Editor’s Note: The internet has changed how kids learn about sex, but sex ed in the classroom still sucks. In Sex Ed 2.0, Mashable explores the state of sex ed and imagines a future where digital innovations are used to teach consent, sex positivity, respect, and responsibility.
There are few things more mortifying than being a preteen and needing to ask someone about good old Aunt Flo.
Thanks to The Care and Keeping of You: The Body Book for Girls, millions of young women didn’t have to. American Girl’s seminal book about getting our periods, dealing with acne, and finding healthy friendships provided answers to questions we were all too embarrassed to ask. Packed with informative, anatomical illustrations and simple, matter-of-fact details, the book was a staple for prepubescent girls before we all started googling. Instead of offering cringeworthy euphemisms like “sacred flower” or “first moon,” it got straight to the point: You have a vagina, and here are the changes you might experience.
If maxi pads and salicylic acid made up our armor for the battle against puberty, The Care and Keeping of You was our sacred text that led the way.
The book turned 20 years old this month. Since its publication in 1998, it has been updated and divided to include a second book specifically for older girls. How did it come about, and what made it so popular — and powerful? We caught up with Valorie Schaefer, who wrote the original book, to find out.
You mention in a piece in the Atlantic that the book was inspired by nationwide discussions about how puberty was happening earlier and earlier. Can you tell me a little more about how it came to be?
Pleasant Rowland was the founder and CEO of American Girl, and she’d been on some airplane and there was an article in the Times on the early onset of puberty. And she ripped the page out, and she put a sticky note on it for Michelle [Watkins, the editor of the book], and she wrote, “WE NEED TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT THIS NOW.”
They decided that one of the things they did best was education. I was a copywriter, writing for the catalogs about all the cute doll accessories, and somehow Pleasant was just determined that I was the best person to write this book. They wanted to talk to girls with a particular voice.
There were girls who were 9, 10 … who were getting their periods, and they were so confused and scared. When you’re a 9- or 10-year-old girl you don’t want the whole discussion about reproduction and sexuality — even if your mom is awesome. So a book just seemed like the way to go.
How would you describe the tone of the book?
Well, we always said, “This is the voice of your cool aunt.” Someone you could view as older and trustworthy, but not your mom and dad. Just a little younger, and maybe she’s a little cooler, but you trust her. She’s not the crazy wingnut, haha.
So she’s not the vodka aunt.
She’s the cool aunt! That’s sort of exactly how we wanted to talk to girls, because we wanted them to feel heard. We wanted to speak to them in a way that is respectful and kind and warm. Here’s just the information you need. We’re not going to give you stuff you’re not ready for. It’s just like, “What’s going on with my breasts??” “Am I going to get any?” “Will it hurt?”
These are the questions you have at that age. It’s hard for you to think of yourself as a 10-year-old, knowing what you know now, and say, “Wow, how could I not know that?”
And not only did you not know it, but you didn’t want to ask anybody, you know?
Yes! What was your research process like when writing this? How did you come up with that cool aunt persona, while also being informative?
Pleasant, Michelle, and I have all been 10-year-old girls. We started by asking ourselves the question, “What did we want to know?”
“Ten-year-old girls are like truth-seeking missiles.”
We just talked to people. We talked to girls, we talked to moms, I think we had a lot of confidence that fits “who” she was. I think the information — to us as adults — is not tricky, but when you’re 10 … 10-year-old girls are like truth-seeking missiles. It’s not that they distrust adults, but they’re not babies. They don’t buy everything hook, line, and sinker, so you have to talk to them in a way that’s very truthful. But you also can’t overwhelm them with information they can’t possibly digest yet.
So going back to your question, we talked to pediatricians, but more importantly, we talked to 10-year-old girls.
There’s a stigma about any discussion of a reproductive body part being inherently sexual. How do you think The Care and Keeping of You dispelled that myth?
I don’t think the book dispelled the myth, but the book steered a course right down the middle of that discussion. And I think if you want to talk to a girl about getting her period, you really have to talk about reproductive organs. You have to answer the question, “Why do I get a period?”
In the past 20 years, the book has become a staple for girls of my generation. When I mentioned it, everyone was like, “Oh my god! I remember that!” Why do you think there’s so much nostalgia surrounding The Care and Keeping of You?
I’m just gonna guess that it has much to do with who you were at that time, and a real affection for that girl. You can look back and go, “Man, I was a sweet-ass 10-year-old!”
You miss some things about being that age. You’re smart, you’re super-curious, you’re not completely frightened, you’re not overwhelmed by the concerns of the world like an 18- or 19-year-old. My daughters are 18 and 20, and they get, like, choked up about being that girl.
It arrived at a time in that girl’s life when they’re realizing they’re transitioning to the next stage.
In this internet age, you can pretty much Google anything. Why do you think that, in this flood of information, the book is still so relevant?
When you Google things, you don’t have a lot of control over what you receive. Even a 10-year-old knows not to trust everything that’s out there. You might Google something about getting your period and be like “Whoa! Too much information!”
“You might Google something about getting your period and be like ‘Whoa! Too much information!'”
I also think there’s something about the format of the book that’s so private and personal, it’s like the person is talking just to you. This book arrives at a time in your life when you really like to hang out in your bedroom, on your bed, with your friends. There’s something really great about being in a quiet place that’s private with a book that’s talking just to you.
And I think in an age when everything can be handed to you with a mouse, there’s something really nice about that experience.
Yeah, I totally get that! Do you think it’s dangerous for little kids to be flooded with information that they don’t have context for?
I don’t know if it’s dangerous, but it’s overwhelming, and way confusing! Even as well-meaning adults, we want to treat young people respectfully, and we think treating them respectfully is giving them as much information as possible. But it’s really important to be age appropriate. Not because we’re trying to hide anything, or we’re trying to be dishonest, but because a 10-year-old doesn’t have the same concerns that a 16-year-old does.
There are definitely times you can be scarred, your memory becomes seared by something you see that you definitely did not hope to see, but I think it’s mostly just overwhelming.
A few years ago the book was split up and modified, and the second book includes chapters about tampons and mental health … Can you talk about that process and why there was a decision to divide the books?
When we first wrote The Care and Keeping of You, we were really thinking about a 10-year-old girl. And we said on the back of the book, for girls eight and up. That’s really a readership level, and what we found was that younger and younger girls were reading it. Young girls are super-aspirational. If your older sister’s reading it, then you want to read it too.
And some of the contents of the book — maybe body image and eating disorders and stuff like that — are really not so appropriate for that younger girl. American Girl thought, we can just make the split and keep The Care and Keeping of You 1 more appropriate for the younger girl, and then in the second book be able to provide more information for that older girl who is asking harder questions.
The second book was written by an absolutely wonderful Harvard pediatrician named Cara Natterson. She has really built a reputation for knowing how to talk to preteens.
It’s 2018 now, and updates have been made, but some people have pointed out that the book is still very straight, very cisgender, and very able-bodied. Do you see it being modified to be more inclusive?
You know, I’ve been thinking about that.
I remember when I read the book years ago, there were parts like, “Sometimes you might feel this way about a boy!”
Right, totally! I don’t know if the publisher right now is thinking about revisiting that. As a parent myself, what I would do is explain to my child, “Every book isn’t written, sadly, for every single person. So we’re gonna take what serves us, and take what we can find.”
My 18-year-old is gay; she’s been out since she was 12, and she considers herself a female-bodied gay person. My conversation with her is, “Look, you’re female-bodied. The information in this book mostly applies to you. Sorry about the area of interest.”
In my circle of young people I care about, I would buy them The Care and Keeping of You, I would buy them The Body Book for Boys. I would put them both on the shelf and say, “There is fantastic information in both of these books; you should know about them no matter what gender you embody and no matter what kind of person you might be attracted to.”
I wish we didn’t create such a hard division between what each gendered child should know and understand. But without the references to who you might be interested in, I think the rest of the books really stand.
If you are a male-bodied child, but you identify as female, most of the information is still going to be useful to you. You’re not gonna get breasts, you’re not gonna bleed, but all the other information about skincare and exercise and how to feel about stuff is going to be the same. If you’re a parent of a child who is not strictly binary, you’re be putting together a custom program for them no matter what.
In the past 20 years, you’ve raised two girls. Did you read them the books?
Ha! I wrote the book when I was pregnant with my daughter, so she never knew a world without that book sitting on the bookshelf. But it’s really funny because it doesn’t matter who you are — you could be the person who wrote the book, and your kid does not want to talk to you about it.
It was on our shelves, and I was like, “Hey gals! Do you want to talk about anything in the book? Do you have any questions?” And they were like, “No, Mom. Thanks. No.”
My high school sex ed class was pretty comprehensive, but it was really matter-of-fact. It was like, “Here’s a cucumber. Here’s a condom. That’s it. Go. Be free.” But there’s so much nuance involved in sex education that just isn’t discussed, in schools or in general, you know?
I think we do a really poor job of recognizing transitions. There are a lot of cultures where there are specific and beautiful rituals about going from becoming a young girl to becoming a woman. In the U.S., we just do a shitty job, honestly. One of the things we tried to do with the book without getting into like, rites of passage ceremonies — and I know girls whose mothers would have first moon parties which was mostly mortifying —
I was mortified just getting a pack of pads and The Care and Keeping of You.
Right, right! One of the things we tried to do with the book is to say, “Hey. Girl. This is a moment for you when you are making a transition. You’re going from being a person who relied on your parents to take care of you physically and emotionally, and you are stepping into this new space where you are responsible for you.”
And I hope we did that in a way that is reassuring and empowering, without getting into anything spiritual or cultural. We wanted to say, “We see you! You got this, girl!”