‘They Tell Me… Now I Know’ by Shay Youngblood

They Tell Me… Now I Know by Shay Youngblood, 1988

The magic trick:

Navigating a potentially difficult conversation with a child about sex by having Aunt Mae share a personal story, filled with humor and grace

Y if for Youngblood.

The premise for this story – not unlike Toni Cade Bambara’s brilliant “The Johnson Girls” – is ripe with sanctimony. A 12-year-old girl is seeking advice about the world from her elders. That kind of thing can get over-sentimental real quick. On top of that, the specific advice she’s seeking is essentially the classic “birds and bees” conversation. So, there are several ways this story could have gone off the rails very easily.

It does not go off the rails, to Youngblood’s great credit. It does not get sentimental, neither does it get awkward.

It’s funny, poignant, and heartwarming.

Aunt Mae starts her advice offering by telling a story of her own past. It’s colorful, funny, and not particularly politically correct. And as such, of course, it’s tremendously effective for both the 12-year-old girl in the story and the reader. By sharing some of herself with a story that doesn’t necessarily end happily or paint her in the most angelic light, she takes the sting out of the subject matter and reassures the girl that even when life gets complicated, you can act with grace.

And that’s quite a trick on Youngblood’s part.

The selection:

I started spending more time alone with my Big Mamas. I kept hoping for presents like a camera, new clothes, or jewelry on my visits. Instead they gave me stories.

Aunt Mae’s way of getting me ready was to explain human desires. “You feel like you wanna kiss somebody and hug em, that’s alright. Nothing wrong with showing affection.”

“What if they wanna have sex, Aunt Mae?”

“Now Daughter, you just twelve years old and I’m over sixty, so I’ve lived long enough to know sex ain’t all it’s made out to be. …”

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