Baby talk

19th September 1997 at 01:00
It's not every author who will tell you that she wrote a sex education book for five-year-olds because she was aware that "there weren't books for younger children that illustrated that willies come in all shapes and sizes". But then Rosemary Stones is no stranger to the world of children, their books and their preoccupations.

Her curriculum vitae over the past 25 years tells the story of political and intellectual commitment to the cause of children's books: she has been a member of Children's Rights Workshop, an editor at HarperCollins, associate publisher for children's books at Penguin, editor of Children's Books Bulletin, administrator of The Other Award (an alternative children's book award) and is now editor of Books for Keeps magazine. Oh yes, and she's the author of about 10 picture books and non-fiction books for children, including two on sex education for teenagers.

Her latest book, Where Babies Come From, is one of the few written on the subject for very young children and is destined to be a hit among the reception-class cognoscenti and their significant others. The combination of her text and Nick Shar-ratt's illustrations communicate a relaxed, straightforward approach to the whole business of girls' and boys' bits, making babies, having them and what happens in the immediate aftermath. At an age when new babies in the family appear with stunning regularity, infant school children need and want information that is factual but also contextualised within the warmth of family life, in its various permutations. Where Babies Come From does the job.

What the book most strongly gets across is the idea that we're all - humanity, that is - in this boat together, no matter what our perceived differences. Drawings, such as a grown-up man and woman standing in a green field with boys and girls of different races and at different stages of physical development, all naked as the day they were born, help to show the continuity and the diversity of the growing process.

Illustrations of the different ways that girls' and boys' genitals can look, together with text that explains what each bit is called, could not be more direct or, indeed, reassuring to young children, who often worry that their bodies aren't like everybody else's. Even the tricky and potentially giggle-inspiring issue of terminology is dealt with: "There are lots of different names for the genitals. Some people say 'willy' instead of penis or 'fanny' instead of vulva. It's a good idea to learn the correct names for sex parts as well as words like these."

As for the mysterious question posed in the book's title, Sharratt and Stones make sure that all those far-fetched myths and rumours about how you "do it" are finally, er, laid bare. Like Jane Cousins's furore-stirring Make It Happy, the book shows the act of sex as one that occurs within a loving relationship. But unlike Cousins's book, Where Babies Come From is resolutely uncontrov-ersial. It portrays the nuts and bolts of human sexuality at a level that five to eight-year-olds can cope with and are keen to know about. That it is set within a multi-ethnic and contemporary context, where some couples are mixed-race and fathers not only attend the birth but look after children, should make it more accessible for school as well as home use.

Rosemary Stones was moved to write the book partially in recognition of docum- ented evidence showing that, in her words, "early sex education results in children being better able to defend themselves from sexual predators, making more informed choices and being less likely to have sex at an early age". But it was also in recognition of the fact that both parents and teachers can be reticent about introducing the subject, if not feeling at a loss about how to present it. "Teachers have been very frightened about giving proper sex education,"

she says. "Ideally, it should all be part of general social skills, in which children learn about society and people."

But given that this approach is unlikely to take the education establishment by storm in the foreseeable future, Stones would be happy for teachers to use the book as part of a well-considered sex education programme. Is she worried about children falling about the place when they see the pictures and read words like "willy" and "fanny"? Not a bit of it. "I have great faith in teachers. They would set this book up as part of a project. They're not going to give themselves a bad time - they know their schools and the children they teach."

But mainly, the book is aimed at families and, in particular, at those times when a bump appears, triggering a succession of questions about things that are easier done than explained.

Where Babies Come From is published by Puffin, #163;4.99

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