'Who Has What?' by Robie H. Harris: A book on sexuality for children

Monday, 19 December 2011 11:37
whohaswhat121911_optBY SUSIE WILSON

Most grandmas are not like me: They get their holiday shopping done by Thanksgiving and then sit back and watch everybody else go into panic mode in December. Grandpas may not even bother to get into the fray. But if you’re still searching for the perfect gift for a young grandchild (or son or daughter) between the ages of two-and-a-half to five, I have found a delightful new book that your grandchildren or children will treasure and ask you to read over and over again: "Who Has What? All About Girls’ Bodies and Boys’ Bodies," by Robie H. Harris.

Fair warning, this book contains content about sexuality, but it is very age-appropriate.

Harris, a former classroom teacher, is the best-selling author of books about family life and sexual health for kids ages two-and-a-half to at least 14. Gently and with intelligence, charm, and humor, she introduces children to the wonders, surprises, humor, and beauty of human sexuality.

I came upon her latest book last week at the National Sex Ed Conference sponsored by the Center for Family Life Education (CFLE) of Planned Parenthood of Greater Northern New Jersey. The conference drew over 300 educators from schools and community agencies, 80 percent from out-of-state, said Bill Taverner, executive director of the CFLE. Harris gave the keynote speech at the conference, and Who Has What? sold out within minutes of her speech.

Her book highlights the importance of talking to young children about the sexual parts of their bodies, and it fills a gap in the literature of sexual health books for children. It begins sex education where it ought to begin: when little children are starting to observe their own and others’ bodies and eager to know the proper names for all of the body parts.

Wisely, Harris and her illustrator, Nadine Bernard Westcott, place the lesson in the familiar setting of a family trip to the beach with the family dog. This family is multi-racial—the little boy, Gus, resembles his Caucasian father, and the little girl, Nellie, looks like her African-American Mom. I put the children at 4 years old.

The beach is a rich panoply of different families, pets, swings, games, toys, and picnic lunches with the ocean nearby for swimming. In the midst of all this beach-scene activity, Harris gets to the basics of what she wants parents to discuss with young children and what questions children may have about their reproductive and sexual body parts, which even today some parents and grandparents may be reluctant to discuss.

One of the most important aspects of the story is that the children themselves are at the center of the conversation. Rather than their parents, they name their body parts, showing the child reader, or listener, how to comfortably use the words themselves.

Harris starts with the children pointing to their “bellybutton,” and then proceeds to have them use the words and point to the proper location for the “vagina,” “penis,” “scrotum,” “ovary,” “uterus,” “testicle” and “breast” on diagrams of girls’ and boys’ bodies. Just to make it even more natural and easy for little children, the book shows pictures of puppies with their male or female body parts. For instance, a drawing shows a male puppy with his penis. It’s “the opening where the pee comes out,” one of the children says.

What makes Who Has What? especially helpful is that a girl and boy can learn in a straightforward way what body parts they have that are similar and what body parts they have that are different.

The book is so natural and helpful, I predict that if Grandma (or Mom or Dad) reads it after all the presents are unwrapped—and a grandchild or child wants a warm cuddle and a chance to read a new book—the child will be so delighted he or she will ask, “Please read it again!”

In fact, I asked a friend to read the book to her young children ages three and six and she wrote:

“The moment they saw the book, they wanted me to read it to them right away. We must have read it together three times the first day we had it. Last night, my 6-year-old ran downstairs to retrieve it to read as his bedtime story.

They focus a lot on the funny aspects of the drawings. They especially love when the seagull steals someone’s sandwich at the beach. The book has terrific illustrations that give children lost of things, animals, and people to look at and observe, including a refreshingly frank look at the body parts that make them who they are as girls and boys. My kids comment on the pages that show boys’ and girls’ body parts—my three-year-old even pointing out the dog’s penis! This isn’t the first book we’ve read as a family about our bodies. My 6-year-old has read Harris’ wonderful book "It’s NOT the Stork!"

The value in both these books is their ability to normalize discussion of genitalia through an enjoyable, frank storyline, wonderful illustrations, and a clear tone that helps children understand that knowing ALL the parts of their bodies helps keep them healthy, safe, and strong.

As a mother, I value "Who Has What?" because it’s the first step in a long sexuality education that I plan for my kids, where sex is a normal, natural part of life. The most important thing for me is that my kids stay healthy, and that when they one day choose to have sex, they will keep themselves protected from unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease.”

So, now I’ve taken care of a last-minute gift idea for children up to age 14. But what about the teenagers in your family? Tuck some condoms in the very tip of their Christmas stockings (or wrap them into a little Hanukkah gift). I guarantee the “gift” could generate some worthwhile conversation in the days following the holidays—and great protection from STDs and unplanned pregnancies throughout the New Year!

Susie Wilson, former executive coordinator of the Network for Family Life Education at Rutgers University's Center for Applied and Professional Psychology (now renamed Answer), is a national leader in the fight for effective sexuality and HIV/AIDS education and for prevention of adolescent pregnancy. She can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


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Comments (1)
1 Monday, 19 December 2011 15:46
Peggy Brick
Isn't Susie Wilson amazing: surely she's a radical for suggesting children learn the names of their body parts! The fabulous
curriculum she encouraged the Rutgers Press to develop years
ago was an economic disaster: it told children the names of
their body parts! School districts failed to buy it. We hope
Robie Harris's book has more success! Thanks, again, Susie!
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