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.