My general strategy for finding new nonfiction books for my son is letting him loose in the library. Sure, we'll encounter outdated information (sorry, Pluto), but because we generally read multiple books about any new topic, I trust that we'll eventually get a solid understanding of space, or volcanoes, or pasta production methods.
But when he recently lamented my lack of a penis, I wanted a different strategy.
I wanted to get this introduction right: no books that imposed a religious element on reproduction, no silly anatomical nicknames, and above all, no gender norming masquerading as sexual education. That meant our usual browse-and-grab library strategy wasn't going to work.
I started with an Amazon search for "children's books sexuality," but I generated more misses than hits. The first book, The Talk, approached the subject from a biblical perspective, as did a later entry put out by Focus on the Family. Not for us. The second book, What's the Big Secret?, suggested even in its title that sex and anatomy were taboo discussions. Also not for us. A surprising number of books focus on "bad touching," and while I'm not opposed to that line of discussion it seems a strange place to start a conversation about reproduction and sexuality.
Limit the search results
Amazon is so good at returning what I ask for that I rarely need to use the limiters on the left side of the search results, but in this case, narrowing the choices to those designed for 3-5 year olds eliminated most of the polemical sex talk books. This strategy did leave in Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad are Friends, which is a delightful book but to my knowledge not an education in human (or amphibian) anatomy.
Scrolling through the first dozen hits revealed that I already had the collection I needed to introduce basic human sexuality to my son: a Little Golden Book paraphrase of Monsters, Inc. and Mo Willems' My New Friend is So Fun rounded out the top ten. I'd rooted out the polemical sex talks, yes, but I'd also scrubbed out most of the sex, too, in favor of pairs of best friends.
When my search results are so far from what I'm looking for, I review my search terms. I checked the list of left side limiters again and realized I was probably looking for "children's anatomy books."
Start with negative reviews
Once I'd replaced all the best friend books with actual non-fiction titles about the human body, I opened tabs for books with over 100 reviews. There's nothing magical about 100 reviews, but books with fewer reviews are harder to judge, because the sample size of the reviews is too small, and it's hard to base a purchase decision on the advice of a handful of opinionated readers. [Obviously, books that come out this week aren't as likely to have as many reviews, so if I'm looking at a recent release I'll look at books with a smaller number of reviews.]
It's often helpful to know why people liked a book, but the real gold is in the one and two-star reviews.
Take the negative reviews of Robie H. Harris' Who Has What? All About Girls' Bodies and Boys' Bodies. Most of the low-star reviewers criticized Harris for providing too much information about human anatomy. One reviewer wrote "Why do people feel the need to discuss these things at such a young age... I find this disgusting..."
Another reviewer didn't mind the anatomy lesson, but thought it was insufficiently descriptive for boys, adding "Boys and girls are not the same, and should not be treated as such. Sorry." One review, titled "BREAST FAIL," thought Harris didn't go far enough:
"I was on board with this book until it got to women's bodies. No breasts?!?! Can we please show breasts? Also the mom breastfeeding the baby is great but why is she using a cover in a book about bodies? This is infuriating. A book about bodies and yet it still perpetuates this idea that breasts and breastfeeding have to stay hidden. Even my 4 year old son asked why the baby had a blanket on its head at the beach. UNREAL."
My skim of the negative reviews gave me a lot of information: Harris' book mostly provides the correct names for anatomy, encourages children to see themselves as more alike than different, but might require supplemental materials to explain breastfeeding. In short, it would work reasonably well for my family.
Finish with qualified good reviews
When I'm searching for books on a hot-button topic, the negative reviews can generally tell me all I need to know. But sometimes, the one-star reviews will contain a surprising mix of perspectives. That's the case for Gail Saltz' Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts. Some of the one-star reviews include the same kind of complaints made about Harris' book: there are too many pictures of penises and vaginas for some parents, who appear to want to discuss reproduction without actually naming it. But there's another group of one-star reviewers concerned for what's not in many of the pictures: foreskin.
When the negative reviews reveal split perspectives, I turn to the positive reviews.
In general, I'm distrusting of unqualified positive reviews. I can't imagine only reading one book about a topic, so if a reviewer says this is the one or only book I need, I'm skeptical. But when reviewers detail the reasons they think a book is good despite its flaws, I'm interested. Saltz' five-star reviewers almost always included qualifications. They were concerned about absent breasts and breastfeeding. As one reviewer put it, the book is a "stepping stone," not the final word.
In this instance, the qualified reviews also reminded me that I'm probably too concerned about getting these early anatomy lessons right. Although we're broaching the general subject of human reproduction here, we're not having "the talk." There will be lots of talks, at lots of ages, because there are lots of questions.
And if Dan Savage can get it wrong, I'm probably going to, too. But I can always buy another book and have another talk.
And maybe Sharpie in the missing details.