When American Girl’s ‘The Care & Keeping of You’ Taught a Generation How to Grow Up

It was the voice of your “cool aunt” for girls who didn’t have a cool aunt.

Do you know where your copy is these days?
Do you know where your copy is these days? / (Book) Norma Bendell/Turtleback Books/Amazon; (Background) CSA Images/Getty Images

In the mid-1990s, a girl who identified herself as “too Tall for words” wrote in to American Girl magazine with a grievance: “Some people say I’m smart, funny, and nice. All people say I’m tall. Boys say, ‘So how’s the weather up there? Ha ha.’”

For one soon-to-be fifth grader (“Left out”), bras were the problem—all her friends wore them, but her mom wouldn’t let her yet. “[She] said I didn’t need one,” she wrote. “I feel left out. Please don’t tell me it doesn’t matter. It does to me.”

Between the lines of those and countless other letters screamed a message that the magazine’s editors heard loud and clear: American girls going through puberty were generally desperate for guidance.

So, in 1998, American Girl published The Care & Keeping of You: The Body Book for Girls, a friendly reference text that covered everything from bra sizes and body hair to mood swings and menstruation. Here’s the story of how it came to be and what it became for a generation of adolescent girls.

Doll Lovers and Worrywarts

Publishing had been a part of American Girl founder Pleasant Rowland’s business plan from the get-go; each historical doll, starting with Molly, Samantha, and Kirsten in 1986, got its own six-book series. The company soon ventured into more topical territory, releasing the first issue of its bimonthly magazine in 1992.

American Girl magazine featured tons of reader content: poems, jokes, anecdotes, book recommendations, fashion trends, tips on things like babysitting and resolving fights with friends, and more. After a few issues, the editors debuted “Help!,” an advice column where readers could get even more personal. A 10-year-old “Doll Lover in Brooklyn” fretted that her friends would make fun of her for still playing with Barbies. “Good for nothing” was “having a very hard time finding [her] talents,” and “Worrywart in Ohio” was struggling with her tendency to get anxious about every little thing. (“Every night I lie awake and cry,” wrote Worrywart. “What should I do?”)

The magazine only printed a handful of entries per issue, but the editors received thousands of letters—so many that they published two compilations in book form in 1995 and 1996 (plus a 1999 edition focused on divorce and stepfamilies).

While not all the queries related to puberty, it was definitely a recurring theme. According to Valorie Lee Schaefer, the author of The Care & Keeping of You, “changing bodies” was an especially hot topic. “[They] were always written in this private confessional tone. ‘I’m scared, I’m confused. Is there something wrong with me? I’m getting pimples. It’s so embarrassing,’” Schaefer said on a 2024 episode of the podcast This is Love [PDF]. 

five girls on the playground in the 1990s
American Girl's target audience on the playground. / Jeffry Myers/GettyImages

In 1997, Pleasant Rowland was reading The New York Times on a flight when she came across a piece about the rise of early-onset puberty. As Schaefer told Mashable in 2018, Rowland “ripped the page out” and left it for American Girl magazine editor Michelle Watkins with a sticky note that said “WE NEED TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT THIS NOW.”

What they decided to do was create a guidebook for growing up—and Rowland knew exactly who should write it.

A Copywriter Climbs

Coincidentally, Valorie Lee Schaefer’s involvement with American Girl had all started with a newspaper. In 1989, she saw a classified ad for a job seeking applicants experienced in “working with offshore buyers” and “developing product,” as Schaefer said on This is Love. She’d never done either—she had a B.A. in sociology and some administrative experience in a law office—but she applied anyway and got the gig.

Schaefer’s first role was to find manufacturers for American Girl Dolls’ many artisanal accoutrements, from Samantha’s embroidered handkerchief to Molly’s miniature radio. After a while, Rowland appointed her as the copywriter for the American Girl catalog. Though Shaefer left that role in 1994 to embark on a freelance career, her knack for writing for the brand’s young demographic evidently made an impression on Rowland, who reached out a few years later to ask her if she’d author the as-yet-untitled puberty book.

Felicity, Josefina, Kirsten, Addy, Samantha, and Molly on display in 2021
(Left to right) Felicity, Josefina, Kirsten, Addy, Samantha, and Molly on display in 2021. / Ilya S. Savenok/GettyImages

Schaefer was surprised but eager for the opportunity, and she joined forces with American Girl’s editors and a pediatrician to map out what to cover and how to cover it. They decided on a fairly young target audience—girls aged 7 through 9 or 10, so they could enter puberty with a sound understanding of what to expect—and they hosted focus groups to help identify areas of interest. Tonally, the team wanted to emulate the voice of a “cool aunt.”

“It wasn’t your mom or dad’s older sister,” Schaefer told The Atlantic in 2018. “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.”

The Care & Keeping of You: The Body Book for Girls was published in September 1998 and quickly became a rite of passage for young Millennial girls in the late 1990s. If you were one of them, you probably remember the parts that you found most shocking or illuminating when you first read it: a step-by-step diagram on how to insert a tampon, illustrations showing five stages of breast development, matter-of-fact explanations of pubic hair and vaginal discharge.

two girls talking at their lockers in the 1990s
"Hey, I know what to do the next time you get gum stuck in your hair." / Comstock/Stockbyte/Getty Images

But the book doesn’t just tackle big changes—there’s also a section on how to get gum out of your hair and a sidebar about stretching before you exercise. In this way, The Care & Keeping of You isn’t really just about puberty: It’s about easing girls into the “lifelong job” of taking care of themselves and giving them the tools to talk about it with trusted adults.

That’s a massive feat for any one book to even attempt, and not everyone feels that this slim volume of 100 pages or so, lauded and beloved though it is, truly achieved it.

Building a Better Body Book

For some parents, the issue was actually that the book covered too much; the tampon diagram in particular caused backlash among those who deemed their daughters too young for an explicit how-to. In 2012, American Girl neutralized that gripe by separating the book into two volumes. There was The Care & Keeping of You 1: The Body Book for Younger Girls, geared toward girls ages 8 and older, which replaced the tampon spread with one on pads; and The Care & Keeping of You 2: The Body Book for Older Girls, for ages 10 and up, which retained the tampon spread and delved deeper into the emotional side of puberty. Some of the other more mature content from the original book got moved into the second volume, too, like the section on eating disorders.

cover images of American Girl's 'The Care & Keeping of You' volumes 1 and 2
Volumes 1 and 2. / American Girl Publishing/Simon & Schuster

To many critics, though, those updated editions still echo the flaws of the original. For one thing, they’re very heteronormative. In emphasizing what’s “normal” for “girls,” the books implicitly ostracize trans and nonbinary kids. The omission doesn’t just risk making those readers themselves feel abnormal—it’s also tacitly inviting all other readers to see them as such.

“Many closeted trans boys might be given this book, and not understand why they don’t find these changes at all exciting. Many closeted trans girls might get their hands on this book, only to feel like an imposter for wanting those changes instead of the changes they’re ‘supposed’ to want. And closeted nonbinary kids will just be even more confused than they already are,” Mary Kate McAlpine wrote for Medium.

The books don’t cover sexuality at all (save for one passing mention in the first book that young readers “may also begin to notice boys in a whole different way”), which many people consider a feature, not a bug. Former American Girl executive editor Barbara Stretchberry told Aisha Harris for Slate in 2016 that medical consultants advised keeping sex out of the books because the target audience was so young. But sexual orientation is separate from gender identity and gender expression, and the books could easily work in the latter—giving visibility and vocabulary to young queer kids trying to figure out who they are and how to show it—without bringing sex into the discussion.

It’s not the books’ only inclusivity issue. Though the illustrations are racially diverse, people with disabilities aren’t well represented and the body types are much less varied than you’d expect from a work that aims to be body-positive. And as Slate’s Rachelle Hampton pointed out, “despite stating that deciding whether or not to shave was a personal decision, every girl illustrated was smooth and hair-free.”

To their credit, the books’ creators are open to these critiques. Just this year, American Girl released editions of both volumes that are more diverse all around and less prescriptive in their messaging about how to be healthy. “We really combed through every illustration, every line of text, and looked for ways to make the book more inclusive,” Schaefer told Yahoo Life.

cover image of 'Sex Is a Funny Word'
A new kind of sex talk. / Penguin Random House

And if people still find the books lacking in any way, they have something that their late-’90s counterparts didn’t necessarily have: other options. Celebrate Your Body (And Its Changes, Too!) by Sonya Renee Taylor and Sex Is a Funny Word by Cory Silverberg are two highly recommended puberty books in what’s now a pretty busy market.

For many women given the original Care & Keeping of You at a formative age, it did exactly what it set out to do. The book was your cool aunt who prepped you on how to handle getting your period in public, who debunked whatever myths you’d heard at school about ways to make your boobs grow faster, and who told you to skip shaving above the knee because that’s “an awful lot of leg to shave!” 

But it didn’t just usher a generation of girls through their turbulent preteen years: Its success also helped reveal a demand for puberty books that paved the way for future writers—and even The Care & Keeping of You’s own authors—to say, “How can we do this better?”

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