There is something girls’ books about puberty don’t get across. The one that’s in a sock drawer in our house is thin. It’s not a bad book, but its thinness is highly suspect—an apology before offense has been taken. It might as well be a book of Sudoku, a shallow, known quantity of puzzles. The fits-easily-in-the-hand quality is surely a direct hit on parental discomfort. The parent thanks the publisher for providing something less than comprehensive, an antidote to one’s own howling memories of puberty.
Puberty manuals comprise a kind of junior self-help market, if we’re talking from within the publishing industry. They’re navigational aids to the physical changes girls undergo, with a nod to emotional turbulence. Bodily transformations, at once intrusive and elusive, are matter-of-factly laid out—if I may—like a patient etherized upon a table. One such book even has a section promoting “stamina, strength, and suppleness” through good exercise and nutrition. Not a bad thing, don’t get me wrong. The genre is all about anticipating and then managing the biological bells-and-whistles during their initial intrusion onto the scene.
What the genre doesn’t tell you about growing up could flood an expanse of windblown plateau.
I feel guilty about buying the last copy of Susan Goldman Rubin’s Wideness & Wonder: The Life and Art of Georgia O’Keeffe from my local independent bookstore. A reasonably priced book, but still $1.00 for every six pages or, based on my intended reader, $1.40 for every five minutes of reading.
I also feel guilty because no other mother or grandmother or aunt is going to run across it, once it’s mine, at least not until it’s been reordered. I should tell the bookseller, Put it in the puberty section. You have no idea how uncomfortable it is in the art section of the children’s area; its cover will be itchy and it will have to spend its nights and days shoulder to shoulder with Monet and Picasso (though Cassatt and Ringgold do share the juvenile art shelf, praise be to the this indie joint).
I didn’t know everything there was to know about Georgia O’Keeffe when I opened Rubin’s book—and I still don’t. My mind’s eye beheld the Steiglitz nudes, the flowers, the animal skulls, and a vague whiff of bohemian morals. I own a coffee table book of O’Keeffe’s paintings, and a volume of her letters, but that didn’t stop me from reducing her to a palette of flotsam.
Here’s what O’Keeffe offers as inspiration at that fulcrum of childhood and adulthood. She embraced her artist-self early. She let it lead her. She cast aside conventions of physical beauty and the quest for a good marriage. She flouted many of the constraints of her time. Rubin doesn’t avoid, in this juvenile biography, the artist’s breaking of school rules and her series of boyfriends (Rubin doesn’t use that term, and we’re not given all the details). O’Keeffe, for all of her artistic iconoclasm, stopped painting for three years because of a family member’s illness. At times, she followed her inner compass; at other times, she chose to rework her life for her family or for Alfred Steiglitz.
This biography treats O’Keeffe’s legendary relationship with Steiglitz with honesty but not voyeurism. Rubin doesn’t cast their partnership as a cautionary tale or an ideal. She gives what I want my girls to get about the journey. That there is no manual worth its salt. That love and art and livelihood matter all at once. That the bells and whistles of our sex are just that and no more.
One other thing—no, it won’t all be over soon. Puberty may have a beginning and end, like a book, but your path into adulthood can be all your own, serpentine and indeterminate. I issue a call to my fellow parents (and booksellers-in-arms).
Let’s seed the sock drawers of Girldom with women like O’Keeffe.