I read the book. Things were, indeed, changing. Holy crap, they were: This was a revelation! (As were the diagrams, wow.) I read the whole thing through more than once, occasionally talking through topics with friends, girls also on the verge of puberty. Ranging in scope from masturbation to menstruation to breasts to detailed explorations of female anatomy to what's happening with boys to sex and "making babies" and even zits, this book explained so much that no one had told me, stuff that no one was talking about in school, or even out of it, beyond the occasional article in Sassy. Today's parents may insist on having The Talk, but this book did it for me with fewer cringes than any direct parent-to-kid conversation would have been (as Madaras writes in her intro for parents, "It may work better in your particular situation for you to give the book to your daughter to read on her own"). Thanks, Mom.
But this was not the only book that paved the path into womanhood for me and thousands—more than 200,000 copies sold, says the title at right; a 2000 Amazon book description says it's more than 500,000—of other girls. An important role of Y.A. books, as author and former YALSA President Michael Cart wrote, is to show young people who they are, as reflected on their pages. It's also to show them who they're growing up to be. Thus, Y.A. themes tend to focus on the biggies; this is just one reason they resonate. They taught us how to think about death, divorce, bullying, risky behavior, friendships, abuse. And they also taught us about sex, from the scary to the enlightening.
Y.A. is not just fiction, keep in mind. The category also includes nonfiction, and as such, Lynda Madaras' book is a key tome in that arena. But there are others. In the canon for 12-year-old me, there were these, books that still resonate with the now-thirtysomething.
Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. Judy Blume's quintessential growing-up novel, from which we learned about practice kissing, about being "flat" vs. being "small-boned," about wearing bras, increasing our busts, liking boys, and, obviously, about getting our periods. The bra-shopping scene is something any girl (and woman) can relate to in all of its forever awkwardness, intimacy, and horror:
"Now dear [says the saleslady]—I suggest the Gro-Bra. It grows with you. You're not quite ready for a double A. Suppose you try them on and see which is most comfortable." She led us to a dressing room with a pink door that locked. My mother sat in the dressing room on a chair. I took off my dress. I wasn't wearing anything underneath but pants. I picked up the first bra and stuck my arms into the straps. I couldn't fasten it in the back. My mother had to help me. She adjusted the straps and felt the front of me, "How does it feel?" she asked.
"I don't know," I said. "Is it too tight?" "No." "Too loose?" "No." "Do you like it?" "I guess..." "Try on this one."
She got me out of the first bra and into the next one. I wondered how I'd ever learn to do it by myself. Maybe my mother would have to dress me every day.
The Clan of the Cave Bear. Not technically Y.A., librarians would look at me askance when I checked this out, but my mom let me read it anyway. Jean M. Auel's book, the first in a series, tells the story of Ayla, an orphaned Cro-Magnon girl found in a state near death and adopted by the Neanderthal people of the Clan even though she, blonde and blue-eyed, looks nothing like them and is considered weird and even ugly. The story is historic and epic in scope, but also deals with sex (and more so throughout the series). In book one, Ayla is raped and impregnated by a character named Broud; later in the series, she falls in love with another character and experiences sex in a positive way, but, as Lizzie Skurnick writes in her analysis of teen classics, Shelf Discovery, there's more than just "sex" in these books, even if that's why we read them the first time: "On a fundamental level, it's about sex not for sex's sake but for how it interacts with our lives—how Ayla suffers to keep the baby that results from Broud's raping her and her status as hunter and medicine woman, and how, in the next few novels, she strives to find a partner not only of her own kind, but of her own kind—an equal partner that appreciates Ayla the species and Ayla the woman."