Girls write. Girls write school essays (prose), short stories (fiction), diaries (non-fiction), songs, poetry, and reams and reams of text messages (dialogue). It’s hardly surprising then that there are lots of great books out there written by girls in their teens.
Jill Murphy wrote The Worst Witch while she was still at school although it was rejected by publishers on the basis that children would be frightened by the outlandish notion of a school full of witches. Catherine Webb had five books published before her twentieth birthday writing her first book, Mirror Dreams, during her summer holidays when she was just fourteen. She continues to gain critical acclaim under the pen name Claire North. Anya Reiss became the youngest playwright to have their work staged in London when her play Spur of the Moment was published and performed in 2010. She was eighteen.
The following five books are remarkable for more than the youth of the author or their commercial success. Each caused a furore at the time of their publication. Each has had, and continues to have, a profound impact – on individual readers, on the publishing industry, and on the way the world views young women.
1. Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born in August 1797, the daughter of William Godwin, a leading author and philosopher, and of Mary Wollstonecraft who wrote the first major feminist work in English. In Vindication of the Rights of Women (published 1792), Mary Wollstonecraft argued that women were not naturally intellectually inferior to men but only seemed so due to lack of education. Tragically, Mary Godwin was only ten days old when her mother died. She became very attached to her father who gave her free rein of his extensive library. By her early teens, Mary had read all of Shakespeare and much more besides.
Celebrity authors of the era were frequent visitors to the Godwin home, among them the young poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Mary and Percy fell in love but William Godwin disapproved – understandably since Shelley already had a wife and child. In July 1814, a month before her seventeenth birthday, the young couple eloped to the continent.
By the summer of 1816, Mary, Percy, and their infant son were living in a villa near Geneva. Their neighbor, the poet Lord Byron, suggested that they each compose a ghost story – just for fun. Mary, eager to do her parents proud, took the challenge seriously. Percy was impressed by her story and encouraged her to expand it. Frankenstein was finished in March 1817, when Mary was aged nineteen. When it was published, anonymously, a year later most reviewers had no doubt that the book had been written by a man, and given the setting in Geneva, probably by Percy Shelley. Frankenstein was re-printed in 1823, this time with Mary’s name on the cover.
Frankenstein opens with a series of letters from Robert Walton, a young Arctic explorer, to his sister in England. In the first letter he describes his great excitement at the prospect of discovering lands ‘never before imprinted by the foot of man.’ A second letter continues in the same enthusiastic vein but with one complaint, ‘I have no friend, Margaret.’ In his third letter Walton reports a bizarre incident. He has witnessed a strange creature, ‘a being with the shape of man, but apparently of gigantic stature,’ racing across the frozen terrain on a dog sledge. Shortly afterwards, Walton says, he rescued a man, half dead and hardly able to speak, from the ice. This stranger, a man called Victor Frankenstein, begs Walton to help him in his pursuit of the creature on the sledge. To convince him, Frankenstein relates the sorry tale of his monstrous creation.
Mary Shelley’s creation is a spell-binding and thought-provoking book. Frankenstein’s nameless monster begs the big questions:
‘Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come?’
What, in other words, is the spark of life and what makes a living, thinking, being into a real person?
This is no scare-at-bedtime ghost story. In fact, it’s not that scary at all but it does demand some hard thinking. At a time when science began to take giant leaps for mankind, Mary Shelley wisely questioned the responsibilities of scientists. She perceived the power of words and called language ‘a godlike science.’ She is credited with inventing the genre of science fiction.
More than anything else, Frankenstein is a very sad book, a story which seems to prove that of all the agonies a soul can be forced to endure, the worst is loneliness.
2. The Diary of a Young Girl – Anne Frank.
There’s a spoiler right on the first page of this book:
Anne Frank was born on 12 June 1929. She died while imprisoned at Bergen-Belsen, three months short of her sixteenth birthday.
The reader knows from the outset that Anne won’t be getting out of this alive. This signaling of impending disaster in a book is called fore-shadowing and makes a big difference to how you read Anne’s diary. Every emotion is intensified. Every moment of joy seems all the more precious, every moment of hope all the more poignant.
Anne Frank made the first entry to her diary on 12 June 1942, her thirteenth birthday. Nazi Germans were already in occupation in Amsterdam and within weeks the Frank family was forced into hiding. Their ‘secret annexe’ was the attic of a spice warehouse, the entrance flimsily disguised by a swinging bookshelf, the family at constant risk of sneezing fits from the rising pepper dust. Anne’s diary is a riveting blend of normal teenage tribulations and wartime terror.
‘Who else but me is ever going to read these letters? Who else but me can I turn to for comfort?’
Most writers will tell you that a book can’t exist without a reader, even an imagined one. Some writers imagine for themselves a perfect reader – the person who they know will understand and appreciate their words. There can be no book, at least I can’t think of any, where the reader feels how much they are needed more than this one. It feels as though Anne is speaking directly to you. It seems so because she is. For Anne Frank, you are the perfect reader.
Anne herself became aware of the potential historical significance of her diary in March 1944 when she heard a Dutch Cabinet Minister saying on the radio that letters and diaries would be collected after the war. She even dared hope that she might become a writer or a journalist.
‘I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I’ve never met. I want to go on living after my death.’
It seems almost a miracle, a testament to the strength of her spirit and the power of each reader who read the book and passed it on, that this young girl’s diary has been translated into 70 languages and sold more than 30 million copies. Anne Frank, at the age of 15¾, had written one of the most influential documents of the Second World War.
3. Bonjour Tristesse – Françoise Sagan
In 1953 Françose Sagan was forced to miss out on a summer holiday with her family and instead attend a revision course ahead of re-taking her baccalaureat exam. Rather than study, the 17-year-old sat in a café near the Sorbonne University, in Paris, and wrote a novel.
Bonjour Tristesse (which translates as Hello Sadness) opens with 17-year-old Cécile enjoying a contentedly idle holiday on the Côte d’Azur with her widowed father and his young mistress. Cécile, who has failed her summer exams, neglects her study, works on her tan, and indulges in a romance with a handsome, and keen, young law student.
Cécile never knew her mother. Her father is ‘just a big baby’ and offers nothing in the way of moral guidance, being more concerned with toning his stomach muscles. Elsa, the beautiful girlfriend, has no interest in a parental role and this suits Cécile just fine.
Cécile’s lazy idyll is threatened by the arrival of Anne, an old friend of her mother’s who insists that Cécile behave properly and do her homework.
‘How difficult she made life for us, with her sense of dignity and her esteem.’
Cécile rejects the opportunity to gain a mother figure in her life and devises a plan to rid herself of Anne, and her nuisance morality, for good.
Bonjour Tristesse is the opposite of a coming-of-age novel. Cécile is a character who fails to develop a sense of morality- she doesn’t grow up. It’s difficult to have any fondness for an amoral protagonist and similarly difficult to avoid transferring judgement onto the author. No wonder, then, that Bonjour Tristesse caused such an uproar on its publication in 1954. Sagan’s youth and gender, combined with her extraordinary insight into the machinations of an amoral mind, made her debut novel an immediate and sensational success.
Within weeks of publication Bonjour Tristesse was simultaneously garnering literary awards and fierce criticism. Some critics hailed Sagan as France’s answer to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Others labelled the book immoral and worried that Sagan would damage the image of young French women in the eyes of foreigners. Still more claimed the book could only have been written by someone much older, most likely a man, and that the teenage author had been invented as a marketing ploy.
Sagan, meanwhile, abandoned her studies at the Sorbonne, bought herself a Jaguar XK140 convertible, and basked in her celebrity. She went on to write twenty novels but none matched the impact of her scandalous debut.
Like it or loathe it, Bonjour Tristesse forced the establishment to accept that a young woman could, in fact, produce a novel of exceptional literary merit.
4. The Outsiders – S.e. Hinton
Published in 1967, when Susan Eloise Hinton was 18 years old, this may be the original of the Y.A. species. The Outsiders was written for teenagers, about teenagers and by a teenager.
Hinton was disturbed by the ongoing clashes at her high school between two gangs from opposite ends of the socio-economic spectrum. They called themselves the Greasers and the Socialites (Socs).
Hinton kept these gang names in her book and wrote the story from the point of view of Ponyboy Curtis, a 14-year-old boy and a Greaser.
‘When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home. I was wishing I looked like Paul Newman- he looks tough and I don’t- but I guess my own looks aren’t so bad.’
Ponyboy’s parents were killed in a car crash so he and his two brothers rely on each other. They stay out of trouble as much as they can, and they’re careful not to get caught when they can’t. One night Ponyboy’s friend Johnny kills a soc, leading Ponyboy to re-evaluate how his world works.
Hinton began writing The Outsiders when she was fifteen. Her personal experience and understanding of the motivations of her teenage classmates gives the book a ring of authenticity. Ponyboy is credible because Susan Hinton knew his mind.
The book was an immediate hit, winning a place on the New York Herald Tribune’s Best Teenage Books List in 1967. The Outsiders became a standard text in many U.S. schools but has been banned by many others because of the strong language and scenes of gang violence and alcohol abuse.
The Outsiders was direct and honest and portrayed American high school reality like no book had ever done before. Hinton, who was advised to publish under her initials to disguise her gender, changed the expectations of young readers and created a demand for books that were truly relevant to teenagers.
More than fifty years on, Ponyboy Curtis remains a truly relatable character and The Outsiders remains a relevant and thought-provoking book.
5. I am Malala – Malala Yousafzai
When Malala Yousafzai was born, in the Swat province of Pakistan in 1987, the neighbours commiserated with her mother- a baby girl was no cause for celebration. Her father, Ziauddin, took a different view. He looked into his newborn daughter’s eyes and fell in love.
Ziauddin believed that nothing was more important than education. He ran a private school, hired male and female teachers, and welcomed both boys and girls even after the Taliban threatened his life. The Taliban is an extremely conservative Islamic group which shuns Western influence and seeks to exclude women from public life.
Horrified to witness the Taliban taking control of Swat, Ziauddin spoke to journalists. Malala, at the age of eleven, joined his campaign. She spoke at political meetings and wrote a blog about her own experience for BBC Urdu. Malala’s mother fretted that her daughter would get into trouble with the Taliban but Malala was more concerned for her father. The Taliban, after all, had never come for a girl. Ziauddin, meanwhile, slept away from home for fear his family would be forced to watch him die.
One Tuesday morning in October 2012 15-year-old Malala left her home to go to school. She hasn’t returned since.
When her school bus was stopped by a man asking to speak with the girls, Malala and her friend Moniba thought he might be a journalist.
‘”Who is Malala?” he demanded.
No one said anything, but several of the girls looked at me. I was the only girl with my face not covered.
That’s when he lifted up a black pistol. I learned later it was a Colt45. Some of the girls screamed. Moniba tells me I squeezed her hand.’
Malala survived. On her sixteenth birthday she gave a speech in New York to 400 UN delegates imploring world leaders to guarantee free education for every child in the world.
‘Let us pick up our pens,’ she said. ‘They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.’
Her book, I Am Malala, is her response to that man on the bus. With help from award-winning journalist Christina Lamb, Malala provides more than just a riveting personal account. The book provides an accessible overview of the history of this conflict torn region and hammers home the message that education is the key to peace.
Continuing her campaign to raise awareness of the plight of children who are deprived of education, Malala has travelled to Jordan, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan, and even to Barack Obama’s oval office (it’s quite small, she says). In 2014 Malala Yousafzai became the youngest ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. You can watch her speech here.
It beggars belief that even 200 years after the publication of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women education for girls is not something we can take for granted. Malala Yousafzai’s book belongs on the same shelf of outstanding feminist writing.
Get Writing – A Book by You
If you’ve got a story burning inside you, be it your own history or a work of pure fiction, write it down. Publication in your teens is well within the realm of possibility.