Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski’s life work is serving young people and their families. She has a background in nursing, education, and counseling; and she is certified in sexuality education and sexuality counseling through AASECT. Currently, she serves as the President and Founder of the Academy for Adolescent Health, Inc. In her vast career, she is responsible for presenting sexuality education to over 230,000 young people! She also has authored 28 books, including The Nonnie Series, for children on challenging topics, and she has presented over 750 workshops locally, nationally, and internationally.
Could you tell us a bit about your book/s and why it is a must-read?
Children listen. Culturally, adults often avoid challenging topics with young people, fearing they will be damaged by looking at topics like death and trauma and sex. In truth, my over 45 years serving children has shown me the opposite is true. It is avoidance of topics – the proverbial elephant in the living room – that increases anxiety. An open conversation between adults and children/teens can provide support, guidance and reassurance. Children need honest adults who interact with them, listen to hear, and hold space with them. Holding space is a hospice term (I was a hospice RN) and a doula one (doulas provide support during labor and birth and I’ve been a doula to more teen parents than I can count). The Nonnie Series® opens doors, it inspires communication and connection, and it makes the world a safer place for children.
What inspired you to write your book?
I wrote the first book in The Nonnie Series®, Nonnie Talks about Gender, in 2014 to support a very young (2nd grader) child who was gender non-conforming. I was astounded by the reaction I received. Parents shared how much the book’s interactive format was conducive to conversation, and children made comments like, “Now I get it!” and “I don’t need to judge a kid whose gender is different.” This inspired me. I wrote Nonnie Talks about Race next. As a person born with white privilege, I wanted to address a very challenging topic, but I knew I could only go so far in the book. I recruited two colleagues and friends who are people of color. They were my consulting authors in the book. After writing two in the Series, I became passionately committed to exploring more topics. Nonnie Talk about Death and Nonnie Talks about Pregnancy and Birth came easily because of my background in both areas; I followed with Nonnie Talks about Puberty, having created and taught Parent/Youth programs on growing up since 1984. This is the only gender inclusive book on puberty available. Nonnie Talks about Sex & More encompasses over 35 years as a sex educator. I wrote Nonnie Talks about Trauma after the Parkland shootings and Nonnie Talks about Consent in response to the #Metoo movement. For each book, I host focus groups with children. I divide the groups by grade level, so I meet with 2-4th graders, 5- 6th graders, and 7-8th graders. My current book, Nonnie Talks about disAbility, looks at physical disability, autism, intellectual disability and loss of hearing. My consulting author is a 17-year-old peer educator who lives with muscular dystrophy. Planned books are Nonnie Talks about Relationships, Nonnie Talks about Mental Health, and Nonnie Talks about Addiction. All my books focus on my mantra that #EachPersonIsAPersonofWorth.
Where is your favorite place to write? Do you have a special hangout or any writing rituals?
Writing is a joyful experience for me. I love thinking of reaching young people with my books. I typically write at night, since my days are so full. I have a small room I use for a den, and I love writing there, but I’ll also write while on the road presenting or doing a training. I’ve even written chapters on my phone! I love music in the background and a cup of tea while I write, but I can write anywhere or anytime!
What’s the most surprising thing you learned about yourself while writing your book?
How I love creating The Nonnie Series® - the focus groups reinforce how much children and young people need these books.
What do you find are the most rewarding aspects of being an author?
Interacting with children and parents/trusted adults. I love feedback, I love their suggestions for titles and topics. One title that a focus group of 7th and 8th graders just suggested was Nonnie Talks about Fear. The implications of that request are staggering. Why are our children frightened? My job is to ease connection. To me, this is a great gift.
Who are some of the writers who have influenced you?
My go-to writers may be surprising. I love works that provide calm in the midst of turmoil, so Thich Nhat Hanh is a daily read for me. His Be Free Where You Are in a pocket-sized version is in my purse at all times and has guided me through surgery and treatment for breast cancer. I also return to Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead for inspiration and courage. I’ve repeatedly re-read Maya Angelou’s works. I love all manner of books, though, from fiction to non-fiction. Even as a child, I took out 10 library books a week and read them. I read extensively in the three areas I’m focused upon – birth, death, education, psychology and sexuality. Right now I’m working on my own role in our culture’s racism, so I’ve just finished White Fragility: Why It’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin J. DiAngelo
On a more personal note: Tell us a little about your “real” (non-writing) life — family, job, hobbies, etc.
My family is first – La Mia Famiglia. My papa was an Italian immigrant at 14, and a man of true kindness who genuinely respected others. My mama inspired me intellectually. My partner Rich and I were married in 1973 and we raised three wonderful people who I’d select as adult friends. I’m a Nonnie to five grandbabies. My primary joy is my family. I’m also “on-call” to teens in my community 24/7, 365 days a year. I don’t consider this connection work as much a part of my life and mission to youth. Rich and I love movies, the beach, and cooking. I consider myself very blessed.
Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?
My parents most of all, by their empowerment of me and their unconditional support. My own children helped me grow as a person; my grandchildren do the same. I am a person committed to modeling worthiness, so life is a great teacher. My second grade teacher, Miss Nescott, came to my home to ask my parents if I could skip a grade. My mama was against it, saying there was more to education than academics. My teacher ultimately agreed. I was ‘president’ of that 2nd grade class, and I can still feel the way this wonderful teacher nurtured my creativity and gave me the confidence I needed to be me.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors who may be reading this interview?
You have greatness within you. Your words matter. Release them, make a legacy, and seek joy.
What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
I’m very excited about a book I’ve written for adults as a guide to teaching with your heart. The tentative title is The Sex Lady Talks about Life: Love, Laughter and Wisdom from Sex Ed in a Small Town. I’m editing it now and cannot wait for it’s ‘birth’ so my message of youth advocacy can reach others. I’m been described as a Mr. Rogers meets Dr. Ruth, and I’ll be thrilled to see the book in print.
What is your preferred method to have readers get in touch with or follow you (i.e., website, personal blog, Facebook page, etc.) and link(s)?
My website is drmaryjopodgurski.com, I’m available on FB as https://www.facebook.com/mary.j.podgurski and Dr. Mary Jo https://www.facebook.com/DrMaryJoPodgurski/, my Twitter handle is @DrMaryJoPod, and I am happy to receive emails at email@example.com
To Purchase Books By Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski, Visit: drmaryjopodgurski.com
Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski is an RN, a counselor, an educator, a parent and a grandparent. She began serving teen parents in the 70s, taught her first sex education in 1981, and founded The Washington Health System Teen Outreach in 1988. Her staff and she presented over 230,000 teens sex ed. She started her Peer Education program in 1995; she and her staff trained over 15,000 peer educators since then. She opened the Common Ground Teen Center in 2008. Dr. Podgurski has a unique background in that she has extensive experience in birth advocacy, death advocacy, and sexuality education. She is certified as a childbirth educator, a sexuality educator, and a sexuality counselor; she is a Darkness to Light Stewards of Children Authorized Facilitator and an Olweus Bullying Prevention Program trainer. She is the author of the Ask Mary Jo column for the Observer Reporter newspaper (2005). Dr. Podgurski is the author of 33 books, including eight books in The Nonnie Series® – books for children ages 8 and up on challenging topics. Her most recent Nonnie book is Nonnie Talks about Consent and she is working on Nonnie Talks about disAbility now. Dr. Podgurski believes in young people, and seeks to reach them One Kid at a Time!™ She believes #EachPersonIsAPersonofWorth and lives her life accordingly.