Free to Be You

These puberty books offer a refreshing change from The Care & Keeping of You.

Collage of books about puberty.
Photo illustration by Slate

Read more from Slate’s puberty series. Bonnie J. Rough tells you how to maintain a close and loving relationship with your teen. Christina Cauterucci praises advancements in period technology for giving girls control over their bodily care. Rebecca Onion explains why bra options are so much better for girls today. Nick Greene offers a primer on shaving for first-timers. In case you missed it: Check out Slate’s book list for middle schoolers.

When I grew up in the early 2000s, The Care & Keeping of You was a lifeline. One of the 100-plus books published in the American Girl canon, this book focused not on the life of one of the brand’s flagship historical dolls, but on all the various changes puberty could bring to the young millennial girl. Of a piece with their other guides for girls, The Care & Keeping of You presents itself as the “head to toe guide” that answers all of a pubescent girl’s questions, “from hair care to healthy eating, bad breath to bras, periods to pimples and everything in between.” I viewed my slim white paperback copy as a sort of bible that held all the answers, or at least most of them.

Though the illustrations were relatively diverse, there were still moments of dissonance I felt as I read it. I remember that the book suggested I wash my hair multiple times per week (a recipe for a bone-dry disaster for black girls like me and others with coarser, curlier hair), for example, and despite stating that deciding whether or not to shave was a personal decision, every girl illustrated was smooth and hair-free. Still, I turned to it frequently, comparing the illustrations that showed different stages of breast development to my own body, as it was my only option. While revisiting The Care & Keeping of You’s still-familiar drawings as an adult brings a powerful wave of nostalgia, there are enough shortcomings that make me thankful that girls (and their parents) today have more choices.

Since I first read the book, it was updated in 2013 by dividing the book into two separate volumes—one for younger girls that focuses more on body changes, and one for older girls that focuses more on emotional changes during puberty—but as my former colleague Aisha Harris noted, the now two-book series still has a glaring absence of any discussion of sexuality or gender. Despite its breezy, cool-aunt tone, and the addition of the clitoris to an anatomical drawing in the book for older girls, the only references to sex are very much in a “nobody can touch you in a way that makes you uncomfortable” vein, which is of course important. In a book that purports to answer all your questions about puberty, however, leaving out or obliquely referencing one of the cornerstones of changing bodies feels irresponsible, suggesting that sexuality is an inappropriate topic for younger girls.

The book impressively addresses the mental, physical, and emotional challenges of puberty, but it also seems to regard pubescent bodies as just that: a challenge. In an overview on eyes, the section on glasses leads with the heading “You’re Not Alone” and continues with “If you’re one of the first to get glasses, you may feel like the loneliest girl in the world.” In the section on braces, it leads with the assumption that wearers will be bullied, suggesting that “You can rain on a bully’s parade by taking the lead yourself. Give one and all a super-dazzling smile.” In the second book, when discussing emotions, the book blithely reads, “Getting a group of girls together can lead to a lot of drama.” The subhead on the body image section is, “Ugh! Why do I look this way?”

And the questions answered in the Q&A sections at the end of every section are startlingly and almost uniformly negative. A selection of concerns includes: “I can’t seem to stop worrying”; “I don’t feel pretty at all”; “I … wish I could get some kind of lotion to make my freckles go away.” In trying to convince girls not to hate their bodies, the books seem to take for granted that they uniformly approach their bodies from a place of negativity. While it’s certainly true that teens aren’t renowned for their high self-esteem, how much of their negative self-talk can be chalked up to the overwhelming cultural expectation that they’ll hate their bodies?

Though The Care & Keeping of You remains one of the most popular puberty books out there, periodically charting on the New York Times bestseller list, a new roster of books is thankfully trying to shift that narrative. Choices range from Naama Bloom’s HelloFlo: The Guide, Period to Michelle Hope’s The Girls’ Guide to Sex Education, but my favorite is probably Care and Feeding columnist Jamilah Lemieux’s recommendation Sex Is a Funny Word: A Book About Bodies, Feelings, and You by Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smyth. The book is for the same 7- to 10-year-old demographic as the “younger girls” targeted by Care & Keeping, but is leaps and bounds ahead in terms of how progressive it is. As I recently thumbed through Sex Is a Funny Word’s brightly colored drawings, I couldn’t help thinking about how much I needed a book like this growing up.

Sex Is a Funny Word
Triangle Square

Sex Is a Funny Word by Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smyth

Sex Is a Funny Word addresses sexuality in a thoughtful and age-appropriate way.

Like most kids, I had the Talk that primarily focused on sex as a precursor to pregnancy, but that was about the limit to casual discussions around the topic in my household. Sex Is a Funny Word delineates between sex as a way to make babies and sex as “something people can do to feel good in their bodies, and also to feel close to another person.” In age-appropriate language, it humorously tackles topics from gender to masturbation to crushes, even including sections on how the concepts of justice and trust intersect with sex and bodies. It’s also forthcoming about the fact that preteens are understandably curious about bodies that look different from their own. While Care & Keeping did a decent job of illustrating how bodies looked in different stages of development, those bodies fit into a very narrow range of sizes, and the authors made no attempt to even reference what boys’ bodies look like.

Sex Is a Funny Word has a lot less specific information about nutrition or periods because the book’s focus is much broader than the changes associated with puberty, but it makes a remarkable companion to a book like Sonya Renee Taylor’s Celebrate Your Body. Like Care & Keeping, Taylor’s book tends to gloss over the finer details of sexuality, but it provides all the in-depth how-to aspects that made Care & Keeping such a godsend, without the negative assumptions (or fat-shaming) that are laced throughout the latter. Taylor’s book unapologetically leads with the positive, focusing much more on what bodies can do rather than what they look like. Even with that focus, Taylor manages to hammer home that all bodies are beautiful, that it’s possible to be healthy at every size, and that each body progresses at its own rate, without the assumption that all girls are comparing themselves to their friends and finding themselves wanting.

Celebrate Your Body cover
Rockridge Press

Celebrate Your Body by Sonya Renee Taylor

Celebrate Your Body offers advice about body changes while reinforcing positive thoughts about body image.

This isn’t to say that The Care & Keeping of You didn’t have its time and place. It was a fairly radical conceit when it was first released in 1998, and I am undoubtedly better for having read it. As someone without sisters, it allowed me to know that I wasn’t alone without forcing me to go to my mom with every embarrassing question that crossed my mind. It laid the groundwork for the books that now exist, so that if I ever find myself needing to hand a puberty book to a preteen in my life, there are options.