Sunday, 18 September 2016

Girl Trouble, Girl Up, and Girls Will be Girls: Books About Being Teenage

Recently, I’ve been devouring books. Funny word, isn’t it? Devouring. Part of the language we apply to reading: one of bookworms, delectable stories, bittersweet endings, sentences to savour, and novels gobbled up in a single sitting. I mean - it’s not a language exclusive to books. The imagery of taste and consumption can be extended in all sorts of other directions. But I like it here. It sounds (and feels) right. I’ve devoured book after book. It’s been delicious.

If we stretch this conceit out a little further, I’ve also been relishing a feast of great variety: poetry, essays, non-fiction, memoir, YA novels, contemporary literary fiction, classics, page-turners and slow-burners. Things I’ve adored and things that have left me unsatisfied (those ones have their own fun though: why didn’t they work? What was so irksome, or stupid, or dull?) Many of them have ended up on my Instagram - for, of course, has a book truly been read if the reading isn’t publicized and made visible? (I jest. Mostly.) 

I’ve sat in the sun with a coffee and nothing to do but revel in words (especially Jenny Diski’s words), stayed up until 2am as an ending gallops into sight (Frances Hardinge’s books, full of intricate leaps of imagination, are so very, very hard to put down), sat at the top of hills with wind juddering at my ears and poetry in my hands (Owen Sheers’ A Poet’s Guide to Britain was ripe for a revisit), and spent plenty of time on trains with my eyes firmly on the page (a strange but great mix of Roland Barthes and the joyously dazzling Katherine Rundell).

This summer, I’ve also been reading plenty of books about what it means to be teenage - well, there’s a surprise! Can’t think why… In all seriousness though, it’s a very good time for smart, entertaining books addressing adolescence in a variety of ways. As I've said before, to be a part of this growing surge is both a thrill and an honour. Notes on Being Teenage has been keeping me busy: school talks, book festivals, chairing events, and lots of articles. Next up is an event with Red magazine this Wednesday (the 21st), where I’ll be giving careers advice alongside incredible women like Cathy Newman and Nimko Ali.

Given all that, I thought it was ripe time to pick up on a handful of my favourite books on all things teenage – some new, some older, all wonderful:

Ctrl Alt Delete: I feel hugely fortunate to count Emma as a friend. She’s a whirlwind of activity and curiosity – running a brilliant podcast (listen to her episode with me here), newsletter, and blog, as well as giving talks. She’s the kind of person who always spurs me on to want to do more. AND she’s lovely. Anyway, her book is a warm, entertaining, very relatable memoir of growing up online. I found myself turning down page corners and nodding along as she explores the fumbling (sometimes stumbling) way we grow up and learn to negotiate the online world. 

Girl Up: I love Laura Bates. She’s incredible. An absolute force. A necessary one, too. Girl Up had me cackling on public transport, and snapping pictures of the illustrations to send to friends. If I’d read it in my mid-teens, I think it would have offered me those two crucial things: reassurance that I wasn’t alone, and courage to use my voice and make it a little louder. Give a copy to every teen girl you know. It is fierce, hilarious, very, very feminist, and guaranteed to leave you feeling fired up. Plus, it has dancing vulvas on the endpapers. What more could you want?

Mind Your Head: I interviewed Juno Dawson for my book (she mentioned Björk and David Bowie, so I was very happy), and did two events with her this summer at YALC and Edinburgh. She’s sharp, thoughtful and very funny, both on stage and on the page. This is lovely, comprehensive, and, crucially, properly honest guide to navigating mental health in your teens.

Girl Trouble: Teen girls have always been seen as vaguely dangerous – or, at least, vaguely likely to cause upset and push against expectations. Here Carol Dyhouse takes an in-depth look at the many and varied moral panics surrounding young women over the course of the 20th Century. Bringing together sexuality, gender, costume, work, class, the media, and plenty else, it’s a compelling (and excellently researched) publication that illuminates many of the ongoing discussions about teen girls we see today. Also seek out her other fab book Glamour

What’s a Girl Gotta Do? I also had the pleasure of meeting Holly Bourne this summer, and the chance to read the third novel in her fab Spinster series. Here the protagonist Lottie sets herself a rather tricky (but very brilliant) challenge: to call out every instance of sexism she witnesses for a whole month. Hilarity and chaos ensure. Very fun YA with serious undertones.

Girls Will be Girls: Got enough girl titles in here yet? Emer O’Toole’s book is a bit of a dream for me: about teenagers, dressing up, play, performance, and the roles we take on and cast off. I haven’t quite finished this yet, but it’s a pleasure to read – seamlessly swinging between memoir, theory and deft observations on our complex relationships with gender.

We Should All Be Feminists: A short and sweet essay (with a powerful message) for all ages, from the ever-fantastic Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Especially relevant here, however, because last year it was reported that every 16 year old in Sweden would be given a copy. Imagine that happening in the UK. Just imagine.  

There are a few others, not pictured here, that would make the list too. Both of Louise O’Neill’s books (see my review of Asking for It on the blog here) are difficult, daring reads, while the charmingly illustrated My Name is Girl by Nina Cosford (out next week) will strike a chord with many young women. Phoebe Gluckner’s Diary of a Teenage Girl – the graphic novel behind the film – delves into disturbing, unsettling places (more in the camp of being ‘about’ teen experience rather than ‘for’ teens), but remains an interesting, upfront exploration of sex and desire. 

Next year will also herald the release of both Hannah Witton’s Doing It, and Gemma Cairney’s Open; the former a no-nonsense sex and relationships guide that is really, really needed right now (go see Hannah's excellent vlogs here), and the latter a wonderful sounding toolkit for adolescence by the marvelously sunny, funny Gemma (who, at risk of sounding like a broken record, I also met this summer at YALC, where she chaired a panel I was on). 

Phew! What a brilliant bunch of books. If you want more recommendations when it comes to young women in fiction, you can also head on over to For Books' Sake, where I compiled some of my favourites. Includes Cassandra Mortmain from I Capture the Castle (of course), as well as work by authors including Helen Oyeyemi and Daisy Johnson. 

Now, with the sun still golden outside my window, it’s time to hop outside and dive into another one. I wonder what I'll pluck from the shelves next. 

My dress here is a vintage St Michael one that I bought before I realized that off-the-shoulder was the biggest trend of the summer – a fascinating phenomenon I wish I had time to properly explore here... The shoes are Orla Kiely for Clarks (in the Bibi style), and the necklace and belt are both vintage.

OH, and if you've happened to enjoy my book, I'd be hugely grateful for an Amazon review. They really do help. Thanks to all the gorgeous readers I've met and spoken with this summer. It's been such fun. 

Thursday, 1 September 2016


We were on our first cocktail of the night. Many (too many) more were to follow. My friend made reference to the music playing. “This is Christine and the Queens. You'd love her.” As we drank and chatted, he occasionally broke in to comment on the songs. I did that thing each time of nodding, intrigued but dimly aware that I’d more than likely forget and berate myself later when I couldn't recall the name. I do this all the time: with books, with music, with films. Recently I’ve started putting them in my phone straightaway, my notes full of the flotsam of suggested reads, things to listen to, shopping lists, reminders and to-do’s and should-have-been-done’s, scraps of ideas. Sometimes I fish them out again, working up a line of poetry into something more substantial, or just actually bloody remembering to buy milk the next day.

Two weeks later I encountered Héloïsse Letissier’s stage name again in an article. This time I properly paid attention, immediately listening to her music. Then I listened and listened and listened some more. There’s a kind of magic in that moment of falling hard for an album. You impulsively tell people about it. You watch all the music videos you can lay your hands (or scrolling fingers) on. You don’t want to play anything else for a good week because it’s all a bit pale compared to this new, exciting set of sounds providing ideal company on the bus, in the shower, during cooking, while lying on a bed doing nothing but listening and thinking and relishing lyrics not previously noticed.

In the case of Christine and the Queens, a particular snippet kept rattling around my head from ‘Tilted’: “I’m doing my face with magic marker/ I’m in my right place, don’t be a downer.” You need to hear it to get the effect, the jaunty euphoria of (to my mind) looking as you want, doing what you want, being where you want. Those two lines have floated into my head again and again. Others too – not least her description of dancing as something “safe and holy” – but I keep on returning to this image. It pinpoints that superb moment of everything aligning, of all being bright, costumed, painted. To me, it’s the exact moment of feeling capable of facing down the world, whether in a minute grabbed in front of the mirror before a train journey, or an hour of twirling around getting ready in the evening, choosing clothes, daubing lips with red, assembling appearances.

Really, it’s in this suggestion of play, and dressing up, that my love for her work tips head over heels. Like many of my favourite singers (Kate Bush, David Bowie, PJ Harvey, Björk), it’s not just about the music here – but also the performance, and the personas shimmied on and off in music videos, or on stage. All that potential for toying with costume, the chance to embellish, enlarge or downsize posture and personality. In the case of Christine and the Queens, there’s something so totally enthralling in her suit-wearing, sharp-dancing, assertively physicalized act. She swaggers and swoops, a perfect pattern of limbs with her backing dancers.

It’s an act wrapped up in a deft negotiation of sexuality, identity, and spectacle: assembling a space for the audience in which anything goes, and all is accepted. It is deliciously queer and deliciously gorgeous; a graceful, hip-shaking suggestion of the way music should be felt from head to toe (Letissier won’t use songs if they don’t make her want to dance). It’s an exploration of gender at once joyous, subversive, and thoughtful, played out through some thumpingly good songs.

All of this is also played out in clothing choices. Here they’re decisive: blazers and trousers cut with room for movement (or, in the case of Paradis Perdu, with a gradual, gargantuan, parodic spread of fabric). They are agile clothes, practical clothes, clothes that fit the lyrics, full as they are with discussion of desire, bodies, appearance, and, in the case of iT, what it might mean to be a man.

I’m fascinated by the power found in suits. It’s part physical, part cultural. A suit weights you with a particular set of motions, a decisive way of walking and holding your hips. Suits also come with a weight of associations: of business and commerce and long hours in the office, of dressing for dinner, heading out on the town, straightening a bowtie before boogying the night away, of everyone from Don Draper to Marlene Dietrich. Many of these images are gendered. To be female and to shrug on a suit can still hold a subversive thrall, despite it now being a well-worn (in both senses of the meaning) path.

In fact, I set out here planning to write something about the history of the suit and the intrigue that comes with donning a garment we still deem ‘mannish’ (or, in the heteronorm-babble of fashion mags, as ‘boyfriend style’). But the relationships built up between fabric and the skin beneath – well, the more I thought about them, the more I realized just how interesting and complicated they are. It’d require an awful lot more words for them to be done any kind of justice.

So for now, I’ll stick with saluting the suit, and the singer who inspired me to spend a little more time thinking about crisp shirts and good trousers (among other things). After that first, feverish week of listening to/ watching/ reading many, many interviews with Christine and the Queens, I spent plenty of time eyeing up blazers in charity shops and vintage markets, nosing around in search of good tailoring.

What I guess I love most is possibility: the strength and potential found in different types of garments. When I slipped on the outfit pictured, I immediately felt my posture change. I wanted to stride around, to move, to dance away through the heather and across the hills, slithering across the rocks in my brogues. I stood differently. I stood assertively, in my right place, keenly aware in the breeze of how good it felt - this small act of magic conjured up in black velvet. 

The suit is second-hand - blazer and trousers bought separately. The brogues were also from a charity shop. 
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