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Puberty: Some Questions Need Private Answers

Mon., May 29, 1995, midnight

Among the most reassuring words preteens and young teens can hear or read when struggling with the rollercoaster emotions of puberty are these: “It’s perfectly normal.” Two new books take exactly that tack when explaining the biological and psychological facts of emerging sexuality and maturity.

The comforting phrase happens to be the title of a terrifically informative new book that presents the facts of life for boys and girls ages 10 and up. “It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex and Sexual Health” by Robie H. Harris and illustrated by Michael Emberley (Candlewick Press, $19.95) offers the biological and psychological facts of emerging sexuality and maturity in a refreshingly frank manner.

This is clearly a book that is written for the ‘90s child and takes the approach that learning the facts in an honest, candid way is healthier than having them candy-coated or hidden.

The colored pencil and watercolor drawings of kids of all sizes and shapes, with anatomically correct body parts to match, may be real eye-openers to some readers, but are carefully presented in a nonthreatening way. As stand-ins for kids’ possible reactions to all the forthright information, two friendly cartoon characters - a curious bird ready to forge ahead into puberty and a somewhat squeamish, less-than-eager-to-grow-up-quite-so-fast bee comment on the facts presented on each two-page spread. It is a pretty safe bet that early bloomers struggling with new feelings they are not always ready for or late bloomers not yet experiencing the effects of the hormones that have come to the fore among some of their friends will all heave sighs of relief while reading this book.

Kids can approach “It’s Perfectly Normal” as a convenient place to look when something comes up - a statement, fact or feeling - that would benefit from clarification. An index of more than 200 terms gives browsers a way to reference particular subjects of interest.

“How Sex Works: A clear, comprehensive guide for teenagers to emotional, physical, and sexual maturity” by Elizabeth Fenwick and Richard Walker (Dorling Kindersley, $14.95) covers essentially the same material but in a more serious, illustrated textbook style.

This informative guide will probably appeal to a slightly older audience and perhaps maintain their interest through high school. As the title implies, the authors go beyond basic biology and attend in detail to such issues as relationships and emotions, what happens during sex, contraception, sexual harassment, rape and other sensitive topics.

It also covers emotional concerns like self-image, prejudices and relationships with parents. Interspersed among the science and psychology are two types of teens’ questions: those prompted by the need to get the facts straight, and answered with scientifically correct information, and those prompted by anxieties, and answered by thoughtful suggestions or advice.

There are more than 150 full-color photographs of (clothed) teens in everyday situations and straightforward pastel drawings of various parts of the male and female anatomy.

This is a concise, but comprehensive reference for either quick answers or in-depth reading, whenever teens need reassurance or feel the need to know why they feel as they do.

For parents who themselves would like to understand what is going on with their teenage children and would like to deal with it all in a better way, “Adolescence: The Survival Guide for Parents and Teenagers” by Elizabeth Fenwick and Dr. Tony Smith (Dorling Kindersley, $19.95) could be a valuable resource.

The authors write from the premise that though the changes in a teenager’s behavior as he or she goes through adolescence are complicated, they are largely predictable from observations of millions of teens who came before. Most families, however, have no concept of what is coming up, what behaviors fall within the realm of normal, and what is, in fact, unusual.

“Adolescence” goes a long way in telling you. (Separate sections, addressed to parents or teens, cover issues sympathetically from both points of view.)

The book contains a lot of sense and sensibility that can help parents help kids get through many of the transitory difficulties of teen years, and vice versa. The text covers the milestones of adolescence (which in many areas are different for boys than they are for girls) and the large themes of teens learning to live harmoniously with their families, getting along with their peers, and functioning successfully in the “outside” world. From arguments, rudeness and rebellion to risks and recklessness, it probes a broad array of concerns and conflicts, and often suggests possible avenues for successfully reaching a middle ground.

Interspersed throughout are reflective quotes from parents and teens, real-life case studies raising such issues as not fitting in, need for privacy, being fed up with school and depression, and dialogues presenting common dilemmas and offering tactics for negotiating solutions acceptable to parents and teens.

Readers can flip back and forth as interests - or crises - dictate. In addition to helping create a more peaceful household, “Adolescence” may also precipitate open-minded conversations between parents and children.

MEMO: Patti Feldman is a Chappaqua, N.Y.,based free-lance writer who reviews children’s books and software.

Patti Feldman is a Chappaqua, N.Y.,based free-lance writer who reviews children’s books and software.

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