Today I review two books that have the potential to be wildly popular with teens–and wildly challenging for school librarians. Caitlin Moran and Lena Dunham are media forces, women who excel in professions dominated by men. They both succeed through the sheer force of their personalities, and to some extent through their willingness to say outrageous things out loud.
Both of their books are best suited to the New Adult, college-age, early 20’s reader. But older teens are going to be attracted to them, as they are basically the misadventures of two girls growing up.
I’m going to start with How to Build a Girl, one of the most exciting books I have read this year. I can’t remember the last time I dog-eared so many pages in a book. Not just for the pitch-perfect voice and comedic timing, but also for the many beautiful coming-of-age moments.
But can I add it to my high school library’s collection? No. I hope teens find it–perhaps at their public libraries?–but I can’t hand it to them personally. Because the author goes a couple steps too far. It’s not the voice or the language, outrageous as they are. It’s certainly not the family dynamics or the good heart of its heroine, who even in her most raunchy moments retains a certain naivete and sweet determination to pursue her passions. If you read this book, you probably won’t agree with me–until the final quarter. And that’s when the graphic quality of the sex scenes goes over the top. Yes, they are followed by a most lovely denouement, where a girl gets to know and love herself–not the self she layered over her real self, but herself. Still, it’s too much for my community.
But, if you serve teens in a more liberal community? Oh, please buy this. Please promote it. Readers will love this girl, and they will feel for her so deeply. She quotes the musical “Annie” in her first meeting with a group of hard-core rock music journal executives and expects them to get her humor! She is in some ways wonderfully self-aware, in others completely naive. Either way, she throws herself into situations completely beyond her experience. In the bathroom checking herself out before that first big meeting, “I can see where I have drawn Dolly Wilde on top of my own face–the two uneasily co-existing–but perhaps others can’t. If I walk and talk fast enough, maybe no one will notice.” That’s Dolly all over–fake it ’til you make it.
They will ache to read moments like this one. Sitting next to a co-worker on an airplane, she can’t let him know that it’s her first time flying. “I don’t want him to see what I look like when I do something for the first time. I dont’ want anyone watching me change. I will do all my changing in private. In public I am, always, the finished thing. The right thing, for the right place. A chrysalis is hung in the dark.”
Or cheer for the moment her roll as a vicious, feared critic ends after a trusted friend tells her: “You need to see loads of girls, screaming, because that’s what you are. A big screaming girl from the Midlands. You’re an enthusiast, Dolly. Come and enthuse. Come and be a teenage girl again. Come and be a fan.” I think about his saying that. His words are like Glinda’s kiss on my forehead. I’m an enthusiast who’s been pretending to be a cynic. But I have been correctly labeled now. I am for things–not against them. I must remember this. Mainly because this is more fun.”
And now for Not That Kind of Girl. It was an interesting experience reading these two books one week apart. I read How to Build a Girl first, and I can’t help but think that I might have been more impressed by Dunham’s writing if that hadn’t been the case. But after all of the life in Moran’s prose, all the bravado of her young protagonist, Dunham’s determination to paint herself as the most bumbling and awkward of all girls fell a bit flat.
Of course, Moran’s book is (presented as) fiction and Dunham’s is a book of personal essays. Maybe it isn’t fair to compare. I almost gave up on Not That Kind of Girl about a third of the way through, annoyed by the voice. But I picked it up the next day and read to the end. Then read the whole thing over again more carefully. Dunham is very smart and she’s a unique storyteller. She is talking directly to today’s young people and their experience. But it wasn’t a satisfying experience, and I’m still trying to figure out why. Is it because, despite all the personal stories, I finished feeling like I knew almost nothing about her? Is it because despite placing her book in a feminist context in the introduction, she gives only the barest glimpses of the successful businesswoman she has become? Maybe I’d like to be able to see the connection between her earlier life and what she has achieved?
Will teens agree? I did add Not That Kind of Girl to my library’s collection, because I want to see if Dunham approaches the popularity of Tina Fey and Bossypants, which was such a hit. So far, it’s been on display for a week and no one has picked it up. Maybe this really is more New Adult.
I leave you with two quotes, in which the books end with similar moments of acceptance:
Moran: “And some versions of you will end in dismal failure… Others will achieve temporary success…But one day you’ll find a version of you that will get you kissed, or befriended, or inspired, and you will make your notes accordingly, staying up all night to hone and improve upon a tiny snatch of melody that worked. Until–slowly, slowly–you make a viable version of you, one you can hum every day…until you stop having to think about who you’ll be entirely–as you’re too busy doing, now.”
Dunham: “Soon you will find yourself in more and more situations you don’t want to run from. At work you’ll realize that you’ve spent the entire day in your body, really in it, not imagining what you look like to the people who surround you but just being who you are. You are a tool being put to its proper use. That changes a lot of things.”
MORAN, Caitlin. How to Build a Girl. 341p. HarperCollins/Harper. Sept. 2014. Tr $26.99. ISBN 9780062335975.
This hilarious, raw, profanity- and sex-filled novel is a gold mine of perfectly turned phrases that illuminate the pain and glory of growing up. Fourteen-year-old Johanna Morrigan lives with her parents and brothers in a council flat in a small town north of London. After humiliating herself on live television, she determines to reinvent herself. She will become a rock journalist and call herself Dolly Wilde. It doesn’t matter that she’s never been to a live show and can’t afford records. She borrows albums from the library and writes reviews and sends them to the editors of Disc & Music Echo magazine. They invite her to London for a meeting. Everything about Dolly is completely outrageous—her actions, words, outfit, makeup. And it works! She leaves high school and proudly uses her earnings to help support her family. Life is full of music, alcohol, and men who will sleep with her even though she’s overweight. She soon becomes notorious for her vicious reviews. The teen also wants to become legendary for having lots of sex, and she does. But by 17, Dolly realizes that she is losing touch with herself, and those realizations ring true and earned. This thinly veiled autobiography is wise and revealing and has a heart of gold at its core. Give it to mature teens and new adults with a high tolerance for profanity and graphic sex. Readalikes range from the poverty and family devotion of Angela’s Ashes (Scribner, 1996) to the bold sexuality of Grasshopper Jungle (Dutton, 2014).—Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City
DUNHAM, Lena. Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Women Tells You What She’s “Learned.” illus. by Joana Avillez. 265p. Random. Sept. 2014. Tr $28. ISBN 9780812994995. LC 2014029492.
Dunham, writer, director, producer, and star of the TV show Girls offers a collection of personal essays in which she hopes to make her own misadventures useful to other young women. “I am a girl with a keen interest in having it all, and what follows are hopeful dispatches from the frontlines of that struggle.” She begins with “Love & Sex,” in which she relates losing her virginity and her attraction to men who treat her badly. Dunham’s writing is self-deprecating, clever, and original, and touches upon deep topics, such as self-respect. Other entries cover summer camp, her first mindless retail job, and what she’s learned from her parents. She throws in humorous lists, such as “My Top Ten Health Concerns” (lamp dust and tonsil stones?). Among the compulsions, obsessions, and insecurities, readers get glimpses of the strong woman who is creating her own media empire. In “Body” Dunham shares what it’s like filming nude sex scenes, and why they’re important in the fight against media images that tell us “our bodies aren’t right.” She is upfront about her relationship with food and dieting, in serious and hilarious turns. The final essay, “A Guide to Running Away for Twenty-Seven-Year-Old Women” is about coming-to-terms with loving your work, becoming yourself, and choosing to settle with a person who is good to you as only Dunham could write it. Teens who watch Girls will consider themselves mature enough for the content, and the overall message is one they need to hear—we all deserve success in work and in personal relationships, even if we are not perfect.—Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City