HOW TO BUILD A GIRL by Caitlin Moran

Review by Gill-Marie Stewart

This is an interesting book that reads as though it is half-fiction, half-autobiography. Moran explicitly states in the Author’s Note ‘This is a work of fiction’ but it doesn’t feel like one, especially when the book is about a sixteen year-old girl who becomes a music journalist and Moran herself became a music journalist at the same ridiculously young age. They’re also both from a council estate in the same town … So, yeah, I think we can go with the caption ‘semi-autobiographical’.

The auto-biography-or-not issue aside, I have two gripes with this book. I picked it up in the YA section of the library so I assume it is being marketed as YA. It has a first person narrator who is sixteen turning seventeen, prime YA territory. And yet there are times when the narrator is looking back on her teenage years, or referring to how her future self turns out – e.g. when she meets John Kite for the first time she remarks how important he is in her life for the next twenty years. If this was a true teenage narrator she couldn’t possibly do this. Although it didn’t put me off the book it did make me feel this could just as easily be women’s fiction/autobiography as YA/autobiography.

My second gripe is with the era the book is set in. I’m not sure how much the 1990s appeal to current teenagers. The setting will certainly attract people who were young in the 1990s, who can remember these political event, this music, these magazines. I’m just not sure it will ring true with the current generation. It could well feel like ancient history: the career in musical (print) journalism that is central to the narrative just isn’t possible in the internet age.

Despite the above, this is a great read, funny, bitter, quixotic, wild and at times pretentious (but then the heroine is determinedly pretentious, transforming herself from Johanna Morrigan to Dolly Wilde). It’s a good rollocking read (it’s not often I say that!), with plenty to inspire teenagers to try to make something different of their lives, plus many examples of what happens when this leads to catastrophe and not triumph.

There are some really excellent sections. Who can resist lines like: ‘You actually don’t exist while you’re in your bedroom … Teenage girls in bedrooms do not exist.’ Or politics summed up: ‘It’s a miracle when someone from a bad postcode gets somewhere … A miracle they do anything at all.’ Johanna’s unrequited love speech (which she thinks but doesn’t say) is absolutely brilliant. And as she says near the end, when the girl you’re building doesn’t quite work, then – rip it up and start again. Which is what she does.

Perhaps this book should not be called ‘How To Build A Girl’ but ‘How Not To Build A Girl – Note All The Mistakes’. Johanna does seem to survive her mistakes, but at a high price. Although at times the writing is brilliant and funny, it is at other times extremely depressing. Despite the rave reviews, this is not a cheerful read. It is definitely not the book for those people who worry about swearing, sex, violence, alcoholism etc in their YA books. It has them all! And the portrayal of a family on the very edge of poverty is painfully realistic.

I have debated between three and four piranhas and finally come down on the side of four, because when it is brilliant it really is brilliant. As I said at the beginning, an interesting read!

piranha stars blue 4


Gill-Marie writes YA mystery/romances as Gill-Marie Stewart. As Gilly Stewart she also writes women’s contemporary fiction. The first book in her YA series about George and Finn is Music and Lies (try out the first chapter here).

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