American Girls

Book review by
Mary Cosola, Common Sense Media
American Girls Book Poster Image
Riveting tale of runaway discovering Hollywood underbelly.

Parents say

age 13+
Based on 1 review

Kids say

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Information on Charles Manson, his followers, and their crimes. Discussions of books and movies, chiefly Helter Skelter, The Great Gatsby, Streetcar Named Desire, and Valley of the Dolls.

Positive Messages

You can't run away from your troubles. Take responsibility for your part in a disagreement, even if the other person isn't entirely blameless. Try to have compassion for other people; you never know what private battles they're fighting or past issues they're dealing with.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Anna spends much of the book rationalizing her bad behavior, but she grows up and takes responsibility for her mistakes. Delia has her faults, but she looks out for Anna and tries to give her some good life lessons and advice. Dex is a positive adult role model for Anna. He keeps an eye on her, finds her some work, and is good to her. Jeremy is an honest and caring friend to Anna; he's turned his life around and tries to help his sister, who's always in trouble.

Violence

Most of the violence is depicted in past tense -- for example, on several occasions Anna recounts some of the Manson Family's horrific torture and killings but only graphically a few times (description of vicious stabbings and sticking forks in stomach of victim). Passing mention of childhood abuse suffered by female Manson followers. The Roman Polanski rape case is discussed a few times. Two characters bully a girl via text messages. A few references to girls who self-harm, including cutting and stapling one's own skin. One character is attacked and gets her nose broken, but the attack isn't graphically described. One character has a possible stalker who leaves notes and drives by the victim's house frequently.

Sex

More talk about sex than actual sexual activity. Many references to sex, group sex, and oral sex. Some light kissing and a few scenes of French-kissing, with one woman kissing two men at the same time. A man grabs a woman's crotch.

Language

Swearing isn't frequent. Anna calls women "sluts" several times. Other language includes "f--k," "a--hole," "s--t," "ass," "bitch," "Jesus," "God," "sonofabitch," "whore," "damn," "bulls--t," "boobs," "d--k," "c--t," "douche," "bastard," and "crap."

Consumerism

Because the book takes place in Hollywood, it has frequent movie and television references, classic and modern, but all in passing or for scene setting. Other media and product mentions include Rolling Stone magazine, the movie Pink Flamingos, Starbucks, Converse, Old Navy, The Coffee Bean, Google, BMW, Honda, Discovery Channel, Mountain Dew, Cap'n Crunch, Twizzlers, Nintendo, Doritos, Whole Foods, and Advil.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Some references to drug use, primarily LSD, by the Manson Family. The phrase "roofied" (when someone unknowingly has a drink drugged) is used a few times jokingly. Delia smokes pot, and Anna mentions having tried it once in the past. One character takes prescribed pain pills and mixes them with vodka, getting drunk and high. A woman hands Anna a slip of paper at a nightclub, and Anna later realizes it was probably Molly or another drug, but she doesn't take it.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know American Girls is a coming-of-age novel that explores personal responsibility, the pitfalls of celebrity culture, and the value of women in a looks-based society. The main character, Anna, makes some bad choices and is snarky and judgmental. She steals her stepmom's credit card number and runs away to Los Angeles to stay with her older sister. The book tells the story of her stay in LA, the Hollywood insiders she meets, her sister's possible stalker, and how she learns about herself and starts to realize the error of her ways. The characters talk about sex a lot, but no sex beyond French-kissing is depicted. The violence, too, is more talked about than shown. For example, Anna researches the Manson Family and talks about some of the murders they committed. There's very little in the way of drinking and drug use depicted. Swearing isn't frequent but includes "f--k" and "s--t."

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written bytobier July 21, 2016

Thought-provoking

This is a very gritty and real sort of book. If you're looking for good role models, go elsewhere. If you're looking for a happy read, go elsewhere.... Continue reading

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What's the story?

Anna's home life in Atlanta isn't going so great. Her parents recently divorced, her mom has a new wife, her dad took off for Mexico, she's being forced to change schools for her senior year, and her mom's way more into her new baby son than she is into Anna. Fed up, Anna decides to steal her stepmom's credit card number and run off to Los Angeles, where she'll be far away from her problems. The trouble is, she doesn't realize that she brings her emotional baggage with her everywhere she goes. While in L.A., Anna stays with her sister Delia, a struggling actress. With no money, no job, and no car, Anna ends up spending her days on the sets of movies and TV shows, eventually getting a gig researching the female followers of Charles Manson. This research and her exposure to the seamy side of Hollywood fame open her eyes to her own relationships and issues. Will she be another one of the lost AMERICAN GIRLS, like the washed-up starlets and Manson women? Her challenge is to try to figure out how to fix her life and move forward into adulthood.

Is it any good?

With this smart, funny, and intriguing look at the teen-to-adult transition, author Alison Umminger takes on important themes. American Girls addresses family issues, bullying, the desire to be loved, and the value of women in a looks-obsessed world. The only drawback is that Umminger tries to work in too many ideas, and some of the connections she weaves are a little tenuous and tangled, even though the themes are solid. Anna's research into the Manson Family and their crimes is intriguing but not well realized. Through this research and first-hand exposure to the Hollywood machinery, Anna's eyes are opened to the way women are treated in America. The book raises many interesting questions: How do women end up following someone like Manson? How do women who are beautiful trade on it, and how do they cope when that particular currency doesn't hold as much value as they age? What are the side effects of thinking that feelings of self-worth come from being beautiful? Why does the media make stars out of someone like Charles Manson but leave his victims as footnotes?

Anna can be an infuriating main character. She's sarcastic and funny but in denial about how many unfavorable traits she shares with her mom and sister. It's satisfying to see her wake up to her own behaviors and what goes on in the celebrity culture she finds herself in. Umminger has a good ear for teen dialogue and does a great job of balancing the heavier themes with some teen fun, such as meeting and befriending teen TV stars.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about teen stars and celebrity culture. How do you feel about the way the media and the public obsess about stars? How do you think these stars feel when they're "last week's news"? Do you buy into media coverage of celebrities?

  • Many news stories, movies, and books focus on the lives of psychopaths and killers, such as Charles Manson, but not nearly as much attention is given to their victims. Why do you think this is?

  • Have there been times when you had to take responsibility for your actions? Or times when you had to admit your part in a problem, even though the other person was partially at fault, too? Was this a learning experience for you going forward?

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