Turns out The Geography of Girlhood was written by someone who knows a lot about teenage girls – at least in the movies. Kirsten Smith is the co-writer of some classic teen flicks including 10 Things I Hate About You, Ella Enchanted and one of my all-time, never-get-sick-of-it faves She’s the Man. (I can not stress how much I love She’s the Man. I’ve seen it many times and it still makes me laugh I love that I can share it with my students when we study Twelfth Night.)
When The Geography of Girlhood starts, Penny is just fourteen. Having rowed herself out into the middle of the bay to contemplate her life she thinks: “One day, I’ll find my way away from here/ and go somewhere real/ and do something great/ and be someone wonderful.”
Of course, the problem with being a teenage girl is that there’s a whole lot of crap to wade through before you get that “someone wonderful.” Fourteen, Penny intones, “is like rotten candy.”
The novel, told in free verse form, follows Penny from the end of grade nine until just after her sixteenth birthday.
Penny is jealous of her perfect, older sister, Tara, her “long torso,/ the breasts lodged high/ like tea cakes/ on her powdery skin.” She longs to experience “love” as she imagines it exists between Tara and Bobby, her sister’s boyfriend. “I look at her/ and memorize everything./ So when the time comes,/ and the boy’s eye glitters like a crime,/ I will know what to do.” We learn about Penny’s complicated feelings for the mother who left her, who, in fact “always wanted to leave wherever she was.”
Readers will recognize themselves in Penny. While it’s true that fourteen was a L-O-N-G time ago for me, I can totally remember that feeling that “you look good only once a week/ and it’s never on the day of the dance.”
Penny navigates the treacherous geography of her girlhood, in language that is both poignant and pointed. She falls in and out of love in the way of all teenaged girls. She makes stupid choices and does stupid things, but she is also smart and resilient and open to all the possibilities life has to offer.
“If anyone tells you that life is predictable,/ DO NOT BELIEVE THEM,” she remarks.
I really enjoyed this book.