By David Templeton
WHEN I WAS a kid in the late '50s, early '60s, most of the information we girls got about reproduction was from those little pamphlets that came along with pads, you know, like Modess," proclaims author, educator, and lawyer Mavis Jukes, demonstrating with a flash of a smile her customary knack for straightforward talk. "The pamphlets would always talk about 'The Egg,'" she continues, eyes widening in remembrance of the mysterious phraseology, "and that when The Egg was Fertilized, it would suddenly grow into an Embryo.
"Well, we'd keep turning back to that page, reading, "When the egg is fertilized, and thinking, 'What is the fertilizer?' And of course that was never answered at all. It was just some minor detail that was skipped over. But we all wondered about it."
Jukes, an award-winning novelist and the author of numerous children's books, is sitting on the front deck of the Cotati farmhouse she shares with her husband and two daughters. She is discussing a subject that she has spent the last several years thinking about, namely, the importance of providing preteen girls with information about the mystifying transformations of adolescence. It's a Girl Thing: How to Stay Healthy, Safe and in Charge (New York: Knopf, 1996; $12) is the author's first book of non-fiction, and it is devoted to the demystification of everything from menstruation and reproduction to birth control and sexually transmitted diseases.
There are sections on selecting the proper bra and ways to fight acne, along with info on drug and alcohol abuse, sexual harassment, and all the overwhelming details of personal hygiene. Whimsically illustrated by Debbie Tilley, packed with informative nuggets, and enlivened with anecdotes from Jukes' own girlhood, this thoroughly researched, affectionately written book has received high marks by critics, health-care professionals, and parents since its release earlier in the year. Ms. magazine has appropriately dubbed the book "A pre-teen Our Bodies/Ourselves."
"I give kids a lot of credit," Jukes continues. "If they really know about the health issues associated with alcohol and drug abuse, and also about the health issues associated with having sex with a partner when they are too young, then they can make some healthy choices. But without that information . . ." She waves her hand at the street and, presumably, the country at large.
"In this society, information is hidden," she remarks. "Our pregnancy rate is triple that of England. According to the most recent statistics, 43 percent of all American girls become pregnant between the ages of 13 and 19. That comes right out of the morbidity and mortality report. It's not something that's been trumped up.
"There are also studies that show that the more kids know about sex, the more likely they will be to postpone it. I think parents will be very reassured to know that. I think people are coming around and realizing that keeping kids in the dark about these things is a very bad idea."
When I comment that her writing voice achieves the comforting tone of a friendly and trustworthy aunt, she grins delightedly. "Well, thank you! I want to be a friendly, trustworthy aunt to my readers, and it took years to get the book that way. I have thought this book upside down, inside out, and backwards. This has been the most carefully thought-out thing I've ever been involved in and probably ever will be.
"This book was designed partly by the teacher in me and partly by the lawyer in me," she continues. Jukes works as a language arts specialist in the Sonoma County School District, and volunteers as an attorney in matters of juvenile defense. "What was important to me was that kids could get all the information they need to be safe, and that there was nothing misleading. There are single pages in this book that I worked on for 30 hours."
She is especially proud, she mentions, of the section on sexual preference, which reads as perhaps the most humane, open-minded, and uncomplicated explanation of that subject that I have come across.
"A lot of people just don't know how to approach some of these subjects with their kids," she says. "And the other thing is that a lot of kids don't feel like talking to their parents about it. I think that's fine. I don't think parents should view that as a failure. Honestly, when was the last time you wanted to talk to your mom or dad about sex?
"But parents should make themselves available," she insists. "Communication is extremely important, and if they are approached, parents should be honest and open." She thinks about it a moment, and nods.
"Between books, and school, and parents, and peers, I think we should be able to get everybody straight on this stuff."
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From the September 12-18, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent
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