“I bristle against the language of liberal and progressive because I am genuinely trying to write books for as many people as possible. Some people might think that the books are going to contradict their values, and what I can promise anyone is that in some places they will, and in some places they won’t. If your values are that homosexuality is wrong, the books will contradict that. But they also will never say that you should go and have more sex. They certainly will never say that being religious and having a healthy sexual and gender identity are incompatible. And never will they say, sex is great. I think that a life that doesn’t include sexual activity, whether that’s for religious reasons, moral reasons or reasons that have to do with your body, can be a completely full life.”
It took Silverberg and Smyth seven years to complete “You Know, Sex,” their book for kids entering puberty. The four main characters of “Sex Is a Funny Word” are now in middle school, and “Mr. C,” their sex-ed teacher, leads them in discussions about body changes, gender and sexual decision-making. Dozens of pages are devoted to boundaries and consent, illustrated with comics of variously gendered young people — at the movies, on picnic blankets, at parties — asking permission to do things like hold hands or kiss, talking to one another about what feels good or bad or meh. Examples of language for negotiating physical intimacy abound. “You wanna go check out upstairs?” “Can we just hang here for now?” “Let’s slow down.” “Is this still OK?” “Let’s take a break.”
Reading “You Know, Sex,” I remembered that when I first spoke to Silverberg, they mentioned some of the questions they were wrestling with as they incorporated much more factual information — about reproductive biology, anatomy, birth control, sexual assault — than they had in the earlier books. Questions like, How do you define a sexual feeling as opposed to other feelings? Should this new book have some kind of illustration of sex? I had thought of these as technical questions about which body parts and sexual activities to show, which definitions to use in the course of what I basically pictured as a big information drop. I hadn’t considered the possibility that mood and metaphor and surrealism could make a book about puberty feel like something other than a pedagogical text. I certainly hadn’t pictured a group of kids in bathing suits chatting about their menstruation experiences in a swimming pool filled with bright red blood. Nor had I imagined that a pair of anthropomorphic lemmings could demonstrate how social pressure leads us to initiate or agree to physical intimacy that we don’t really want.
As for the question of how to illustrate sex, Silverberg continued to opt for less graphic detail rather than more, settling on the idea of stick figures. The inspiration came from a groovy 1970s novelty item that Silverberg remembers seeing at souvenir shops as a kid: posters showing grids of silhouetted figures in different sex positions, each one corresponding to a zodiac sign. Based loosely on Silverberg’s recollections, Smyth has drawn a half-dozen cheerful, gender- and genital-free stick couples assuming some iconic poses. “Most people think having sex looks like this,” reads the accompanying text.
When I got to this panel I fell through one of those temporary trapdoors and, for a split second, was reading as my childhood self. I eagerly looked to the next panel for the myth-busting truth. Someone was finally, finally going to tell me what sex really looked like. But — of course — Silverberg is not one to stage a big reveal with claims to definitional authority. “Having sex can look like a lot of things,” reads the text in a second panel, where the same smiling stick people, solo or in pairs, do things like make eye contact, hold hands, give foot massages, sit in front of laptops and have fantasies involving the torso of a broad-shouldered, hairy-chested hunk.
This kind of open-ended phrasing, a signature of Silverberg’s, is something that they developed years ago through a conversation with an early reader of “Sex Is a Funny Word.” Silverberg always workshops books in progress with audiences of different ages and backgrounds to get their perspectives, and this reader — a transmasculine person who was raised in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family — said something that made a strong impression on Silverberg. “In the first draft of ‘Sex Is a Funny Word,’” Silverberg recalled, “I wrote in a lot of places that people either felt good or bad about things — a touch might make you feel good or make you feel bad, and I’m on. But this reader said, ‘Some things just make you feel nothing much at all, but that’s a feeling, too.’” Silverberg was electrified and seems electrified all over again remembering the moment. “It was this idea of neutrality! I had been doing the typical thing, which is laying out two options.” But even if there had been “15 options,” Silverberg says, the problem was “making a finite list of things that a reader might feel. Because if they don’t feel any of the things on the list, they think, well that’s not me, and I lose them.”