What a confusing, exhilarating time it is to be a girl. The age of Hillary Clinton, Malala, the thigh gap, the selfie, and the finding according to Business Insider, that 10% of the world’s billionaires are female. (And 90% are not.)
We tell girls that they can be anything. But should they aspire to be Angela Merkel, Rihanna, or somehow both? Every book I write addresses these themes, and I write mainly for girls because I know how complicated their world is. I want to give them relatable role models, who share their dreams and are faced with the kind of issues that most of them encounter, from body image to cyberbullying.
My latest novel, Love Song, is a romance about a girl and a rock band. Like my readers, I was aware of all the clichés, but I write in a proud, post-Frozen tradition where even Disney princesses aren’t rescued by the prince any more. A girl needs to learn that she has to rescue herself.
In YA fiction we subject our heroes and heroines to every kind of danger, but we give them the strength and power to win – or we show why such powers matter. From Valkyrie Cain in Derek Landy’s Skulduggery series, to Mikasa Ackerman in Hajime Isayama’s Attack on Titan, YA fantasy, dystopia and manga have no shortage of kick-ass heroines: outsiders with endless drive, decent weaponry and ready put-downs for anyone misguided enough to underestimate them.
In contemporary fiction, girls tend to be less weaponised, but no less interesting. Eleanor in Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park "never looked nice. She looked like art, and art wasn’t supposed to look nice; it was supposed to make you feel something." Eleanor is secretly and uncompromisingly dealing with the threat of domestic abuse. Crush, by Eve Ainsworth, out this month, also provides a delicate roadmap for escaping a toxic relationship.
The best role models don’t always come from fiction. Sophia Amoruso’s #GIRLBOSS is a testament to how a high school dropout with ADD can turn vintage selling on eBay into international retail success, if she’s prepared to work hard enough. I would press it into every disengaged teen’s hands. In You’re Never Weird On The Internet (Almost), Felicia Day brilliantly describes how she overcame crippling insecurities to turn her geeky obsessions into self-made Hollywood success.
And then, there is Georgia Nicolson. She may seem an unlikely feminist icon, but she is awkward, unbeautiful, and celebrates better than anyone the true, madcap craziness of being a teenage girl. Above all, the late Louise Rennison showed that it’s all right for a girl to be funny, which takes courage all of its own. “When girls walk home we put on lippy and makeup. We chat. Sometimes we pretend to be hunchbacks. But that is it. Perfectly normal behavior.” If a girl can learn to laugh at herself like Georgia, she’ll probably be OK.
Sophia Bennett is an author. Her latest book is Love Song (Chicken House), out 7th April.