This book aims to make sex-ed for kids and teens a little more colourful and a little less awkward

"You Know, Sex," the latest from author Cory Silverberg and illustrator Fiona Smyth, takes a welcoming approach that supports both young readers and their parents.

'You Know, Sex' takes a welcoming approach that supports both young readers and their parents

Crop of Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smyth's "You Know, Sex: Bodies, Gender, Puberty, and Other Things" pg. 151. (Seven Stories Press)

Most of us don't look back on sex-ed fondly; my own memories of it are wrapped up in awkward health class lessons and uneasy conversations at home. But sexual education doesn't have to be unpleasant. It can be funny without making you feel like the butt of the joke, and it can be informative without talking down to you. Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smyth's latest sex-ed book You Know, Sex: Gender, Puberty, and Other Things sets a welcoming tone immediately, quoting disability justice organizer and artist Patty Berne in a letter to the reader: "There is no right or wrong way to have a body."

Sex-ed, especially right now, is rife with conflict between disagreeing parents and policymakers — but it's kids and teens who bear the consequences of inadequate sexual education. Detractors of a comprehensive sex-ed curriculum say that it confuses kids and encourages sexual risk-taking behaviour. In reality, sex-ed empowers young people and reduces risk-taking by increasing knowledge about safer sex and sexual health.

This is where You Know, Sex comes in. It's the third instalment in a trilogy of sex-ed books for kids and teens written by Silverberg and illustrated by Smyth, following the acclaimed titles What Makes a Baby? and Sex is a Funny Word. You Know, Sex immerses the reader in the lives of four young characters named Mimi, Omar, Cooper, and Zai, who represent different ethnicities, genders, sexualities, and abilities. Gender, consent, reproduction, relationships, and safety are among the wide range of topics covered in a way that's accessible to young audiences.

Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smyth's "You Know, Sex: Bodies, Gender, Puberty, and Other Things." (Seven Stories Press)

Silverberg, who grew up in Toronto, wanted You Know, Sex to be inclusive of many different experiences. "My life is full of people exactly like Mimi, Omar, Cooper, and Zai, and they're a part of my community," they say. "We wanted [the book] to feel like real life. We wanted people to recognize themselves in all aspects of the book." 

Fiona Smyth's vivid illustrations of the well-rounded cast of characters lend an exciting and imaginative feeling to topics that are usually handled clumsily. Our recollection of sex-ed may conjure up memories of graphic images whose purpose was to shock us, but Smyth's bold use of colour and whimsical, yet detailed, drawings of people and bodies makes the book approachable. 

Adolescence is a crucial age, something that everyone implicitly knows because we all harbour a bit of tenderness over our teenage selves. It's when the topic of sex suddenly becomes omnipresent: we start noticing changes in our and others' bodies that we don't understand, and we begin to feel unfamiliar emotions and desires that might scare, excite, or overwhelm us. Recess-time gossip would have us nodding like we understood what everyone was talking about, even if we had no idea. While the topic was inescapable, having real conversations about sex still felt out-of-bounds, even shameful — everything is embarrassing when you're young.

Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smyth's "You Know, Sex: Bodies, Gender, Puberty, and Other Things" pg. 44. (Seven Stories Press)

You Know, Sex confronts those feelings of awkwardness and shame head-on and deals with them through care, playfulness, and approachable language. Take, for example, the section under the chapter "Bodies" that explains genitalia. Silverberg uses "middle parts" to subvert the euphemistic term "private parts" that is often used to describe genitalia, and lightly explains that "every part of our body could be private, not just the parts that other people think are for sex." In the same section, the four main characters sing a funny song about middle parts, and Smyth's brilliant illustrations accompany functional explanations of penises and vaginas.

Best of all, You Know, Sex asks as many questions as it answers. Arguments against sex-ed claim that sexual education "indoctrinates" children by telling them what to believe; this is particularly untrue about this book. Instead of telling its readers how they should feel about something, it offers explanations on a given topic, then leaves it up to the reader to decide how to react. For instance, following a short overview about peer pressure (which the book is sure to mention can also come from adults in kids' lives), it asks several questions for the reader to contemplate further, like, "Can you think of a time when your yes or no was respected and listened to?" 

"Kids have the capacity to think critically at every age," says Silverberg. "Our books are about supporting kids to learn on their own terms." 

Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smyth's "You Know, Sex: Bodies, Gender, Puberty, and Other Things" pg. 44. (Seven Stories Press)

It can be deeply affirming, even as an adult, to read a book like You Know, Sex that talks about tender topics with you in mind — something Silverberg's readers have confirmed. The GoodReads page for Sex is a Funny Word, which precedes You Know, Sex, is full of stories from readers who wished they had access to the book when they were younger. One reader wrote, "My heart broke a little realizing how different things could have been had I had this in my arsenal as a pre-teen."

Modernized sexual education is crucial for the wellbeing and safety of children and people everywhere, something that research has proven time and time again. Children and young people who receive sex-ed go on to use contraception at higher rates and have fewer unplanned pregnancies. There is also a direct link between sexual education and people feeling an increase in their own autonomy and confidence. "Information is prevention. Information is a way to protect kids," Silverberg explained in an interview about You Know, Sex on The Social

During a time that reproductive justice is severely threatened, and queer and trans people are still being directly targeted with violent rhetoric and policy, comprehensive sexual education is more important than ever. Inclusive, non-judgmental sex-ed allows us to imagine better futures, and Silverberg agrees. Reflecting on their books, they say, "I'm writing for the world that I want."


Shailee Koranne is a Toronto-based writer who wants to change the way people feel about Geminis. She writes about media, pop culture, and politics, and her work has appeared in VICE, Bitch Magazine, Canadaland, and elsewhere. Find her on Instagram @shailee.jpg and Twitter @shaileekoranne.

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