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What's with the name?

Allow us to explain.

Power Grid

9 Books That Made Us Terrified of Puberty

Allow Us To Explain

Allow Us To Explain

Okay, here’s a Grid that really needs some explaining. It may come as a surprise to you that many of the people behind the writing on The Mary Sue have read a lot of books. Many of us were even reading a lot of books when we were little kids in elementary and middle school! Shocking, I know.

And one of the things that comes along with being a young and voracious reader is that people give you books to read, or recommend books to you, or require you to read books when they haven’t really thought about the consequences. After all, if it’s got a Newbery medal on it, it can’t be that bad. And so with all the lovely books we read as kids there are a number that we’d rather have not, and that we’d rather only be given to kids if you’re going to have a serious talk with them afterwards about what the book may or may not be implying about their bodies, their lives, or their futures.

Yes, we’re going to talk about the bizzare experiences that we’ve had with young adult literature that’s full of body horror, menstruation horror, pregnancy horror, and characters with really legitimately terrifying reasons to be apprehensive about reaching puberty and who see their fears realized before the end of the book.

This is not to say that one can’t write about menstruation or the onset of puberty without scaring prepubescent kids. The best example I’ve seen of a book that neither skips over nor shocks by showing a young girl’s first experience with hormonal adulthood comes from, wouldn’t you guess, YA fantasy fiction. Tamora Pierce’s The Song of the Lioness series concerns Alanna of Trebond, who spends most of her childhood posing as Alan of Trebond while she trains as a knight. When Alanna wakes one morning to find blood on her sheets, she dashes off to the only healer she knows who knows her secret, the mother of a friend. And you know what happens? The mother says:

1. This is normal. It happens to most women.

2. It’s going to happen once a month. Here’s what you should do to not get your clothes dirty.

3. If you sleep with someone now, you could get pregnant. And I’m not saying you’re going to (Alanna is adamantly uninterested in sex) but just in case here’s a mundane magical charm that will keep you from getting pregnant.

And that’s that. Alanna gets all the pertinent information she needs, and an affirmation that not only is nothing wrong with her, but that nothing about her has fundamentally changed that can’t be dealt with relatively easily by taking a few precautions. Thanks, YA fantasy fiction!

But this grid isn’t just about gross descriptions of bodies. We’re also talking about a trend of telling stories about people who want to break free from the unreasonable restraints that society has placed on them and then either fail to do so by the end of the book or are punished for their transgressions. These stories are absolutely important to tell, but when they become a trend that makes failure and fear the dominant tropes that we associate with characters with these kinds of desires, that’s when things go wrong.


  • DH

    Oh LORD The Against Taffy Sinclair Club. What a mean, screwed-up book. And Go Ask Alice, well…I did an internship in a high school library last year, and that book was still on the shelves and it was still being heavily circulated. I weep for the future. 

    I love that you guys talk about Tamora Pierce almost as much as me. WHO’S FINISHED READING MASTIFF??

  • curiositykt

    I too read Shabanu in 6th grade and was scarred for life. For all the reasons you list, I can not forget that book.  It was not the time to have us read this book. 

  • Lisa Jonte

    Ye gods, nothing says, “Depression and Fear are baked right in!” like a Newbery medal on the cover.

  • curiositykt

    Also it wasn’t until I reread Jacob Have I loved as an adult that I understood why they put the baby in the oven, I thought as an 11 year old that the baby was dead and they were cooking it. This was never explained to us in class since the teacher didn’t find it confusing and we were too embarrassed that we didn’t understand. 

  • Anonymous

    “…Or she murdered a prostitute for her bra straps.” <This.

    The only one on this list that I read was "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," and it was one of several summer reading options, so we didn't have much discussion about it at all. But it didn't really bother me at all, probably because my own mom was very proactive about the whole puberty thing.

  • Anna B

    I remember reading the Fabulous Five having never read the “Against Taffy Sinclaire Club” and I distinctly recall thinking the entire time, “What the heck did Taffy do to them?” because the FF books never really explained it, just that Taffy was beautiful and that the Fab Five hated her for that. Even as a pre-teen, I knew they were being jealous. I think I read two Fab Five books (they were really short) and finally realized I didn’t have to keep reading these books.

  • Lauren

    My friends and I credit Tamora Pierce with us not freaking out over puberty and having a healthy attitude towards being female. If I ever meet that woman, I’d love to thank her for everything she ever did for my 12 year old self.


  • Anonymous

    Best power grid ever.

  • Shard Aerliss

    I’ve never heard of, yet alone read any of these books (except The Bell Jar). And now I never will, thanks.

  • Anonymous

    wow, i had completely blocked out the ending of the bell jar until i read this.  isnt there also a terrifying birthing scene in it?  esters boyfriend was studying to be a doctor, and she wanders into the delivery room or something…

  • ainok

    I’ve read exactly one of these books. It kind of illustrates why I sort of skipped straight to LotR and sci-fi in elementary school. I’d rather read about people getting their arms hacked off with swords. Seriously.

  • Willow

    The last book in the newest series (Mastiff) about George Cooper’s Great Great Great etc Grandmother just came out. I finished it that same day (and went to bed at 3AM for a 6:30 wake up, ugh). Tamora Pierce is awesome.

  • Francesca M

    I was a bit of a precocious reader so I’m glad I managed to avoid most of these. Though I remember totally that Alanna book, its burned in my mind. I also remember when she started having teh sex. One book I’m glad I didn’t read till I was in my 20s was Deerskin by Robin McKinley (so many books I love by her) I remember the protagonist didn’t have her period when she should have started, it didn’t show up for ages. So when she finally got it (a while after having been raped and impregnated by her insane father) during this great empowering moment for her. It flowed down her legs and over the floor in these very descriptive patterns. And because it was magical.. it left a permanent mark on the floor. I don’t think I would have handled it if I had read it before getting my period for the first time.

  • gabrielle gantz

    Go Ask Alice! Yes! was this one supposed to be pro or anti drugs? 

  • Anonymous

    Okay okay okay wait. I can get how that last one could qualify for the list, showing teenagedom as a short road to mental illness could certainly make anyone afraid of growing up. But anxiety disorder jokes? Really? What bizarro Mary Sue am I reading?

  • Anonymous

    Aside from Alanna, Catherine Called Birdy,  and Jacob Have I Loved, I haven’t read any of these! In all of my growing up readings, I must have somehow avoided the worst of everything. Jacob Have I Loved didn’t cause me any concern except the part where she hugs the Captain and gets a *funny feeling* in her *secret places*….when I first read this book (4th grade?), I had not yet experienced “arousal” so to me that whole bit was odd. Other than that….I guess I just read a lot of Judy Blume and grew up well adjusted.
    …So well adjusted that in middle school, my librarian would have me read the newly arrived books that she thought might be questionable, and then have me assess whether they should stay at the middle school or be sent up to the high school’s library (one of these latter books opened with a graphic rape/murder where the murderer described his “seed” spilled on his victim’s open loins). Didn’t phase me a bit, which I guess is strange because I came from a “no sex before marriage EVER under any circumstances!!” family, where we weren’t even allowed to watch sitcoms that joked around about such subjects.

  • Null

    Just to add a little levity: I read ‘Then Again, Maybe I Won’t’ (one of Judy Blume’s few boy books) at the age of 6. All I remember is laughing hysterically at the slurred words the boys say when they get drunk.

    I read most of the Judy Blume books, but was so young it didn’t help me one bit.

  • MickieMousseau

    I, thankfully, managed to avoid all of these. But then I was given Have Spacesuit Will Travel by the school librarian in 3rd grade & was devouring any science fiction I could get my hands on by puberty.  

  • Joseph

    As a 10 year old boy who read it, “Are You There God?  It’s Me, Margaret.”

  • arogunolayinka

    The age old question of balance, its always been there, and its not going anywhere, its very difficult as writer not to be biased in one way or another, I guess the best we can hope is to be positively biased.

  • Anonymous


  • stevi ferg

    “Deenie” by Judy Blume. I loved most of JB’s books, but this one was awful. Not only was it terrifying in regards to puberty, but made me want to skip the annual scoliosis screening in gym class.

  • Francesca M

    There should be a powergrid for Judy Blume books. Anyone read Tigereye?

  • Annika Raaen

    Sheesh…and I thought I was traumatized by Judy Blume’s books. Don’t judge…I was totally sheltered!!

  • Anonymous

  • Tamora Pierce

    Lauren, you just did–and I thank you!

  • Tamora Pierce

    Thanks, Willow!  Sorry about the early wake-up, though!

  • Tamora Pierce

    8-D  ::blush::

  • Tamora Pierce


  • Tamora Pierce

    I don’t think DEERSKIN was supposed to be for younger teenagers, which helps–the graphic incestuous rape keeps it off middle school shelves.  It freaked me out, and I was 40 when I read it.  It’s one of my favorite books now, but I still skip the rape.  And you’re right about her period being magical at last.

  • Tamora Pierce

    Anti.  We were all given it in the early 70s right along with the “trip on acid and go out the window because you think you can fly” health class movie.

  • Tamora Pierce

    Judy Blue’s FOREVER is historical in that it’s one of the first, if not the first, book that has the main characters and not getting pregnant/married/doomed forever.

  • Francesca M

    Its been a while since I read it, I should see if I can turn up my copy. If not I can always read the Blue Sword for the gazillionth time.

  • Marie

    For me it was one of the Wrinkle in Time books (Many Waters I think…the one in biblical times).  It was a Horrible Childbirth Scene in which the midwife is trying to hold together the birthing mother’s torn vagina.  Ack, I feel all squicky just thinking about it, and it’s probably been almost 2 decades.

  • Caravelle

     Go Ask Alice is the only one in that list I’d read, and I’m glad to find out it was probably a hoax because I was really puzzled by it. What I remember best about it is a bit where she’s high and looking at her hand “in a thousand dimensions” and that sounded so cool.

    Truffault Was Right and all that I expect. (not that I ever did hard drugs. I have enough trouble with internet addiction as is)

    Alanna I read when I was eleven and I loved them so much that despite forgetting their titles (that was shortly before I realized that the author’s name is really important, sorry Tamora Pierce :p) I kept trying to track them down for years. I even wrote down everything I remembered about them in a diary in the hopes it would help. I even tried to remember in what aisle of the library they’d been so I’d have a hint to the author’s name. In the end the internet saved me : I looked up The Enchanted Forest books on Amazon, because I remembered my friends and I discovering those books at about the same time, and went through all the “people who bought this also bought…” links. AND IT WORKED.

    I’m a bit afraid of re-reading them now though.

  • Melissa H

    I had scoliosis surgery as a child, and Deenie actually helped me when I was feeling down – I mean, sure, it was a pain not being able to run, and having to take care with my back, but things had advanced a lot beyond that time. It was the only book I’ve ever read on the subject, and it helped to see how someone else, even a fictional character, dealt with it. I don’t remember how it dealt with puberty, though. I can see how it would be scary to someone who didn’t have scoliosis, but I expect I’m not the only person with it who it helped.  YMMV, I guess?
    (As an aside, you had screenings in gym class? We never had those… in fact my parents had to go to the school and point out that I couldn’t be expected to lug back and forth several heavy text books every day, no matter if it annoyed the teacher!)

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, Tamora Pierce is probably the best thing to ever have happened to my literary adventure. I found the Alanna books right at a critical point where I was starting to doubt in the existence of good female protagonists. Doubts were erased instantly I decided that I might not know the specifics yet, I was going to be AWESOME when I grew up. Whatever that would end up meaning.

    Can’t wait for winter break when I finally will have time to read Mastiff…

  • amber loranger

    I kinda regret that I only discovered your books as an adult because they would have been JUST THE THING when I was about 12 and telling my sister “Let’s play Lord of the Rings, except we’ll be girl hobbits who get to do cool stuff,” but they still definitely satisfy now that I’m in my 20′s. thanks for writing awesome YA fantasy with badass lady characters. 

  • Talia

    I never read any of these books except for I Know Why the Cadged Bird sings, though I do remember my mother bought me a video of Jacob Have I Loved from one of those “for kids” movie companies that were, I’m certain of it, religiously affiliated too. I do remember it being really fucked up and being quite puzzled by its end, in that “What…was I suppose to learn here?” way.

    I can’t remember being assigned very many female main character centric books for reading in middle school, but I did read many on my own. My staple was the Alice series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor a contemporary, very realistic, and not too frightening look at a young girl’s experiences with puberty. I definitely plan on giving these books to my daughter, should I ever have one. Unfortunately, I’ve heard her recent installments are not as good as the old ones. I’m almost tempted to read them, even though I’m 26 and it’s literally been over a decade since I read an Alice book.

    But good gods, I am glad that I never read most of these. They sound traumatizing.

  • Anonymous

    Still, I think it’s one of the only books I’ve ever read where a young woman’s period is treated ultimately as more empowering than terrifying.  (Given Deerskin, it’s kind of a relief something isn’t terrifying….)  In fact, it’s not only empowering for Lissar, it’s empowering for others, since the pattern the blood leaves is said later to comfort people who are trying to make hard decisions, possibly like deciding to read Deerskin.  Don’t get me wrong, I love the book, but it is one hard read.

  • Ms Avery

    Ahahaha, I remember that scene too, so nasty. It kept popping back into my head towards the end of my pregnancy, which was NOT helpful.

    Moral of the story: don’t sleep with giant evil angels!

  • Ms Avery

     Nobody else I knew ever read that book, and I hated it SO SO MUCH. I blanked out as much of it as possible, but still remember being totally freaked out by the scene where the aunt has a miscarriage.

    I think my grandmother gave it to me in an attempt at feminist consciousness-raising, but all it did was make me miserable (and I was plenty feminist already, anyway).

  • Anonymous

  • Ms Avery

    I was satisfied with the ending of Catherine, Called Birdy. A really happy ending, by our standards, wouldn’t have felt realistic given the kind of society portrayed throughout the book. I mean, she’s a tween whose parents are determined to marry her off, and it’s the 13th century, so really, her life is always kind of going to suck by modern standards. A marriage to a guy she at least likes is probably as good as it’s going to get.

  • Plant-Girl Petty

    Am I the only one who read Jacob Have I Loved that kept waiting for Wheeze to murder her sister by the end of the book?  I even re-wrote certain sections, mostly because I wanted the torture to end, that involved “accidents” in which Caroline ends up dead and Wheeze (usually) ends up going completly nuts.  Needless to say, the teacher who forced me to read this book against my will was horrified and threatened to send ME in for an evaluation.

  • Plant-Girl Petty

    I read it twice (for school).  *shudder*

  • Francesca M

    DUDE you read it for school??? oh man… I can’t imagine my schools being allowed to!

  • Anonymous

    I believe she visits his laboratory and there is a preserved fetus in a jar–could be wrong, but I think this is what provides the titular metaphor.  She feels trapped, like she is devolving into a formaldehyde-soaked fetus.

  • Laura Van Fleteren

    I met Ms. Pierce at a convention a couple years ago in DragonCon (her being there was also one of the reasons I was going, her Song of the Lioness series is basically what started me reading so much) and she was the reason I spent the entire time in the Young Adult Literature track. She was just a delight to listen to and her suggestions for books to read (as a young adult or an adult who’s young at heart) were dead-on. I especially loved her on the panel about boys and reading and the argument about whether there was a decline in literature directed at young males. So, point is, if you ever get the chance to hear her views on something… go. You won’t be disappointed.

  • Antonella Inserra

    FEAR NOT!!  I started reading Tamora Pierce in middle school and STILL reread them when I want a comfort read.  You WON’T be disappointed!  And be sure to read everything that happens in Tortall AFTER Alanna–it’s pretty boss, especially Kel.  XD

  • Molly Hodgin

    Bah! I loved the Taffy Sinclair books–because I related to Taffy (also, who is named Taffy?) and hated Jana Morgna. I kept reading hoping something awful would happen to Jana, but she never really got her comeuppance. 

  • Megan

    Okay, so I don’t know if anyone will even read my comment, given how long ago this particular power grid was published, but I have to jump up in defense of Shabanu, or more specifically, the Shabanu duology. I’d agree that read alone, the first book seems like a pretty awful dead end for the title character. But…she pretty much kicks ass in the second book [SPOILERS], faking her own death and the death of her daughter, so that both of them can escape to a new life where they control their own destinies [END SPOILERS]. It’s still not an easy read, but the sequel transforms it into a much more empowering story.

    On the subject of books read before I was ready for them, I blithely picked out Push from the bookstore at the tender age of thirteen. Yeah, that was a bit scarring.

  • Anonymous

    My eleven year old self is very relieved to hear this! I wish we’d read the second book, too.

  • Molly Withey Albers

    I have to say I was fortunate to have skipped all but “Jacob Have I Loved” and “I Know Whay the Caged Bird Sings” in this list. I think for me the empowering female character of my childhood was Lessa in Anne McCaffrey’s “Dragonflight”. My mom was a scifi fan so I snuck it out of her collection at the tender age of 11 and never went back to mainstream fiction.

  • Cara Rowen McGee

    I have anxiety and after reading that, I find everything said, fairly accurate.

  • Cara Rowen McGee

    How about Mara: Daughter of the Nile, which HORRIFIED me when I was 13. I also read Perk and a few other not so awesome teen novels.