The Care and Keeping, All Grown Up

The Care and Keeping, All Grown Up

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This month, The Care and Keeping of You turns 20. This big birthday has been celebrated with some pretty amazing press coverage, like this article and this and this one, too. I didn’t write the original book, though as I tell everyone I wish I had. But I did have the privilege of updating it, of writing a follow up book for older girls and a mother/daughter book and even a boy book. All of this stemmed from the original text created by Valorie Schaefer.

Despite how entwined my professional life is with Valorie’s, we have never met. In fact, before this month, we had never even emailed. But at long last, Valorie and I connected and she did not disappoint. Of course she’s cool – she wrote the original Care and Keeping! – but she’s also smart and passionate and all about empowerment. Amazingly, Valorie’s experiences post-publication have been almost identical to mine, particularly when it comes to the range of reactions (Woah! Too much!! Wait, too little...) and how it feels to be teaching unanticipated audiences, like dads.  

Happy anniversary, Valorie. Thanks for starting something that changed millions of lives, including mine.

CARA: You broke the mold with The Care and Keeping of You. The mainstay book at the time was Our Bodies Ourselves, and there certainly wasn’t anything for younger girls. What inspired you? What were you seeing in the world that pointed to the need?

VALORIE: I deserve and accept 0% of the credit for hatching the idea for The Care and Keeping of You. The impetus for this book was Pleasant Rowland, the visionary founder of American Girl (f/k/a Pleasant Company) and the brilliant editor Michelle Watkins. Pleasant saw an article in the newspaper—perhaps the NYT—about how girls, historically, were entering puberty at an earlier and earlier age. She ripped out the article and sent it to Michelle with a note attached that read "We need to do something about this. NOW!" (If you know Pleasant, you can even hear her voice coming through on a sticky note.)

Together, they made the decision to create a book for younger girls about their changing bodies. I was invited aboard to write the book—a remarkable turn of good luck considering I'd never written a book in my life! It was a courageous decision—both from the standpoint of being a well-respected brand taking on potentially controversial subject matter, and entrusting the project to a first-time author. But Pleasant and Michelle never wavered. 

CARA: What kind of feedback did you get initially?

VALORIE: Fortunately, the book was well-received pretty much across the board by girls, parents, educators, and health professionals right from the start. We received piles of letters from girls and mothers—and fathers!—expressing their thanks for providing something useful and age-appropriate. Criticism tended (and still tends) to fall into two opposing camps:  the book goes too far, or the book doesn't go far enough. Some felt the book was overly graphic, others felt it side-stepped discussing reproduction and sex. "Why are you showing an illustration of a vagina??!!!" vs. "Why didn't you include the clitoris in the illustration??!!" sort of sums up the polarized views of a few vocal critics.

CARA: What was your biggest compliment?

VALORIE: I think my favorite letter was from an uncoupled father of a young daughter. He expressed his gratitude for the way the book gave him an opening to have a relaxed and natural conversation with his daughter about the physical and emotional changes on the horizon. It gave him language to use as conversation-starters, and perhaps even imparted some practical information that was new to him : ) This father had a sincere desire to continue to engage his daughter through all of the ages and stages of her young life, and was determined to stay involved and supportive. The Care and Keeping was a helpful tool for keeping him connected to his daughter even when things were starting to get tricky. I loved getting that feedback!

CARA: What was your biggest dis?

VALORIE: For sure, there were parents who felt the book was inappropriate for their daughters and wanted these sorts of conversations left to their discretion; there were parents who found the contents of the book too intimate or shocking or even "dirty." These voices were in the minority, but still! Some even lobbied their school libraries to remove the book from their shelves, feeling it was too explicit to be freely available to young girls and boys. Isn't that amazing? To be honest, I fear those are the very girls who needed the matter-of-fact, straightforward information and empowering message the book offered the most.

CARA: Starting in 1997 and 1998, there was a lot of buzz about girls entering puberty earlier than ever. I had no idea that this was the catalyst for the entire book…

VALORIE: Yes, this realization was the very impetus for the book in the first place! There were certainly books available for girls already that covered some of this same ground. Some answered the age old question "Where do babies come from?" Others seemed tailored to the concerns of teens or older adolescents and offered advice on sexual and reproductive health. At American Girl, we felt we had earned a unique place in the hearts of girls and the trust of parents, and I think it gave us a lot of confidence that we knew well—almost in our bones—what information a 10-year-old girl was ready to receive, and we worked hard to meet her exactly where she was. Every decision in the book from what the clothing looked like in the illustrations to the language we chose was informed by a desire to get the details right for a girl in our age range. Michelle Watkins, our editor, was clear and insistent that the girl illustrated on the two pages that showed how to insert a tampon should be wearing a t-shirt with a pattern of little hearts—a reminder that this book was intended for a 10-year-old year, not a teen. 

CARA: How did your daughters react to you being the author of this cult classic book? For many years, my daughter accused me of humiliating her more than any other parent on earth – did you get this same high praise and warm reaction in your own home?!

VALORIE: Ha, this is a hilarious question! When they were younger, perhaps pre-teens, they were super nonplussed about the fact that I had written this book. I was just mom, you know? "Can you get me a snack? Where are my socks?" Writing was just the work I did when I wasn't taking care of them. Once they were teens, I think they were proud of the fact that many of their friends knew the book, and that it had been important to them. One of my daughters has since confessed that she once blurted out that I was the author of the book at summer camp one year during the anxiety-provoking and much-dreaded "ice breaker" portion that inevitably kicks off every camp experience. I'm sure she was hoping that would be tantamount to claiming, like, Katy Perry or Beyonce as an aunt. Maaaaybe she managed to impress a handful of girls at camp.

I was always eager—perhaps overeager—to make myself available for any questions my girls might have about puberty and their changing bodies as they became 8, 9, 10. Inevitably, my efforts were met with eye rolls. My oldest once retorted, "Mom, I have 'THE BOOK.'"  End of discussion. it's pretty normal for girls that age to be private about their bodies and to feel embarrassment and even fear about the way their bodies are changing. Parents—especially the cool evolved parent we believe ourselves to be—can feel a bit hurt if our girls shut down a bit and don't want to talk to us about EVERYTHING during these years. I had to accept, as most parents do, that this is mostly a moment in time, developmentally, for the girls. Not a commentary on our parenting.

I have to say that as young adults now, 18 and 20, my daughters are willing to engage in far-ranging, open discussions about all manner of things, including sex and their changing bodies. Hang in there, parents!

CARA: Every interviewer asks me about why the book series doesn’t cover sex. I have an answer for that but I would love to hear yours!

VALORIE: The Care and Keeping was never intended to provide all the information a girl would need throughout her growing up years. I think you can really dilute your efforts when you try to be all things to all people. We felt there were already excellent resources available for those girls who were ready to talk about reproductive health and wellness. Our Bodies Ourselves, for instance. We were striving to meet girls where they were, with the information they needed, in the pre-teen years—our core audience. We believed we were uniquely able to speak to those girls in a voice that was warm, calm, matter-of-fact, supportive, and empowering, without overwhelming them with too much information before they were ready to receive it. For those girls who were ready for more, more, MORE, their parents could certainly find fantastic books available for them!