Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Annual 2014. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.
“Because what you are, as a teenager, is a small, silver, empty rocket. And you use loud music as fuel, and then the information in books as maps and coordinates, to tell you where you’re going.”
After humiliating herself on local television, fourteen-year-old Johanna Morrigan decides it is time to reinvent herself. She is desperate to move to London, and gain some distance from the poverty of her childhood growing up in a council house with four siblings, and an alcoholic father on disability payments. Borrowing CDs from the library at 20p a shot, Johanna begins reshaping herself through popular culture. Taking up the pen name Dolly Wilde, she leaves school at the age of sixteen to become a music critic for D&ME magazine, trying to make her way in an industry where her older, male colleagues generally regard teenage girls as “fannish.” As the enfant terrible of D&ME, she pens scathing, bitchy reviews, writing only about bands she hates lest she herself be deemed fannish. But no matter how hard she works to build Dolly Wilde, Johanna keeps finding flaws in her new persona.
Caitlin Moran would like you to know that How to Build a Girl is not autobiographical. The copyright page reads:
This is a work of fiction. Real musicians and real places appear from time to time, but everything else, the characters, what they do and what they say, are the products of my imagination. Like Johanna, I come from a large family, grew up in a council house in Wolverhampton, and started my career as a music journalist as a teenager. But Johanna is not me. Her family, colleagues, the people she meets, and her experiences are not my family, my colleagues, the people I met, or my experiences. This is a novel and it is all fictitious.
Additionally, the dedication reads: “To my mother and father, who thankfully are nothing like the parents in this book, and let me build my girl how I wanted.” Nevertheless, How to Build a Girl will be familiar to anyone who has read How to Be a Woman; even the titles are similar. But while the story and the themes may be a bit familiar, Moran is nevertheless on the money about what it feels like to be a teen who tackles adulthood with a fake-it-until-you-make-it attitude. Her candour and humour carry the day.
Although featuring a teenage protagonist, How to Build a Girl is, in some respects, more for adults than teens. In the introduction to the advance reader’s edition, Moran, rather than hoping the reader likes the book, writes “I hope more that you remember it, all over again.” Indeed, How to Build a Girl feels very retrospective, and not just because it is set in the 1990s. There is a ruefulness in Johanna’s narrative voice as she recounts her teenage escapades, an embarrassment that occasionally verges on shame. It is not condescending, but neither does it reflect the typical way teens see themselves, and thus may appeal more to Moran’s adult fans than teenage readers. However, there is plenty here that we could do to see more of in YA, from a poor, overweight protagonist, a gay brother, and sex seen through a feminist lens. Moran’s cheerful honesty about sex and masturbation, and Johanna’s rage against sexist double standards regarding her “swashfuckling” status as a Lady Sex Adventurer are both refreshing and welcome.
How to Build a Girl has all of Moran’s signature humour, but retreads familiar territory given the striking parallels to Moran’s own life. However, fictionalization also gives Moran latitude to explore social and feminist issues beyond the bounds of her own autobiography.
Also by Caitlin Moran: Moranthology