The original cover, and an original 1998 LA Times review
Image: American Girl; Newspapers.com

How did you get your information about puberty? If you were receiving those details sometime after September 1998, there’s a good chance it was from the cozy illustrations of American Girl’s The Care and Keeping of You: The Body Book for Girls.

Over at the Atlantic, Allison Pohle has written about the book’s impact over the last two decades. Inspired by an article Pleasant Rowland read about early-onset puberty, the book was aimed specifically at girls around the ages of seven to nine and framed accordingly. The tone was very deliberate:

The company consulted a pediatrician to make sure the information was medically accurate, and Schaefer wrote the text in a deliberate, reassuring tone, one she called the “trusted, cool aunt.” “It wasn’t your mom or dad’s older sister,” Schaefer says. “It was probably their younger sister, someone with a few years under her belt, but also someone who wasn’t so out of touch with her adolescence that she couldn’t remember what a confusing time that was.”

Which is really the best way to get your puberty talk, as opposed to that other classic source, your slightly older cousin’s patched-together and somewhat garbled understanding. Because of that younger intended audience, there was no mention of sex—rather, the book focused on things like pimples and body hair. It was shaped heavily by letters from readers of the company’s magazine:

After the magazine debuted, the company quickly amassed a giant folder of handwritten letters from young readers inquiring about their changing bodies. Some letter-writers asked if they were pretty. Others wondered why they hadn’t grown breasts yet, or whether they needed to lose weight.

Most memorably, it contained an extremely straightforward image of how to insert a tampon, which was vastly more informative than those befuddling diagrams that actually came in the Tampax box. (How the hell were you supposed to figure out how to angle yourself on the toilet with one of those interior pictures?)

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Though the book was revised in 2013, it still has its glaring shortcomings. Poohle spoke to Perryn Reis, associate director of Northern Californian sex-ed nonprofit Heath Connected, who pointed out that it’s fairly heteronormative, in addition to other failings:

It also frequently refers to changes that will happen to “girls,” a generalization Reis avoids when in the classroom so as to better include transgender students. “The language we use in the classroom is ‘a person born with a female’s body,’” she says. “We go into the difference between biological sex, sexual orientation, and gender in fifth grade. It’s really hard because puberty is about the physical changes of getting a period and growing breasts, but there is a lot of variation and variability in our world, and we want to be inclusive of that, and also careful with our language.”

Pohle writes that several sex educators recommended Sex Is a Funny Word, published in 2015 and credited as diverse and trans-inclusive. And hopefully there will be more and more resources for kids that blend such increased sensitivity with the book’s dedication to providing young people with accurate, frankly, and comfortable information about their bodies—which is more important than ever in an era when providing anything that might even hint at the existence of sexual education is so controversial.