What Makes a Baby doesn't do storks. It also doesn't mention mom or dad, or even the deed.
Instead, the new sex-education book for 4 to 8-year olds helps parents talk birds and bees with a brightly coloured egg and sperm who wear groovy striped pants and dance holding hands – approachable giggly characters well-suited for a young child's first book on the topic.
With that, What Makes a Baby marks a shift in the growing canon of children's books about modern reproduction: Diverging from popular, detail-rich picture books full of "private parts" and their functions, the book also splits away from even more progressive, ultra-niche guides for children – think The Pea That Was Me: An Egg Donation Story.
Whereas a decade ago, the question from parents was often "Do I tell?" today it is "How do I tell?" The new mode is talking about sexuality and reproduction early and often so that children feel they can ask their folks for the straight goods when the outside world inevitably sends them confusing mixed messages.
It seems counter-intuitive, then, that What Makes a Baby is completely and intentionally vague, as Cory Silverberg, a Toronto sexuality educator, divulges just the raw ingredients now required for conception: sperm, an egg and a uterus.
But in leaving out mom and dad and any mention of genitalia, Silverberg has tacitly left the door open for gay couples, parents who use fertility treatments, donor insemination, surrogates and adoption, as well as grandparents and other family members raising children. One spread shows a park with a panoply of families: lesbian parents, single moms and dads, a grandmother with two kids, as well as a heterosexual couple. "Who helped bring together the sperm and the egg that made you?" reads the caption.
"I knew I was telling a new kind of story: I wasn't going to put a heterosexual couple having intercourse in the middle of it. Then I realized, oh, this is a book about where babies come from that doesn't actually talk about sex," said Silverberg, who paradoxically co-founded the Toronto sex shop Come As You Are. "It's challenging for some people because they expect the story of where babies come from to be a story about two people who love each other and lie in bed together, making a baby. That's the most common way we do it, but our world is changing. We should have books that reflect that."
Still, Silverberg's quest to exclude no one means he omits much in the book – including any mention of sex. The point, he says, is to get children asking questions but letting parents answering them with however much detail they see fit.
To that end, Silverberg – whose mom was a children's librarian, his dad a sex therapist – is offering a free online reader's guide where he provides "talking points" for parents and their precocious children. The page-by-page breakdown includes resources and sample approaches for parents on everything from bodies and gender, to different methods of reproduction, to home birth and Cesarean sections – should conversation veer that way. (It means the parents' guide is 60 pages long, the child's picture book 36.)
Illustrated by Canadian artist Fiona Smyth, What Makes a Baby will be the first in a series of three; the next two books are intended for older kids and get way more specific. Silverberg began writing the first book at the behest of some close friends, a woman and transgender man who conceived their first son using donor sperm. Now expecting a second child, they were suddenly fielding complicated questions from their four-year-old. Most children start inquiring when they've got a sibling on the way – many of the books in this genre are couched as "sibling preparation."
"Young kids will start noticing pregnant bellies," says the author. "A classic opening for parents is for a kid to say, 'Is that lady fat?' That becomes a conversation about not saying people are fat but also explaining that that lady is pregnant."
In the end, Silverberg knows his target audience are kids who want "big, pretty pictures," not reams of progressively minded text. "You can't really do the laundry list with little kids," he says. "You're not going to tell your four-year-old the details of your IVF treatment."
Ultimately, he believes parents would do best with more than one birds-and-bees book kicking around their homes – more than one type by more than one author.
"If you have kids, you probably have four books about colours and 12 books about trucks and three books about sharing, giving or morality. But often parents have just the one book about sex ed. It's a big part of our lives."
More books on baby-making
What Makes a Baby is part of a long tradition of books that teach children the ins and outs of baby-making.
Where Did We Come From, Mother Dear? (1939)
"They [your father and mother] lay in each others arms, loving one another very much, face to face so that they could see and kiss one another, and while in that position your father's penis entered your mother's vagina, and his semen was left there. Immediately the little sperm in his semen began to move about trying to find the little egg that was waiting for one of the sperms to come and love it. And finally one of the little sperms reached the little egg and entered right into it, and at that very moment you began to live and grow."
The Wonderful Story of How You Were Born (1952)
"When the time came for you to leave your mother's body, an amazing thing began to happen. The walls of her womb had been stretching and stretching as you were growing. And then – when you were ready to be born – they stopped stretching. Instead, they began to push the baby that was you down into the vagina. The vagina, too, stretched. From the vagina you got outside your mother's body – and so into the world."
Susie's Babies: A Clear and Simple Explanation of the Everyday Miracle of Birth (1960)
"Any two people, a man and a woman, can become parents of a baby just by mating, without getting married – and sometimes they do. But it is very, very sad."
Everybody Has a Bellybutton (1997)
"Everybody begins life as a single cell that is smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. This cell was created when a female egg joined with a male sperm."
Baby on the Way (2001)
"When the baby has finished growing inside your mommy, then the baby is ready to come out. Your mommy's uterus tells her it's time by starting to squeeze. Her belly will feel as hard and tight and round as a big ball, and she will need to take some deep breaths. When that happens, you can help her by being as quiet as a mouse."
It's Not the Stork! A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families, and Friends (2006)
"When grownups want to make a baby, most often a woman and a man have a special kind of loving called "making love" – or "sex." This kind of loving happens when the woman and the man get so close to each other that the man's penis goes inside the woman's vagina."
Babies Don't Eat Pizza (2009)
"So how are babies born? They're pushed out – through an opening between moms' legs, or lifted out – through a cut made in moms' tummies by their doctors. (Those moms have surgeries and get a special medicine so it won't hurt.)
What Makes a Baby (2013)
"When grownups want to make a baby they need to get an egg from one body and sperm from another body. They also need a place where the baby can grow."