Every time I catch myself typing the phrase “kids these days” I roll my eyes at myself. Surely I’m not yet old and lame enough to allow such words to escape my brain without irony. And yet, here I am, typing just that: Kids these days grow up faster than in generations past.
That’s not a lamentation uttered by a millennial who tweezed another white hair from her scalp this morning. Or, it’s not just that, anyway. It’s a scientific fact: The age at which young girls reach puberty in 2023 is significantly younger than it was even just a couple decades ago. My daughter, born 35 years after me, will be hitting some of the hallmarks of womanhood earlier in her life than I ever did.
Your daughter, if you have one, will too.
The 40,000-some young girls enrolled in Katy Independent School District’s schools are, in fact, way more likely than their moms were to start hitting these milestones before they transition from elementary school to middle school. So why did the district ban Judy Blume’s book, “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” from elementary schools?
Judy Blume first released her coming-of-age novel about almost-12-year-old Margaret Simon impatiently awaiting the arrival of her period and a fuller training bra, in 1970. At that time, the general consensus among scientists and health professionals was that young girls would experience their first period — on average — shortly before their 13th birthday.
“The age in all the textbooks back then, in the 1970s and 1980s, was 13-and-a-half,” says Marcia Herman-Giddens, an adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health. That’s roughly the eighth grade.
Then Herman-Giddens spent a decade analyzing the age at which more than 17,000 American girls were beginning to experience their periods — a moment called menses.
“By the time we gathered our data, which started in the early ‘90s, it ended up there were significant differences in the age of onset of menses,” she says. While previous data relied on small-scale studies that lacked diverse subjects, Herman-Giddens’s findings, published in 1997, showed a yet-to-be-seen nuance. “We found that for Black girls, they were 12 years and 2 months old, and white girls were 12 years and 10 months old” when they first recorded their periods.
That means the average girl in 1997 had her first period in about the sixth grade — and half of all girls met that milestone even earlier. What’s more, in the 26 years since Herman-Giddens published her results, subsequent studies have found that the age continues to drop.
“But,” she says, “it’s dropping much more slowly than the onset of breast development. And that’s the key thing to focus on — not menses — because the first sign of puberty in most girls is breast development, and it’s occurring earlier and earlier and earlier.”
How early? Margaret Simon and the six cotton balls she stuffed into her training bra shortly after her 12th birthday would die to hear that in 2013 the average white and Asian girls began developing in the fourth grade, at 9.7 years old. Latina girls started a bit younger at 9.3 years, and Black girls matured first, beginning at 8.8 years, about the third grade on average.
“So if you think about it in averages, that means you have first- and second-graders who are experiencing this,” Herman-Giddens says.
Windows and mirrors
Judy Blume’s novel, beloved as it is, is probably not quite right for first-graders. I re-read it earlier this week, and while it’s a breezy read for an adult, there are some tricky words and sentences. According to its publishers, the book has a Lexile score of 570, which means that the typical third grader could comprehend the story.
That sounds perfect, considering that the typical third-grader is, like Margaret Simon, probably noticing changes to her body. And she’s probably freaking out — at least a little bit — about them.
This is when the beauty of books becomes so important. I think, constantly, about the way one expert spoke about the importance of stories in an article my Houston Landing colleague Céilí Doyle wrote earlier this year.
“Kids should have both windows and mirrors in the books they have access to,” a University of Houston education professor told Doyle, when describing the importance of providing children access to a wide range of books as book bans become more and more common across the nation and Texas. Fittingly, like Blume’s protagonist — and even like myself — the professor’s name is Margaret. Margaret Hale.
Young girls need to see stories that reflect their lives as they are, and as they will be in the futures they anticipate with the kind of impatience that only children can channel. They need to see girls like Margaret Simon go through the challenges of growing up so when they face it themselves they know they’re not alone. Remove a book like Blume’s from an elementary school library, and you’re only ensuring that girls will find it far too late.
Science and common sense
I’ve made a lot of phone calls and emails for this column. The Katy ISD public information officer I reached out to ignored the intent of my request for an interview, instead emailing me links to the district’s process to remove or retain books. That spokesperson, Craig Eichhorn, did not respond to my follow up message clarifying my request to discuss the reasoning behind the removal of Blume’s book, which the district has yet to explain to the public or the press. And Judy Blume, for her part, is unavailable for interviews this week, as she’s out of town speaking about book banning at an event for the ACLU, according to her assistant, Joanne Brennan. (This is not Blume’s first book ban rodeo.)
But this is not a column that requires a ping-pong quote fest from people “on both sides” of the issue. It’s rooted in science and common sense.
Here’s the science: Girls hit puberty in elementary school.
And here’s the common sense: They deserve access to books about girls going through puberty during those years of their life — not after.
Maybe Margaret Simon says it best as she narrates a passage in Blume’s book in which the girls’ gym teacher prepares them to discuss “certain very private subjects just for girls” throughout their sixth grade year.
Margaret’s exasperation drips off the page as she asks, “Why do they wait until sixth grade when you already know everything!”
Share your Houston stories with me. We can start on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Or you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.