But some sex educators say the books suffer from a pretty big blind spot. Perryn Reis is the associate director of Health Connected, a sex-ed nonprofit based in Northern California. Reis has encountered the book in some of the classrooms she’s visited, and appreciates some things about it. But, she says, the book is heteronormative. At one point, it says readers “may begin to notice boys in a whole new way.” 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.”
The Care and Keeping of You was a formative book for many Millennial women who were in the target audience when it was first published, and for younger generations of girls, but it is just one of many such at-home guides to sex and puberty that kids have learned from over the years. The creators of the seminal Our Bodies, Ourselves, published in 1970 and known for teaching women about their anatomy and sexuality, published a teen version of the book in 1998, the same year as the first edition of The Care and Keeping of You. It went in-depth into topics related to puberty, including eating disorders, teen pregnancy, STDs, and relationship violence. Fictional books for teens have also provided some practical lessons over the years — Judy Blume’s classic Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret., a coming-of-age novel published in 1970, tackles puberty, crushes, buying a bra, and, yes, periods.
Then there are books like It’s Perfectly Normal, which has been frequently banned from school libraries since its release in 1994. Written by Robie Harris, the book is intended for children 10 and up, and covers puberty, pregnancy, STDs, and sexual orientation, while also featuring full-color pictures of naked people. In 1999, Harris published It’s So Amazing, a book for younger children about pregnancy and childbirth. “Those have been controversial, but have some great, accurate information,” Reis says.
Many sex educators I spoke to also recommended Sex Is a Funny Word, a comic book for kids ages 8 to 10 released in 2015 that has reached acclaim for being trans-inclusive, and for using diverse representation across race, ability, gender, and sexuality.
Even with all of these options, Alberda, the Michigan-based sex educator, says The Care and Keeping of You still stands out for the way it focuses on questions tween girls have about their bodies. She believes it helped pave the way for books like The Girls’ Guide to Sex Education, a question-and-answer book published earlier this year, and Puberty Girl, another illustration-heavy guide to growing up. Alberda also recommends HelloFlo: The Guide, Period., an illustrated guide to puberty that talks about periods, and also gives historical context for society’s changing attitudes about ideal breast size and pubic-hair grooming.