Breasts. There. Was that really so hard to say?

I’m posting this essay by Charlotte Agell in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and because I love her book The Accidental Adventures of India McAllister as well as many of her other books. I hope you enjoy the piece as much as I did!

October: Breast Cancer Awareness Month. We are awash in a sea of pink solidarity, of ribbons showing our support, of fund-raising efforts. We worry, we pray, we drive our friends to chemo, we bake them pies – and not just in October. So why, oh why, is it so hard to talk about … breasts?

A review of my latest book for children states, “the sketch of the plaster breast that hangs on the family’s living-room wall may provoke more than giggles.” Apparently, the reviewer was right. The breast has elsewhere in library circles been called offensive, which I in turn find shocking. The sculpture is a tribute to bravery equal to a belly cast of a pregnant woman. In the book, it’s there on the wall to honor the one India’s artist mom lost to cancer. It’s based, in fact, on a friend’s true story.  Even India’s fourth grade buddy Colby understands. It’s art. It’s supposed to make you think! India knows that some people stare a bit too long at it. The plumber for example. And India wonders why breasts make people act funny. What if mom put a plaster cast of her nose or her foot on the wall? Would it be different?

The answer, it seems, is yes. We are uncomfortable, as a society, talking about a part of our body that everyone has – men, women, and children.  (Well, almost everyone has breasts – some have suffered their surgical removal, and elect to remain without.) Like noses and most other things, breasts come in all different shapes and sizes. As another survivor friend points out, pretty much the first thing any of us sees is our mother’s breast. But after that, where do breasts go? Undercover, under wraps? Plastically jutting out of Barbies, displayed on primetime TV, revealed cartoonishly at halftime during the Super Bowl? The mixed message unsettles.

For an early picture book of mine, the publisher asked that I change the (very discrete) nursing picture to one of a bottle-fed baby. This astonished me, a Swede by birth. Nursing is risqué? Well, the editor explained, they’d otherwise not be able to sell the book in the South. I grumbled but redrew the picture. I’m not categorically against bottles – one of my children had one, one didn’t. And it turns out, this was savvy thinking – at least financially. That book went on to be featured in the kindergarten curriculum in Alabama and Georgia, places not ready, perhaps, to encounter breasts in children’s literature … even breasts only hinted at behind a paisley shawl.

Here in Maine, it didn’t seem to be much of an issue. I published a series of small books about the seasons. The spring one featured a new baby brother, nursing, laundry, mud. Nobody said anything. It wasn’t that I was crusading for the La Leche League, but it was my reality, and that of most toddlers I knew. Moms nursed babies. Big sisters played and sulked in the quince bush pretending to be princesses. Breasts were not an issue.

I suppose I should have understood that I really wasn’t in Sweden anymore when strangers passing by the hedge in a small Maine town, saw my toddler daughter frolicking naked in her tiny pool, and loudly proclaimed, “Gross.” Anna didn’t hear them (she was too busy being a dinosaur), but I did, and my heart sank. Poor teenagers … to think a two-year- old’s naked dancing was disgusting. What did they think of their own bodies, I wondered.

Bodies way up in sun-starved Scandinavia are not considered gross, or necessarily sexual. Even breasts! Children in particular are allowed the freedom to feel air on bare skin. A breast out in public isn’t cause for alarm. Skinny-dipping is considered normal (although probably done less flamboyantly than some would imagine – mostly in small family coves and after saunas). Later, I lived in Hong Kong where nudity was not casual at all. I understood: practices were different depending on where you were. Moving to Maine during the end of the hippie era, there was an open feeling. Nylons? Fine. Unshaved legs? Fine. Both at once? (Maybe not so much.) But still I was unprepared for what happened recently. The line drawing of the plaster cast of the breast on the wall elicited the word “offensive” – from a Maine librarian, no less. Librarians are my heroes – defenders of freedom of information, lenders of books, champions of liberties. I’m thinking that this was a ‘rogue’ librarian.

But her comment made me think: why is it okay for our kids to see endless violence, but not breasts? If the breast on the wall in the book were an entire body, would that have been okay with the annoyed librarian? Does the fact that the character’s father is gay play into the supposed offense? Maybe it’s time to rethink what our norms are. Families come in all forms, and, some hero mothers fight breast cancer. India’s mother triumphs, and celebrates. I wish this outcome for each and every woman facing a breast cancer diagnosis. Let’s hear it for breasts!

If you click on the picture, you’ll see the book trailer for Charlotte Agell’s latest book The Accidental Adventures of India McAllister. There’s a lot of arguments for an against book trailers in the publishing industry. This one is a work of art!