It’s funny*, what kind of a book the publishing industry considers to be off-limits. After all, we’re talking about a collection of corporations and companies that has, in the last few years, chosen to platform denials of the HIV/AIDS crisis, assertions that climate change is a hoax, and arguments that vaccines are poison. It’s the industry that went out of its way to ink a contract with a politician who tricked migrant families with babies and young children into boarding buses and planes in order to abandon them, without shelter, on the doorsteps of his enemies. Why not enthusiastically distribute the words of a white supremacist who just blocked AP African American Studies courses in his state? Why not award a lucrative and legitimizing book deal to a man who bans books?
And yet, a medically accurate, nonjudgmental, and gender-inclusive picture book for kids and families about abortion? Literary agents, publishers, and even the most progressive small presses all felt that was a bridge too far.
“I shopped the book around to different small feminist publishers and book agents for over three years, with no traction,” says Carly Manes, the author of What’s an Abortion, Anyway?, a first-of-its-kind children’s book that explains an extremely common pregnancy outcome experienced frequently by parents of children and teenagers, and sometimes by children and teenagers themselves. She even won a scholarship to attend a national conference of children’s book authors, where an established author reviewed her manuscript. “She said it was wonderful, but she had no faith an agent would ever be bold enough to represent it—it’s just too taboo. And she was right.”
So, in early 2020, after submitting her manuscript to over 400 agents and publishers, and hearing over 400 versions of “it’s just too taboo,” the abortion doula and co-leader of the Dopo abortion support cooperative thought, fuck it. I’ll do it myself.
“I was just done trying to convince other people that this book was worthwhile,” says Manes, who is based in LA and currently studying to become an Interfaith Chaplain, the passion for which stems from her years of work in abortion care. “I wasn’t going to let their cowardice dictate how and when our kids learn about abortion.”
Kids are constantly, curiously, observing how we talk about “human life” and what it means to break the law. They see that abortion overlaps with so many of the other things that impact their lives—gender, race, class, sex, bodies, the police. Abortion is also a topic about which they receive a barrage of misleading cultural messaging from their earliest days. They learn that pregnancy and parenting are simultaneously blessings and also punishments, the consequences of which must be borne at any cost if they dare to engage in that most basic of human activities, sex. For our kids, the result is a fearful silence around all pregnancy outcomes and complications. The gaps in their knowledge of human reproduction and their discomfort with it leave them vulnerable to powerful cruelty, especially if they don’t feel like they are safe to express their curiosity or to discuss their bodies with the trusted adults in their lives.
Especially if no resources—like, for example, a book of accurate information and loving, affirming messages—are made available to them.
“Kids are so smart,” says Manes, “and they deserve honesty and compassion, just like all people.”
So, despite the nos, the unreturned emails, and the warnings that her book would be rendered untouchable by its subject matter and intended audience, Manes approached her friend, the Brooklyn-based artist and cultural worker Mar (professional name Emulsify) and asked them to partner with her as the book’s illustrator. A trained abortion doula, as well as the founder of Emulsify Design and the creative director of Arrebato, a space for the queer trans Black and brown community, Mar agreed to the collaboration. They created full-color illustrations for each page of What’s an Abortion, Anyway?, and every character is a painted portrait-in-motion of a real person who’s shared their abortion story with We Testify, with the exception of Dr. Jamila Perritt, the provider at the helm of Physicians for Reproductive Health and an icon of abortion care and support. A rainbow of bodies, ages, skin and hair colors, styles, and expressions are splashed across their characters’ pregnancy decisions and the daily life that proceeds and follows them, emphasizing the incredible range of abortions happening all around us. With these muses, Mar brought Manes’ words about abortion—simple, yet true to all of its medical, emotional, and physical nuance—to vivid, singing life.
We can never really know what it is like to be someone else, Manes tells us, gently but firmly, beside Mar’s glowing visual depictions of the storytellers. And: No matter how someone feels about their abortion, they deserve to be treated with love and respect.
Complete with its beautiful artwork and crowd-funded by the author and illustrators’ communities, as well as people working in the reproductive health care, rights, and justice spaces, the book was ready to be self-published. By June of 2021, 546 people in 10 countries had pre-ordered their copies. Finally, What’s an Abortion, Anyway? (also known by the incredible acronym WAAA?) began its journey onto bookshelves, with copies now available for sale on its website in both English and Spanish—corporate cowardice and cultural stigma be damned.
I’ve written (and tweeted, and Instagrammed, and yelled to anyone who will listen) about what What’s an Abortion, Anyway? has meant to me over the course of my own abortion experience—about reading it to my own child, and to myself, whenever I need a reminder (or two, or ten) of my worthiness as a mother, my untouchable wholeness, my inherent goodness, and my gratitude for the care I give myself and the care I ask others to give me. But the brightest spark of connection with the book has been external, shining out at me through the tired, bloodshot eyes of an old friend.
We stood across from each other on a sidewalk, my baby on my left hip and hers on her left, clutching a rubber teething ring. She’d asked me to meet for coffee, because she was seven weeks pregnant when she couldn’t be, wouldn’t have planned to be, didn’t want to be. But, having been raised in a family that was politically conservative and emotionally repressed, a family where pregnancies were top-secret unless they ended with a baby and two married parents, and the details were rendered fuzzy by a filter of God Working in Mysterious Ways, she could barely say the word for the outcome she sought. She dropped her voice to a whisper the first time she told me about her plan; her shame was louder than the traffic roaring by us.
“My baby loves this one,” I said, as I held my copy of the book out to her, “but I read it to myself a lot, too.”
Flipping through WAAA?’s colorful pages, she looked stunned. “The love that went into this…” she said. “This would have changed everything for me.”
She put it in the past tense, imagining with wonder the kind of childhood in which she was allowed to read this kind of book, an adolescence that would have inoculated her against the regressive and fearful ideas she found herself battling now. But I couldn’t help but feel like, Maybe it can still change everything for you, now. Twenty-five isn’t too late to read Goodnight Moon, after all; the self-love icon that is the pig at the center of (indeed, the titular Me in) I Like Me! is just as aspirational at 19 years old with a shitty boyfriend and a C- in statistics, or at 33 years old with a forehead full of wrinkles. Children’s books, I knew, could change an adult’s life, breaking generational patterns of kids wearing hand-me-down shame and silence.
“[There was] a parent who found the book a few years after having both an abortion and miscarriage,” Manes tells me. “They said they had been struggling with how to talk about that experience with their 7-year-old. They shared how relieved they felt finding this book to use as a guiding resource for a deeper conversation.”
And these deeper conversations are evergreen. They are not just necessary now, in the wake of the Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health ruling last June, though Manes says she has seen a stark increase in WAAA?’s sales numbers since that fateful day in June.
“Books were flying off the shelf for a few weeks after that. To me, that was a clear sign that folks were yearning for a resource to talk about this critical cultural and political moment with the little ones in their lives. And thank god they were!” she says. “Young people are smart. With the word abortion all over the news and in community conversations, we want to make sure they are learning about abortion from a place of shared family values around autonomy and compassion, not judgment and politicization.”
Most of the feedback Manes has received from readers is in this vein—lovely, grateful, warm, connective. And of the inevitable outrage from the unhinged anti-abortion faction, who express very little in the way of respect or care for the wellbeing of actual parents and children? Their screeds don’t bother her.
“Oh, you know,” she laughs, “they come and go. Only one or two have ever really made me fear for my safety. I personally find it pretty ironic and hilarious when people wish death upon me. I like to share the ones that are silly or make me laugh with friends and community. The more ominous ones I simply delete and block.
“There is nothing that anyone could say or do to make me believe this book isn’t worthy of being in the world, that people don’t deserve a resource to feel loved, seen, and validated in their abortions.”
And her resistance to the idea that abortion is niche is evident in her vision for WAAA?’s still-unfolding-and-expanding future, as more and more booksellers, librarians, and organizers order more and more copies to circulate through their own communities.
“I want this book to sit with all of the other children’s books about pregnancy. That’s where it belongs,” says Manes. “It’s not a political book, though abortion is inherently political. It is a book about one of the many outcomes of a pregnancy, and that’s how I want the little ones in the world to learn about it.”
On my own little one’s bookshelf, nestled between his copies of What Makes a Baby and Sex Is a Funny Word, is the bright floral spine of this ordinary miracle. This labor of love, this abundant resource, this book about one of the many outcomes of a pregnancy—something that will touch his life in many ways, if he is lucky enough to stay in the orbit of the communities helping me raise him. It is an open door, a safe place to rest, an invitation. Manes and Mar will be two of the countless teachers he’ll have in his life. In fact, with What’s an Abortion, Anyway?, in all of its shouldn’t-be-radical, shouldn’t-have-to-be-self-published glory, they’ll be two of the people who, for him, could change everything.
Hannah Matthews is a reproductive health care worker, abortion doula and funder, and writer. Her debut book YOU OR SOMEONE YOU LOVE: REFLECTIONS FROM AN ABORTION DOULA is forthcoming from Atria Books on May 2, 2023. Her work has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, The New York Times, Esquire, ELLE, McSweeney’s, Catapult, Teen Vogue, Electric Literature, and other publications. More information can be found at her website.