For a lot of millennial women who were tweens in the late 1990s and early 2000s, one book stood out as the proverbial bible for prepubescent girls: The Care and Keeping of You. First published in 1998 by American Girl — the brand behind the insanely popular American Girl dolls and books — this book wasn’t something you read just once and then shelved away. I distinctly remember returning to it again and again, curled up on my bed, thumbing back to favorite chapters or whatever topic was on my mind that day; or whipping it out to discuss at sleepovers with close girlfriends, poring over (and often giggling at) illustrated guides about periods or bra options or the stages of breast development.
Honestly, most of us didn’t have much going on in the breast department at that point. But The Care and Keeping of You — which is intended for girls 8 to 10 years old — was like a perfectly timed coming-of-age body manual that felt relevant in the moment while offering a preview of what lay ahead in the not-so-distant future.
The book recently turned 25 and has sold millions of copies — it was even listed as a New York Times bestseller nearly two decades after it was first published. It and its sequel for older girls, ages 10 and up, The Care and Keeping of You 2, may have a new audience of young readers, but it’s that first generation of fans — many of whom are now moms themselves — for whom the book holds a special place.
In a recent conversation with Yahoo Life, the book’s author, Valorie Schaefer, joked that the book’s 25th birthday has made “a lot of young women feel old” but said the feedback is mostly positive. “I see a lot of comments from young women who feel a tremendous amount of nostalgia and tenderness about that age in their lives, recognizing now with perspective that it was a really transitional time and a confusing time,” Schaefer says. “I think that's a reason why the book continues to hold a place in a lot of women's hearts; it's a little bit about the book, but it's maybe even more about who they were at that moment in time when they read the book.”
Not everyone has been a diehard fan. Some have criticized the book for being out of touch when it comes to things like body positivity and claim it’s too heteronormative. Now, American Girl is addressing some of those concerns with updated editions of The Care and Keeping of You 1 & 2, which were released on Jan. 9.
Here's what Schaefer says about the book's enduring appeal, changes she and American Girl decided to make for its 25th anniversary — and what she makes of crackdowns on sex education. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
There are so many books out there about puberty and female development, but something about The Care and Keeping of You really clicked with a lot of young girls. Why do you think it resonated so much?
I feel like we really found a sweet spot of talking to girls in a way that didn't make them feel like babies but also didn't rush them into the sorts of things they'll be concerned about when they're teens. We wanted to really speak to girls in a way that let them know that we have faith in them, we trust them, they're smart, they're capable — and I think that really has resonated with girls for two and a half decades.
The fact that it's a book I think is also a big part of its success, even now when girls have the internet in the palm of their hands. There's a lot of resources on the web — there's YouTube videos, there's TikTok. But when you have just a slim little book, it's just sort of a right amount of information, and you can take it in a couple pages at a time or you can snuggle up with your mom — or more likely, your best friend — and read it. That's a really specific experience.
And I think that the book continues to be popular with parents and with kids because it came from American Girl, and American Girl has spent decades really knowing and understanding specifically this age of girls and built enormous trust and goodwill with families.
What changes did you make in this new edition?
I worked really closely with the editorial team at American Girl at the outset of updating the book.
More diversity. At the top of our list was that we wanted the book to reflect more diversity, to look and feel like girls today. We wanted to be really mindful about making the book inclusive in terms of race and ethnicity, but also in terms of body types and differing abilities physically. We really combed through every illustration, every line of text, and looked for ways to make the book more inclusive — and it's one of the biggest changes I think you'll see between the editions of the books.
New products. We wanted to reflect products that are available now that weren't available even a few years ago and certainly not in 1998. We didn't have period panties when we first wrote the book, so making the book feel really up to date in terms of what kinds of products are available to help girls in their puberty years was really important to us.
Food and nutrition. One of the biggest sections we focused on with this updated version is the section that talks about food and nutrition. We wanted to bring the information up to date — specifically, to get rid of outdated notions like the food pyramid and to talk to girls about how to fuel and feed your body through all the ages and stages of your life. How we think about food comes and goes. There could be fads, nutrition and science changes — we learn new things all the time. So instead of giving girls really prescriptive ways of eating or thinking about what they eat, we wanted to give them just a general framework that we felt would hold them in good stead for the rest of their lives. We also talk about if you're a vegan or have food allergies or sensitivities — and that's not the kind of thing we were thinking about with previous editions of the book.
Diet culture. We wanted to push back against the prevailing culture that talks about diets constantly. Even girls as young as 7 and 8 are getting strong messaging about diet culture, and we really wanted the new edition of The Care and Keeping of You to give girls a different kind of message and to say, “Every body is a good body. Your body is a strong and capable body. Take care of yourself and don't feel the stresses and pressures of trying to be anybody else.”
Embracing “the whole you.” We wanted to talk in this book in every way we could about body acceptance, embracing who you are and thinking about yourself as a whole person — not just the sum of your physical parts and functions. It's not just about how you look. You are also your thoughts and your emotions and your deeds and your practices. That was really an important message we wanted to impart.
We’re seeing some states and schools cracking down on sex education, including limiting exposure to books or instruction on topics like menstruation and puberty. As the author of a book for pubescent girls, what’s your message to lawmakers and parents?
I personally, and American Girl as a company, are really strong proponents of giving kids factual, age-appropriate information. We think it's healthy, and we think that it's part of being honest when you're raising young people. You've got a body. Your body's changing. You are going to go through puberty. You are going to get your period. These are facts, and I don't think denying kids that kind of information is helpful.
Kids are going to self-educate any way they can — whether that's from YouTube or TikTok or their friends at school. They want this information. They're going to try to get this information. So let's give them good, sound resources that are age-appropriate, trustworthy and supportive of them.
What’s your advice to parents on how they can help their daughters get through puberty and girlhood?
When I wrote the book, I didn't have children yet, but I certainly remembered sharply what it was like to be a kid growing up in the ’60s and ’70s at home with my parents. So when I think about the most important parts of parenting, I think we want to keep communication open. Raising kids that are resilient and self-reliant is what we all say we want, and the years of puberty are when you really are putting in the work to reap that benefit.
Listen. The way to get your kid to share with you more readily is to shut up and listen. Somebody once told me, ‘When you're raising kids, you have to bite your tongue until it bleeds.’ And I reflect on that once in a while, because I find myself wanting to just rush right in with my opinion, my point of view, my idea of how they're going to solve this problem, instead of just listening.
Allow other trusted adults in. We have to accept that, as parents or primary caregivers, we can't necessarily be everything to them. We have to allow other trusted adults into their circle of trust and put good people in their path. We have to embrace that and not feel sad about that. It's really normal for a preteen girl to want to talk to somebody other than her mom.
Normalize talking about bodies. Normalize talking about our bodies and other kinds of things that are awkward. If we can talk about these things openly, if we can call anatomical parts by their correct names, if we can just talk about things that are kind of cringey or embarrassing with kids — if we can do that, we show them that's normal and that they can feel safe doing that, too.
Be a good model. I think — and this is a really hard one, especially for moms and female caregivers — one of the most important things we can do for a preteen girl is to model what we want them to have themselves. If we want them to love their bodies, if we want them to accept how their bodies are changing, we need to do that, too.
You’ve said before that one of the most common requests you get from millennial fans of The Care and Keeping of You is a book on perimenopause. Is that something you would consider working on?
Women would say to me, “When are you going to write a book about pregnancy? When are you going to write a book about perimenopause?” But the more I think about it, the more I think maybe there is a place for just a slim, little, basic “quick-start guide” for women of my age, too. There are tons of books and websites and experts and lectures about menopause and perimenopause, but it's so much. Sometimes all you want is this slim little volume that's just the right amount of information, like a primer. Maybe I can find a publisher of adult nonfiction who is as visionary and brave as American Girl is. We'll see. Nothing in the works, but I'm open to it for sure.