Girl Talk: Q&A with Sarah O’Leary Burningham

Today Infinite Reads has a very special guest, the fun and multitalented Sarah O’Leary Burningham! Sarah’s something of a guru when it comes to tween and teen issues, and she’s here to talk with us about her new book Girl to Girl: Honest Talk About Growing Up and Your Changing Body. I know some of my readers have young daughters, and for at least a couple of you, it’s not too soon to think about the changes your little girl’s going to face before much longer.

GirlToGirl_BookCover “A must-read for girls ages 8-12, Girl to Girl is filled with expert advice, letters and testimonials from real girls, confidence-boosting tips, and myth-busting sidebars, that will coach preteens through all of life’s big moments, from first bras to first periods.” I stole that description from the author’s website, but I fully endorse the “must-read” claim. I’m not the only one, either. Girl to Girl (Chronicle Books, November 2013) released to great reviews from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and School Library Journal, and has garnered endorsements from a laundry list of experts that includes–brace yourself for the onslaught of credentials–Mark Schuster, MD, PhD (William Berenberg Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, Chief of General Pediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital), Judy Norsigian (Executive Director, Our Bodies Ourselves), Sue Scheff (Founder of Parent’s Universal Resource Experts, Inc.), and others.

Sarah holds a BA in English from the University of Utah and has written two other books for tween/teen girls, Boyology (Chronicle, 2009) and How to Raise Your Parents (Chronicle, 2008) as well as writing an advice column for ABC Family Network for two years. She has also written for major magazines including Cosmogirl! and Publishers Weekly and been interviewed by Teen Vogue, ABC News, CBS News, FOX News, the Today Show, and News Week about tween/teen issues. Currently she runs a PR firm in New York City. She’s also funny, incredibly nice, and absolutely one of the good ones in this world. I’m extremely proud to feature her here, and I highly recommend Girl to Girl to anyone who needs an honest, straightforward, and never awkward guide to the messy business of female puberty. Grownups, I promise this book will make those tough “you may notice some changes” talks MUCH easier. And now, meet Sarah!

IR: Let’s jump right in! How did you decide what topics to touch on in Girl to Girl?SarahBurningham_MedRes_AuthorPhoto_creditKatieDudley

SB: I was able to get to know a lot of girls while writing my first two books, and I realized that they weren’t all as lucky as I have been to have sisters and people they trust while growing up. So my goal with Girl to Girl was to become a stand-in big sister, someone who could help empower girls to feel good about themselves and their bodies while answering important questions. I wanted to cover all the basics, from finding the right bra, to getting your first period, to picking out glasses and braces, and dealing with acne. But that’s not all. Since my goal is to help girls be happy and healthy, I’ve also included information on healthy habits, like getting enough sleep, mythbusters to break down common myths, advice from girls who have been there, and questions (with my answers!) from real-life girls.

IR: You share advice from several experts, and you also mention interviewing teenagers.

SB: Research is one of the longest, but most rewarding, parts of writing a book. I conducted hundreds of interviews with girls, women in their 20s and 30s who shared stories about going through puberty, moms and dads, doctors, nurses, a dermatologist, a dentist, a bra-fitting expert, and even a makeup artist. The research, and ultimately, the writing process took about two years and I learned things during the process that I use almost daily! For instance, I am a much more efficient leg shaver now! And I even floss more efficiently. The best part of being able to interview so many people is that you get a lot of different points of view and experiences and all of that helped make the book such a comprehensive resource.

IR: What advice do you have for moms (or dads or other caregivers) who feel uncomfortable talking to their daughters about their changing bodies?

SB: It can be hard to start a conversation about puberty with your daughter. But, as I learned from my interviews (and frankly, my own experience), if you don’t talk to them, someone else will. You are going to give them much better information than they’ll get from friends and other kids at school. A book like mine can be a good starting point for a conversation. In fact, I had this in mind when I was writing it. I would suggest that parents set up a time to talk to their daughters to give them a basic overview of what they can expect as their bodies start to develop. Obviously, one conversation won’t cover everything and inviting your daughter to ask any questions as they come up is important, but by sitting down and giving her a straightforward foundation, she will ultimately feel less awkward talking to you about things down the road and will be better prepared as her body does indeed start to change.

IR: On the flip side, what advice do you have for girls whose parents aren’t comfortable with girl talk?

SB: It’s a fact of life that you can’t really control how other people handle things, so if your parents don’t want to talk about puberty there’s not much you can do about it. But you probably have another trusted adult—maybe a teacher or the school nurse or even a close friend’s parent—who you can talk to. Try not to feel weird—everyone has these questions! And every single adult you know has been through puberty already so they have a sense of where you’re coming from. This is another time when a book can be really helpful, especially because most books will have more accurate, trustworthy information than a lot of random websites or blogs and you want to be sure you’re getting real info! Your local library should have a great selection of books about changing bodies that you can read use as a good guide.

IR: Tell me about your other books for girls. My library definitely needs copies.

HTRYP_Book_JacketBoyologySB: How To Raise Your Parents: A Teen Girl’s Survival Guide is basically a guide to growing up with parents because we all have to do it (and if you do it right, it’s not all bad)! It goes into getting some privacy, understanding “Parent Speak,” and negotiating for a little independence while keeping your relationship with your parents intact.

Boyology: A Teen Girl’s Crash Course in All Things Boy delves into the mysteries of teen guys, dissecting flirting tactics, offering dating suggestions, and providing tips on forming solid friendships with guys. When I was interviewing teen girls for How to Raise Your Parents, a lot of them had questions about guys (totally unrelated to parents), and that sparked the idea for Boyology.

IR: You were the oldest of how many sisters? What was that like? I love my older brother but have always wondered what it’s like to have sisters.

SB: Having three younger sisters (and a younger brother) means there is always someone around to talk when you need advice or a shoulder to cry on. It’s like having a constant party and/or therapy session in your house. Of course, there were definitely moments growing up when I wanted to be an only child (hello, peace and quiet!), but my sisters and I are incredibly close and it was really nice to have people I trusted to share things with. And by share, I don’t just mean feelings; I mean clothes, nail polish, makeup, and socks (ok, that’s gross but it’s true – I totally stole socks when all my clothes were dirty). The person who used the last of the shampoo was always in trouble but with four of us, no one would ever fess up. I still think it was Annie most of the time. Ha!

My sister Annie is three years younger than me so we were in school at the same time. By high school, when I was a senior and she was a sophomore, we were especially close. We took a class together and even went to the Christmas formal together with two guys who were friends. I’ll never forget getting ready for the dance together in our upstairs bathroom, the countertop scattered with curlers a thin dusting of eye shadow from when I dropped the container. And in true big sister form, I think I even blamed it on Annie the next day when my mom said someone had to clean it up!

IR: Do you have any awesome, embarrassing, or awesomely embarrassing stories from your tween/early teen days you’d like to share?  Or even that you wouldn’t like to share? Give the people what they want!

SB: Where to start? I was on the younger side when I got my first period. Fifth grade, to be exact. And none of my friends had gotten theirs, at least not that I knew of. So, I was a little traumatized when it came.

We had quite the collection of Barbies at our house. My parents, who swear they never wanted to deal with Barbies, laugh that there’s almost no stopping the Barbie frenzy once it begins.

Anyway, after I got my first period, my mom gave me a really encouraging talk, telling me how I was a woman and how exciting it was. I took it all in. So, I was a woman now. What did that mean, exactly? Did I have to do things differently? A few nights later, after much processing, I pulled my mom aside after dinner and told her, “I still want to play with Barbies even though I’m a woman.” I could tell she was trying not to laugh but she said that of course I could still play with Barbies.

Maybe that’s not totally embarrassing, but it’s one of the moments I really remember when I think back to that time of life. And I realize now that so many of the things I was embarrassed by weren’t actually embarrassing at all. I was just new at them and felt self-conscious. It’s probably that way with most things. Once we get a little distance we realize our embarrassing moments are only embarrassing in our memories.

IR: A huge thanks to Sarah Burningham for taking the time for a little girl talk about Girl to Girl. While it’s not usually the type of book I feature here, I think the topic is extremely important. My personal experience with this type of education was a video all the girls at school watched together in 5th grade which, while educational, wasn’t exactly reassuring. I had no access to a print resource of this type, and I can say for certain that all of my then-embarrassing questions would have been answered by Girl to Girl. My mom got visibly uncomfortable if I so much as told her I needed pads, which just made the situation worse because I would put off telling her until I was almost completely out and then she’d be annoyed about the surprise grocery store trip and uncomfortable. I think that talking openly about our bodies still carries so much societal taboo that it’s easy to make the conversations awkward for parent and child both. Kudos to Sarah for taking on the job of making it easier for everyone!