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Find more The P-Word
“Hello twelve / Hello thirteen / Hello love / Changes, oh! / Down below /
Up above / Time to doubt / To break out / It’s a mess, / It’s a mess.” —Marvin Hamlisch, A Chorus Line
When Karen Rivers’ A Possibility of Whales (2018) crossed my desk earlier this year, its author’s note grabbed my attention. In it, Rivers expressed her wish to write an Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret for today’s tweens—a relatable story about a girl beginning to go through puberty. This got me thinking: Where are the puberty books for middle-graders, novels that go beyond first crushes and awkwardness into the murky depths of periods, pimples, and pubic hair? There are, it turns out, surprisingly few. Although a number touch on certain developments in passing—Louise Fitzhugh’s The Long Secret (1965) has an excellent, biologically matter-of-fact chapter on periods—there aren’t many fictional works that incorporate puberty as a theme throughout the narrative.
For girls, Judy Blume’s classic Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (1970) still reigns supreme. From buying a training bra and performing bust-enhancing exercises to sixth-grade sex ed, first periods, and deodorant, it’s all there, with candor and gentle humor. Blume later revised her original book, swapping the dated sanitary belt for adhesive pads, but the questions and experience of growing up remain unaltered and just as relevant to today’s readers. In fact, in Lauren Myracle’s Twelve (2007), perhaps the best recent rendition of the girlcentric puberty novel, Winnie gets her first period (cramps and all), and her older sister hands her copies of Are You There God? and Blume’s similarly themed novel for boys, Then Again, Maybe I Won’t (1971), reaffirming Blume’s status as the puberty guru.
A Possibility of Whales successfully takes on all the same topics as Blume’s and Myracle’s novels, but it does so through the lens of a girl who doesn’t want to grow up yet and who only has her single dad to help her navigate her body’s changes. Nikki Grimes gives puberty a realistic voice through poetry and her character Joylin in Planet Middle School (2011), while Kristi Wientge’s endearing Karma Khullar’s Mustache (2017) tackles the unwelcome appearance of female facial hair—and Karma’s comically disastrous attempts to remove it.
Another tween hoping to fend off adolescence’s arrival occupies the pages of Rita Williams-Garcia’s much more somber No Laughter Here (2004). Here, Williams-Garcia not only discusses Akilah’s experiences with puberty’s onset, but she broaches the topic of female circumcision through Akilah’s best friend, Victoria, who returns from a trip to Nigeria changed and withdrawn. It’s not until Victoria finally opens up that Akilah understands the terrible thing that happened to her friend: “Have you ever played Touch My Raisin? . . . And it felt good and tickly when you touched it? . . . When I was sleeping, they took my raisin.” Williams-Garcia places this controversial practice within its proper cultural context while still condemning its violent nature and empowering her young protagonists to speak against it.
But what about the boys? The previously mentioned Then Again, Maybe I Won’t gives page time to ill-timed erections, wet dreams, and a healthy interest in girls—perhaps not so healthily indulged, as the story’s main character primarily spies through the bedroom window of the teenage girl next door. Gary Paulsen’s slim The Amazing Life of Birds: The Twenty-Day Puberty Journal of Duane Homer Leech (2006) also deals with a boy’s new and uncontrollable fixation with girls, in addition to the indignity of pimples and a changing voice. However, it’s a little too vague and fleeting when it comes to “parts of [the] body dropping” to be of much help on that score. No one wants to jump-start becoming a man more than Jack Sprigley, of Chris Miles’ highly entertaining Spurt (2017). He’s so eager, in fact, that he decides to fake puberty by wearing a merkin (“pube wig”) and loudly talking about all the masturbating he does (oh, the lies desperation breeds!). Alan Lawrence Sitomer, on the other hand, delivers his own fearlessly comic account of a 13-year-old grappling with inopportune erections, in the well-executed The Downside of Being Up (2011).
Although this is by no means a comprehensive list, these heavy hitters have a timeless quality. Still, middle-schoolers deserve more, especially where diversity is concerned. Because whether we talk about it or not, puberty is here to stay.
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