Next month marks the 25th anniversary of The Care and Keeping of You: The Body Book for Girls, a book I wrote for pre-adolescent girls about their changing bodies, published in 1998.
When the book debuted, it was hard to find books for young girls—say, those between the ages of seven and 11—that spoke candidly and calmly about puberty in an age-appropriate way. There were books for toddlers that explained where babies come from and books for teens that spelled out the ABCs of STDs. Missing were books intended for girls in those itchy, angsty years in between.
It was clear those girls had questions. Boy, did girls have questions! They wrote heaps of letters to popular preteen magazines asking for advice. They poured out their hearts and laid bare their fears in letters handwritten on notebook paper, festooned with glittery stickers.
Will I ever get boobs? Why is my skin acting so weird? Will it hurt to get my period? Why do I feel like crying all the time? Will a tampon get LOST UP THERE?
Had it existed in those pre-texting days, the Munch-inspired scream face emoji might have accompanied their queries.
Girls wanted straight talk about what to expect in the years ahead. They were confused and, in many cases, too embarrassed to talk to their parents about body stuff, even if their mom was the one Cool Mom who seemed to exist in every friend group—the one you could talk to about anything. In the quiet of their bedrooms, girls sized themselves up in the mirror and fretted. With The Care and Keeping of You, we wanted to meet young girls exactly in that moment with matter-of-fact information and reassurance. We wanted to give girls words they could use to talk to adults they trusted and the courage and confidence to do so.
Yes, it’s normal to develop faster (or slower) than your friends. No, you are not a freak. Listen to your body, and it will tell you what it needs. Mostly, keep it clean. You are totally normal!
There was another subtle theme threaded like a ribbon throughout The Care and Keeping of You. We wanted to encourage and empower girls to step up and start to take ownership of their own health, hygiene, and well-being. We wanted to plant the seed of an idea: Your parents and other grown-ups are there to help you, but it’s your body—a message that’s still timely today, even if it hits in a slightly different way.
This year marks another milestone for me, one that’s even closer to my heart. My first daughter was also born in 1998, in the months just before The Care and Keeping of You made its way into the world. It’s hard to believe, even though I know it to be true, that she is 25. 25!
The author, Valorie Lee Schaefer, and her first daughter, Maris.
It’s hilarious and ironic that at the very moment I was writing a book for young girls about their changing bodies, my own body was going through some pretty seismic changes, too. I was 37 years old when I became pregnant with my daughter and considered to be of “advanced maternal age.” I was put on strict bed rest for the third trimester of my pregnancy owing to suspicion that I had an “incompetent cervix,” which might result in premature delivery. For weeks, I laid flat on my back at St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin, my arms stretched comically in front of me, a human oven with hands tippy-tapping on a laptop perched on a rolling hospital table hovering over my bed. Must keep the bun in the oven for just a few more weeks! I told myself as I reviewed page layouts and made final revisions to the book.
Valorie Lee Schaefer and her baby daughter, Maris.
I look back on that fertile gestational period for both the baby and the book with humility and a certain amount of humor. But mostly these days—as I consider the world outside the safe embrace of The Care and Keeping of You—I’m sobered by an extremely unfunny fact: If my daughter were born today in 2023, she’d arrive into a political landscape where women and girls have less fundamental human rights in many parts of the U.S. than they did in 1998, less say over what happens to their own bodies.
Last June, I watched in shock and horror, along with the majority of Americans, as the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark decision affirming a person’s right to reproductive self-determination. In some states, a girl young enough to be reading my book can now be denied an abortion, even if the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest, risking her own physical, mental, and emotional well-being and blighting her future along the way.
Abortion rights activists react to the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling, which overturned Roe v. Wade, in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on June 24, 2022, in Washington, DC.
It has always been a precarious enterprise to walk the world in female form, at every age and stage of life, but this is not the reality I imagined for the children I was writing for, nor my own. In order to see our girls safely to adulthood, we need to arm them with facts and information, model for them body acceptance and self-regard, and codify their human rights at the state and federal levels. A girl born in 2023 should—at bare minimum—have the same legal protections as a girl born in 1998.
Since its publication, The Care and Keeping of You has eased two generations of girls into their pre-adolescent years. Some girls who first read the book in the privacy of their bedrooms or at a slumber party with their friends are now young mothers themselves. Perhaps they’re the sort of cool moms whose children will come to them with their embarrassing body questions when the time is right.
Today’s girls have all of the resources of the internet in the palms of their hands—for good or for ill—and there are more books than ever to help them navigate the wonders and challenges of puberty. Even so, the central messages of The Care and Keeping of You—25 years after publication—are still there to help support girls in those tender in-between years. Those messages still ring true, even if their state laws tell them otherwise: You are strong. You are capable. You are worthy. The future belongs to you.
The views and opinions expressed are solely those of this independent writer and do not reflect opinions of the publishing imprint or parent company.
Valorie Lee Schaefer is a writer who lives in St. Louis with her photographer husband and neurotic dog, Foxy. She’s the proud mom of two girls, ages 25 and 23. Against all hope and reason, she still aspires to be the “cool mom” whose kids will talk to her about anything, even gnarly body stuff. Sometimes they do.