Children’s author, educator, and free speech champion Robie Harris, best known for her stories about young children’s powerful emotions and her frequently challenged and banned books on human sexuality, including It’s Perfectly Normal, died in New York City on January 6. She was 83.

Robie H. Harris was born April 3, 1940 in Buffalo, N.Y., to Norman and Evelyn Heilbrun. She caught the writing bug early on, and in an anecdote she shared on her website, Harris said that she often told people she published her first book when she was in kindergarten. It was there that her teacher encouraged students to draw a picture each morning and tell the teacher a story about it. Each students’ works were then compiled in a book. “I named the book—my first book—Robie’s Stories. It was ‘published’ in June 1946,” Harris wrote.

Harris kept her writing habit throughout her school years, serving as editor of her high school newspaper as well as editor of her college yearbook at Wheaton College. She graduated in 1962 with a B.A. in English and soon after moved to New York City where she initially found a job writing reports for the United Nations. She knew she wanted to pursue a teaching degree and a friend told her about Bank Street College of Education. In 1966, Harris earned her M.A.T. degree from Bank Street and became an elementary teacher at the Bank Street School for Children, where she taught writing and later directed after-school programs in the school’s new Head Start program.

While working with the kids after school, Harris developed an idea to have them learn more about their Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood by filming themselves exploring it. She funded the project with grant money, which enabled her to get a Super 8 camera for each kid and work with filmmaker Philip Courter. The result was a film called Child’s Eye View, which was selected for the Lincoln Center Film Festival in 1968. When William W. Harris, then working on film and communications at Fordham University, interviewed Robie about the project, they hit it off, and the couple wed later that year. The Harrises were married for 56 years and raised two sons.

As a member of the Bank Street Writers’ Laboratory, Harris collaborated on projects with other writers, including experienced children’s book authors Irma Black and Bill Hooks. Together the trio landed a gig writing an original song and a five-minute opening segment for The Captain Kangaroo Show each week.

Harris’s first book was also a collaborative effort: she co-authored the nonfiction book Before You Were Three: How You Began to Walk, Talk, Explore, and Have Feelings (Delacorte, 1977) with children’s author Elizabeth Levy, a close friend and her first cousin. In an interview with Leonard S. Marcus for the book You Can’t Say That!, (Candlewick, 2021) Harris explained that the book was inspired by the birth of her first child. She noted her own amazement at her son, and how her young nieces and nephews asked her endless question about the baby.

Harris stepped into the publishing ring solo with picture books Don’t Forget to Come Back (Knopf, 1978) and I Hate Kisses (Knopf, 1981). Several years later she embarked on an extensive new project while she was living in Boston—the work that would become her groundbreaking title It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, and Sexual Health (Candlewick, 1994). She did a copious amount of research consulting with doctors, nurses, psychologists, and scientists, and enlisted artist Michael Emberley—whom she knew a bit—to illustrate. Harris wanted to have a complete manuscript before submitting it to publishers, she told PW in a 2014 article celebrating the book’s 20th anniversary, because “it’s complicated and complex, and it’s loaded material for many people.” After Harris sent the project out to several houses, editor Amy Ehrlich at newly established Candlewick Press made an offer just two two weeks after receiving it.

It’s Perfectly Normal was later joined by It’s So Amazing!: A Book About Eggs, Sperm, Brith, Babies, and Families (Candlewick, 1999) and It’s NOT the Stork!: A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families, and Friends (Candlewick, 2006) to form what the publisher calls the Family Library. In addition to selling millions of copies, these titles have ranked among the most frequently challenged and banned books in the country according to the American Library Association. In an essay on this topic for PEN America, Harris wrote: “I write books for children because in some small way I hope that they will find the words I write useful, reassuring, interesting, and at times humorous and also in some small way help them to stay emotionally and/or physically healthy by giving honest, accurate, up-to-date, and age-appropriate information.” Similarly, she told Marcus, “This to me is the bottom line on freedom of expression. As a reader, you have the right to speak out for or against whatever you read. As a writer, I have the right to write whatever I want to write—and I am just not going to stop.”

She did not stop and worked diligently on periodic updates to the Family Library. The latest fully updated edition of It’s So Amazing was released earlier this month.

Levy remembered Harris with these words: “Robie and I were first cousins, born in Buffalo two years apart. When I moved to New York City in 1964, Robie and I were roommates, so I can almost literally say that for nearly 80 years, I always knew where she was, and most days, I talked to her. She was my north star. We were each other’s first readers and most trusted voices about our books. Robie had a plumb line into kids’ feelings, and a fearlessness about their strong emotions. Her honesty, humor, and fierceness persisted until the day she died.”

Hilary Van Dusen, senior executive editor at Candlewick, and Harris’s longtime editor, paid tribute: “I had the privilege of being Robie’s editor for the past 17 years, and of all the experiences we shared, I treasure and will miss most our extensive, expansive, and often unpredictable phone conversations. Ostensibly about a book, a call with Robie would range from family news to the news of reproductive rights across the country, from explicit sexual functions—we often joked that we hoped no one was looking at our search histories—to the mundane—but important!—content of an index, from body parts to the escapades of Bird and Bee. By the end of a conversation, I would be somewhat exhausted—she was hard to keep up with—but mostly in awe of a woman with such enormous dedication to giving kids the information they need to be safe and healthy. While I am at peace in knowing that the legacy of her books will live on for a long time to come, I will dearly miss our conversations.”

Fellow children’s book creator Susan Kulkin said: “During our 50-year friendship, Robie and I reviewed each other’s manuscripts and book designs, sat on panels, and went on school visits together. I quickly learned that Robie’s belief that children deserve truth was steadfast and absolute. When my book Beyond Magenta was attacked, Robie was the go-to person to guide me through the emotional and political minefield of challenged and banned books. Thank you, Robie, for your many trail markers. You are perfectly amazing.”

Perri Klass, professor of journalism and pediatrics at NYU and national medical director for Reach Out and Read, offered these words: “Robie treated her readers with the greatest respect, but she was also a born storyteller who knew the value of humor, and even silliness, especially around serious subjects. This is the woman who quite literally ‘wrote the book’ when it comes to discussions of bodies and sexual health; she honored everyone’s need for developmentally appropriate and accurate information.”

And Emberley, her frequent collaborator, shared this remembrance: “Working with Robie was like being in the relentless embrace of perfection. To hell with time or money or previous engagements. We used to joke, working for endless hours at her kitchen table in Cambridge, that we’d probably end up making 50 cents an hour on the book [It’s Perfectly Normal]. But I was in all the way, and so was she. After years of close collaboration, we finished each other’s sentences, our DNA actually became entwined. We laughed, we argued, we plotted, we struggled to get things right.

She was smart and sensitive, kind, and generous beyond reckoning. She was a complicated human being in the best sense, and she had one of the best attributes you can say about a human being—she was memorable.”