Books About the Birds and the Bees for the Befuddled Parent

Originally published on Bookslut (July 2007)


“When a man and a woman love each other very, very much, and want to have a baby, they give each other a special hug. ”

But what about Maya? She doesn’t have a daddy. She told me her mother had to go to a bank to make her.

“The fallopian tube releases an ovum which, under optimal circumstances, may be fertilized by a single sperm. ”

But how? How does the sperm find the oval? Is it like a heat- seeking missile? Does the lady eat it? And if she eats it, can she chew it? If she chews it, does it hurt the baby?

“Ask you mother.” 
I just did.
“Ask your father.” 
He’s taking a nap.
“Okay. The stork carries babies and drops them off.”
That sounds dangerous.
“In a cabbage patch.”
That sounds smelly. Babies smell nice.
“Nobody knows.”
Never mind.

The most open-minded, liberated parent meets his inner prude when confronted with questions from little ones about the nuts and bolts of s-e-x. Are we telling them too much? Too little? Sometimes, we might wonder if we even have the right information. They’ll know as much as we do by the time they’re in fifth grade, so we might as well get started.

A lively array of books about the birds and the bees offers parents an opportunity to breach the subject without blushing. But be forewarned: the quality of writing, the “message,” and points of view among these selections are as varied as peacock feathers. Some suffer from being preachy and overly earnest (sex is too important a topic to take that seriously). That’s why books that handle the questions with humor work best.

My pick for five-to-eight-year-olds is First Comes Love by Jennifer Davis, illustrated by the inimitable Clare Mackie. In her introduction, Davis makes a point that every farmer knows: kids can learn about sex by watching animals mate -- from dragonflies to turtles to bats. First Comes Love demonstrates the importance of courtship and mutual attraction in the animal kingdom. Fireflies blink a, “special code... whenever he searches for a girl to hold,” and the love song of a possum makes an irresistible, “clickety clack.”

Below the verse on each page, Davis provides a brief scientific explanation about the creature’s mating ritual.

She then moves onto the human aspects of love. “They snuggle and nuzzle and smooch and woo. Beware! Someday it may happen to you.” Mackie’s delightful drawing of a ruffle of two kinds of human hair and a tangle of feet under a wide white blanket provides just the right amount of information young readers need for the accompanying text: “It’s babies some couples dream of creating. To make this happen they begin mating.”

The remainder of the book touches upon the responsibility and love that parenting requires. The reward for a mature pair ready to take upon the care and feeding of a baby is the special love that comes from belonging to a family.

There’s a lot an adult can learn from First Comes Love. Did you know that a female crab has to wiggle out of her shell to mate with her “Jimmy”? (That actually makes unzipping a pair of jeans seem easy.)

Mackie’s illustrations of wide-eyed babies, bats and penguins; a lady octopus in red lipstick; and a mother spider in curlers blow drying her spiderlings away match the mood of romance and whimsy in First Comes Love.

I dare you not to laugh when you read Mommy Laid An Egg or Where Do Babies Come From? by Babette Cole. The parents in this book take several cracks at explaining the facts of life -- until the kids jump in and set them straight. Their explanation is unapologetically blunt, precise and filled with glee. “Here are some ways... mommies and daddies fit together,” the children say. Readers are treated to line drawings of couples with silly grins copulating on skateboards, space hoppers and tightropes.

In another vein, Joanna Cole’s How You Were Born, with photographs by Margaret Miller, is more of a toddler textbook. The writing is straightforward. For kids who want the facts and not a lot of hearts, flowers and romance, you can’t beat this one. Cole has a well-earned reputation as a writer for presenting issues like potty training and siblings with and a matter-of-fact, but gentle, voice. How You Were Born features photographs of a fetus at five and a half weeks, nine weeks and four months, along with pictures of newborns and mothers breastfeeding babies. There is only the slightest insinuation of sex -- a couple holding hands followed by illustrations of egg cells and sperm bumping into each other. For those of us comfortable with keeping sex slightly disembodied from its reproductive aspects for the time being, this book gets the information across without any extras.

A good sibling-to-be offering is My Mom’s Having a Baby! by Dori Hillestad, illustrated by Carol Thompson. Soon-to-be big sister Elizabeth narrates the book. Readers are given month by month reports on what’s going on inside mommy’s belly. Along the way, Elizabeth explains what she learns about how the sperm and egg got together. Parents can decide whether to gloss over the information if it seems too detailed. (And what parent can deny ever skipping a few pages here and there when bedtime stories are getting too long?)

In What’s The Big Secret? Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown of Arthur fame present technical information like the names of body parts along with the social and emotional aspects of growing up. I especially liked the discussion of privacy -- for parents and children. The book’s sections include “How Do Boys and Girls Differ?,” “More About Boys’ and Girls’ Bodies,” “A Little Lesson in Reproduction,” and “Having a Birth Day! (or Belly Button Day).”

The authors wisely address the fact that adults might find explaining embarrassing -- and that’s okay. It might even be a good idea to let children know that sometimes we the parents feel uncomfortable talking about sex, but we all do our best.

Similar in tone and appeal is It’s Not the Stork by Robie H. Harris, illustrated by Michael Embery. This book is best read in several sittings since it is packed with information. A bird and a bee provide sideline commentary. The bee, taking the part of a reluctant learner, sticks his head in a book and makes it clear when he’s heard enough -- “And now -- it’s time to stop talking about body parts!” he begs after getting way too much information from his pal.

Illustrations show what body parts look like from the outside and the inside via an x-ray-like device.

For parents with traditional values, The Story of Me by Stan and Brenna Jones, illustrated by Joel Spector -- one in the God’s Design for Sex series published by NavPress -- provides the familiar format of a child asking questions and the all-knowing mother or father explaining how everything works. The realistic pastel illustrations awash in halos of backlight and smudged borders create a dreamy atmosphere. But I can’t help compare this book to Mommy Laid an Egg. Isn’t there a way to keep things light while staying true to a conservative lifestyle?

For example, authors possess an infinite number of ways to impart the idea of keeping sex within the confines of a mature relationship. From It’s Not The Stork: “Children are much too young to do the special kind of loving -- called ‘sex’ -- that grownups do.” From First Comes Love: “Once people are adults and fully mature / And know without doubt that their love will endure.” From Mommy, Daddy, Where do Babies Come From? by Grace Ayad and Richard Panzer, Illustrated by Benny Andersson:

“You see, Jenny,” Dad said, “to be a husband or a wife takes a long time. Girls and boys shouldn’t try this love until their hearts are grown up and they’ve gotten married. Otherwise it would be like trying to ride a bike that’s too big for you. You might fall off and get hurt. Using the private parts too early hurts many people.”

What was that? Falling off a bicycle? Hurting my private parts? Too big? Too small? With so many other wonderful books to choose from, steer clear of that one.

And, once you've stammered your way through a book or two, skimmed over some pages, and lurched toward something about dinosaurs, you'll probably be relieved when your kid utters the next question: "What's for dessert?"

And, once you’ve stammered your way through a book or two, skimmed over some pages, and lurched toward something about dinosaurs, you’ll probably be relieved when your kids utters the next question: “What’s for dessert?”