Fiona Katauskas wanted to explain the facts of life to her oldest son, and neither of the two books she could find were doing the job. So she took on the task herself. But describing said facts — “about as uncynical a topic as you can get”, she says — required an about-face from her usual gig: political cartooning. Here’s Katauskas in an email interview with The Walkley Foundation’s Kate Golden.
Mandatory process question! Describe yours, please.
First I had to make sure I was completely across all the facts in the ole Facts of Life, so I spent a few weeks immersed in sex education and biology books, as well as reading up on IVF and assisted conception like egg and sperm donation. After that, it was a matter of getting the narrative flow right, then pacing the illustrations and cartoons so they helped to tell the story — or at least made gags about it. I then subjected many friends to drafts of the book for feedback, and enlisted my mum as an editor and children as cartoon critics.
Seems like you had a lot of fun drawing this book. What your favorite parts?
This book was an absolute joy to draw. My favourite illustration is one of the first ones I did as an early rough. It features clown pubes (and yes, I take tremendous puerile joy in putting those two words together) and made me laugh out loud while I was drawing it. My other favourite is a double-pager laden with egg puns. I did it entirely to amuse my 8-year-old self. I used to love egg puns.
Did your experience as a political cartoonist help you out on this project?
Ha! Not at all! Political cartooning tends to be an exercise in cynicism, in the endless exposure of endless hypocrisies. That’s fine, and it’s part of the job, but the all-round amazingness of human reproduction is about as uncynical a topic as you can get. I wanted this book to have a sense of joy about it, so removed my political cartooning brain for the duration and replaced it with my much-cheerier gag-cartooning and children’s illustration one…
It seems like getting the right tone and level of detail would be the trickiest part. Did that take some testing? Did you ever go too far, whatever that might mean?
I’m a big fan of speaking as honestly as possible to children so that was a guiding principle when setting the tone of the book. I’m also aware that “Mum/Dad, how are babies made?” can be five of the most terrifying words a parent can hear so I figured a dose of humour could alleviate the embarrassment.
In terms of the level of detail, the trickiest part was knowing what to leave out. The whole human sex and sexuality shebang is a vast and complex topic and the story of how babies are made is only part of it. I tried to stick to the stuff that was relevant to reproduction and to keep the information straightforward.
When it came to choosing which pictures to draw, I took a science communication sort of approach. I wanted to present the information clearly so kids who read the book get a sense of how it all actually works. A lot of the other sex-ed books I read avoided depicting things like girls’ genitals and sexual intercourse (other than a naked couple under a blanket) so I consciously wanted to include these illustrations.
“Going too far” is, I suppose, in the eye of the beholder, but I don’t think I’ve crossed any lines. As adults we tend to bring our own experiences and society’s expectation into any discussion about sex, forgetting that young kids aren’t really interested in any of that extra stuff — they just want to know how babies are made. I figure that if you can leave your grown-up baggage behind and explain things honestly to kids in a way that a) respects their intelligence and b) makes them laugh (hopefully) then you’re not going to go too far.
Paint me a picture: How kids react to the book. How their parents react, sitting beside them.
It’s interesting — the reaction seems to depend on the age of the child. Kids from four to about eight or so tend to absorb the information without much embarrassment but often with a good deal of curiosity. They ask excellent questions. Children around the ages of nine to 11 are usually old enough to have a general idea of the whole baby-making thing but are also old enough to be a lot more self-conscious. They tend to prefer the ole feign-disinterest-then-sneak-off-and-read-it-later approach.
Funnily enough, it’s usually the grown-ups who do the most blushing and squirming, and that’s usually because of one particular page. If it wasn’t in breach of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy copyright, I’d bung a big “DON’T PANIC” sticker across the front of every book. To be fair, though, I’ve had lots of feedback from parents who remained unembarrassed throughout the reading (or at least pretended to) and ended up having unexpectedly interesting or inadvertently hilarious conversations with their offspring. The response from parents has been overwhelmingly positive, so hopefully the book is helping to make a potentially awkward conversation a lot easier.
It seems like you could do a whole series of books that help people facilitate difficult conversations. Thoughts?
I’ve had so many people suggest that to me — especially on the topic of death. It’s definitely something I’ll be thinking about.