In my latest book, How Not To Disappear, there are two teenage stories, one set in the 1950s, one set now. Things have changed so much for girls in that time, but with a daughter on the verge of adolescence I’m feeling particularly aware of the mixed and often negative messages teenage girls are given about themselves and the women they are expected to emulate and grow into.
They are constantly set up to fail. You’ve got to be pretty; every woman you ever see on TV or in magazines shows you that you’ll be judged by your appearance. Yet girls who are interested in fashion and make-up can’t be taken seriously. You should be unfeasibly thin but healthy, clever but not too clever. Girls don’t get to be ‘authoritative’ or ‘natural leaders’, they get to be ‘bossy’. And there’s the sexual double standard, still going strong: don’t be frigid, don’t be a slut. The pressure to meet the impossible expectations of the ‘perfect’ girl isn’t new, but social media makes it harder to escape.
Books for young people are a really important space where these assumptions and expectations can be challenged. There are so many ways that this can happen, and – wonderfully – is happening. Books showing girls who don’t fit the stereotypes – passive ‘good girls’ or one dimensional ‘feisty girls’ – but that can be something more complicated, something real. Books that value girls for more than their looks. Books that celebrate female friendship. Books where all a girl’s problems aren’t solved by a boy. Stories that don’t present romance as the only goal for a girl. Books that directly address issues that disproportionately affect girls, such as self-harm and eating disorders. Books where girls are allowed to get things wrong. All of these are important ways to show their readers – male or female, old or young – that girls are worthy of their attention.
‘Feminist’ books don’t have to be about feminism. They can be fantasy, sci-fi, historical, dystopian, love stories. They don’t have to be serious, earnest books. They don’t have to be books written for girls. They don’t have to have kickass, tough female main characters. They don’t even have to have a female main character. They just have to take teenage girls seriously, to show girls as real people, complex, flawed, interesting, worthy of attention, central to their own story. I don’t write my stories with an agenda. I want to write funny, exciting, moving stories about characters that interest me.
Stories showing girls who are strong, unconventional, opinionated, is nothing new. I grew up loving Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables, Jo March from Little Women, Lizzy Bennett from Pride and Prejudice. These were girls who knew their own minds, girls who made mistakes, girls I wanted to be.
Reading as a kid or a teen is different from reading as an adult. It shows you what’s possible. At its best, reading makes you ask questions: about the characters, about yourself, about other people, about the world. I want books that show my daughter there isn’t only one way to be a girl. I want her to be able to read about girls, real and imagined, of all cultures and backgrounds and personality types, who are so much more than their looks or the person they’re in love with, girls who aren’t perfect but who are valued.