a little bit lost about how we would actually achieve this, but figured we wouldn’t need to think about it for a little while. Actually getting pregnant was the first obstacle.

IVF Baby Soccer

Nonetheless, this book was a timely gift for our future. It uses simple sentences and accurate illustrations to explain, step by step, how IVF can help people become parents. There is only one sentence per page with a focus on illustration, so it is most suited towards parents who are ready to have the first conversation with their child about their conception. It also doesn’t completely explore sex, which may suit a younger audience. Overall, it is an easy read that is not overwhelming.

The two parents featured in the book are heterosexual, but it is still a story I will read to my child because it focuses on how this process can give two loving people the chance to be parents. It is presented in a very positive light which I believe is important for a child in developing a confident self-concept. I would highly recommend this book as a starting point for the important conversation about the extra special way some babies are made.

 

 

Posted on Leave a comment

You can’t read that to your children!

As an educator, I have had many enjoyable conversations about children’s books with people who possess a wide range of tastes. I have found that when it comes to books in the home, opinions can be divided. It is quite a common school of thought that children’s literature should be light, fluffy, and full of happy endings. Parents especially feel that the time they spend with their children should be fun, not spent in unpacking difficult topics, particularly right before bedtime. I personally love the light and fluffy and get a real kick out of funny books with rhyming words, but I think there’s more to childhood reading than just the entertaining titles.

While heart-warming stories should have pride of place in every child’s reading routine, it is also important to remember that conversations about difficult topics can develop skills for dealing with tough situations. It can also help a child to live and navigate their truth, knowing that they are not alone in what they are going through. For a child who may not experience a lot of difficulty in the early part of their lives, stories about the tough stuff can sharpen a their empathy and sense of perspective, which helps in forming relationships with others. In my view, there is no better way to help  a child become well-rounded than to expose them to life through a different lens – but these conversations are often difficult to start and even more difficult to explain in kid-language.

For any trial a child may come across, there is likely to be a book that covers it. I have seen exceptionally well-written books about divorce, death, having a parent in jail, experiencing childhood illness, homelessness, being a refugee, knowing someone with a mental illness, and just about everything in between. Some books even look back through history at some of humanity’s darker times, with stories about wars, September 11, and even the Holocaust. The topics may be deemed dark, but these narratives represent the lived experiences of real people and for some children, it may be a part of their life. If we hide their truth away by discouraging engagement or conversation about it, we prevent that child from coming to terms with what they are going through and making peace with it. Put simply, we shouldn’t be uncomfortable about the things that make up our lives. Modelling a closed mindset to children about the bumps in the road can send the message that some things are too difficult to overcome, let alone talk about.

I will never forget one of the first books I read independently about a tough topic. It was called Pink Balloons by Beverly McGregor and it told the story of a girl my own age (9, at that time) who had succumbed to the AIDS virus through a blood transfusion. The story was weaved with tragedy and ultimately had a sad ending, but I felt a connection to the life of this little girl who had hopes and dreams so similar to my own. All she had wanted was to ride a motorbike, spend time with her siblings, and to live to see enough birthdays so that she could collect 100 pink balloon cake ornaments. Fortunately, I grew up with parents who never censored my reading material, and I feel that these experiences helped me to see life from a different vantage point. It isn’t always easy to relate to that which we have not been through ourselves. Books can bridge that gap.

There should always be time for humour, whimsy, fairy tales, and rhymes, but there should also be opportunity for children to explore the more complex narratives of life with guidance. Some stories may provoke feelings of sadness in children, but the emotional highs and lows are a natural part of the human experience. The more we talk about tricky things, the more we can be empowered in overcoming them. Books send a powerful message to children that they are not alone; that other people (even little people) have slayed the particular monster that looms in the shadows of their lives, waiting to bother them. What an empowering notion.

Just to get you started, here are some excellent children’s book titles that can help in exploring both the ups and downs of life.

Quotefancy-208432-3840x2160

Image sourced from www.quotefancy.com – check it out for lots of cool literary quotes with pictures.

 

 

 

Posted on 2 Comments

Review: The Amazing True Story of How Babies are Made by Fiona Katauskas

When I first started to consider having a family of my own, the obvious question was, ‘How will I answer the inventible question…. where did I come from?’ It is a question that any parent ponders at the appropriate time (usually closer to puberty), but in the lead up to that, it is standard to use an age-appropriate explanation… you know, when a man a woman love each other, he will share his seed with her egg… At least, that is how my parents kept my questions at bay before I was mature enough to understand this combination of relationship and biology. When a child is IVF and donor-conceived in a same-sex relationship, it adds a whole other layer of creative explanation. I understood this from the moment I knew I would have a family and I made it my business to find out how I could go about it.

One of the first ‘birds and bees’ books I came across whilst I pondered this conversation wasn’t found in a boutique book store or in some obscure place – I came across it at a regular Australian retailer in the suburbs. At the time I saw it, I thought it was quite progressive that this sort of book could be found in a forward-facing bookshelf alongside The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Possum Magic (great books, by the way). It covers a lot of the standard topics, as well as some of the not-so-standard topics, and is beautifully illustrated to book.

Click the picture to buy a copy from the publisher, Harper Collins

You should also check out Fiona’s website here. Her art and writing is definitely worth a look.

HowBabiesAreMade

Title: The Amazing True Story of How Babies are Made

Author/Illustrator: Fiona Katauskas

Age range: 8 and older

Themes/genre: Non-fiction without narrative, puberty, early sex education, anatomy

Review: 

This beautifully illustrated book is intended as a child’s first exploration into body changes and how babies are made – it is a great bridging piece that is appropriate for children who are approaching the age of the tween, where they may be craving to take their first steps into understanding their body, but not quite ready for a textbook style education. The first pages of the book presents the varied myths about where babies come from, but implores the young reader to consider that the true story of how babies are made is much more interesting… 

 

The first few pages of the book explore anatomical differences between boys and girls. The joy of this is that a parent could elect to share just these pages, and share the rest of the book as their child is ready to grasp the various concepts.

The next part of the book explores puberty and how each sex plays a role in making a baby. The book initially acknowledges the trick language that is often used to name these parts and processes which helps to familiarise the young reader, but it introduces correct scientific language to clarify the appropriate terminology. What really stands out about this book is that the illustrations are beautiful, clear, concise, and accurate.

Eggs-

The author throws in a few jokes that appeal to the young reader (as pictured above), but  these clever puns don’t take away from the accuracy of the book, nor do they cast the topics as ‘taboo’, which is a balanced approach to a topic that can be tough to get right. It is certainly a challenge to appeal to a young audience through their sense of humour, while still using scientifically accurate language, and without instilling shame about the human body.

Throughout the book, it presents the differences between boys’ and girls’ bodies, the process of puberty, fertilisation (including male-female sex), gestation, birth (including caesarean section), breastfeeding, and IVF (including sperm and egg donation). The illustrations detail these concepts, but are very age-appropriate.

What sets this book apart from other early sex education picture books is that it is written for the modern age. It acknowledges that children are made in different ways, and normalises this process alongside all of the usual routes to conception. There isn’t necessarily a mention of same-sex conception and relationships, but it is still a progressive step towards comprehensive and age-appropriate sex and puberty education that is well-written, accurate, and helpful for parents.

 

 

Posted on Leave a comment

Review: And Tango Makes Three – By Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell

As well as being an avid reader, I am also a lover of animals – all sorts of animals! Last Christmas, I was fortunate enough to travel in various African countries and I spent many a day on safari, taking in the sight of animals in their natural environment. I spent an afternoon in Capetown, viewing the penguins at a beach and was captivated by the way they congregate and spend time together.

When I found And Tango Makes Three, I simply had to order a copy for my home bookshelf. This book is the true story of Roy and Silo, two chinstrap penguins who live in the zoo at Central Park in New York City (a place currently untapped by my travels). These two penguins fell in love and were given an egg that belonged to a male and female penguin, who were having trouble hatching it. Roy and Silo then raised the baby penguin, called Tango. The practice of two same-sex penguins raising a baby is apparently not uncommon and it has occurred a number of times. The way this book presents the story is sweet, normalised and heart-warming. It introduces the idea of having two fathers within the context of a real-life animal story.

Click the picture to buy a copy from the publisher, Little Simon (Simon & Schuster)

Tango

Title: And Tango Makes Three

Authors: Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell

Illustrator: Henry Cole

Age Range: Suitable for 3 and older – comes in board book and eBook format

Themes/Genre: Short story, narrative non-fiction, board book, fathers, families, diversity, same-sex parents, zoos, wildlife

Review: 

I have always been fascinated by how animals in the natural world form family and kinship groups, especially in ways that challenge the idea that certain roles or family structures are ‘not natural.’ The diversity of the animal world is a lesson to humanity in many ways, that we can thrive under a range of circumstances and one type of family unit is not necessarily superior to the other.

The two main animal characters, Silo and Roy, start off with a friendship that is illustrated by natural behaviours (bowing, swimming together, and singing to each other).

Bowing

The two penguins then build a nest, but are dismayed when they realise they cannot hatch a rock inside it. Although they are two male penguins, they still have a strong and natural desire to do what the other penguins are doing. They are given an egg by the zookeeper that cannot be hatched through the usual means, and the rest of the story follows the process of keeping the egg warm, watching it hatch, feeding the baby penguin, and teaching it penguin behaviours.

The book describes how Roy and Silo, as two male penguins, do the same things as the other families in the zoo and in the city around them. Tango grows up in the same way as her other penguin peers and all is well. At no point in the book is their family structure made into a big deal by the penguins, the zoo visitors, or the zookeeper – which is really how it should be. The book as a whole successfully portrays a same-sex family with two fathers within a real-life narrative context, and it is a story that I connect with as someone who desires for all family structures, including my own, to be viewed as no different.

My favourite part in the story is the final page; ‘At night, the three penguins returned to their nest. There, they snuggled together and, like all the other penguins in the penguin house, and all the other animals in the zoo, and all the families in the big city around them, they went to sleep.’ 

Isn’t that the sweetest?

RJ Miles

Posted on Leave a comment

Welcome!

RJMiles

Hi there! I’m RJ Miles and I would like to welcome you to my blog.

I published a picture book in a dialogue narrative style that aims to explain IVF and IUI with donor sperm to children in families where there are two mums. This became my passionate project when I personally started the IVF journey in mid-2016 with my wife. The book is called One in Many Millions. 

I noticed that there were a number of appealing and well-written picture books to explain IVF to children in the clinic I visited and I bought all of them. I also found some titles in a big retailer here in Australia that broached puberty and regular conception. I bought these books, too. But I felt that something was missing from the bookshelf – a book that is especially for children with two mums that not only explains and celebrates their family, but how they came to be with each aspect explained in age-appropriate detail. I felt that these children deserve access to their truth as any child does and what better way to normalise a child’s truth than to portray it in a picture book?

This got me thinking and reflecting on the words of Harmony Korine, one of my favourite film makers; that if something you deeply desire doesn’t exist in the world, whether it be an image, a story, or a song, then you should feel compelled to create it. That is exactly what I did.

In the meantime, I am continuing to work in my classroom during the daylight hours and as such, I am preparing for the term ahead. I plan to regularly update this blog to share book news, relevant book reviews, and other topical anecdotes that I feel are of interest to relationships and sexuality education.

Life is busy, but it’s amazing. Thanks for stopping by. 

RJ Miles