How to Be a Girl in the World

Book review by
Mandie Caroll, Common Sense Media
How to Be a Girl in the World Book Poster Image
Engaging coming-of-ager tackles sexual harassment of tween.

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A lot or a little?

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

Educational Value

Shows blatant and subtle forms of sexual harassment, as well as various responses to such illegal treatment.

Positive Messages

Silence never makes things better; find someone you can trust and tell them your fears, secrets, and shame. You deserve to be treated the way you want to be treated. You are in charge of your body; you decide who can and can't touch your body and how. You are more powerful and brave than you think.

Positive Role Models

Scared but resourceful Lydia is a 12-year-old trying to figure out how to feel safe in the world after being sexually harassed in school and at home. She struggles to protect herself, but never stops trying. Lydia's divorced parents are aloof toward Lydia's problems, but they do come around to her aid as they should. Emma, Lydia's resilient 11-year-old cousin, becomes a source of Lydia's strength as they face their problems together. In terms of representation, Lydia and her family are White, Emma is Black-White biracial, and friends appear to be racially diverse.      

Violence

Repeated scenes of sexual harassment including name-calling, unwanted flirting, peeping, bra-snapping, manspreading, unwanted touch, etc., much of which is dismissed as "not a big deal," by several characters, though they later experience serious consequences. A fair amount of tension and fear generated in scenes where Lydia is alone with her mother's boyfriend.

Sex

Middle-school-age girls talk about crushes and express desire for male attention. Opposite-gender adults in a relationship hug and kiss briefly.

Language

Very mild insults, like "idiot" are used sparingly.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Caela Carter's How to Be a Girl in the World follows 12-year-old Lydia, and her 11-year-old cousin, Emma, as they navigate Lydia's mother's too-touchy boyfriend, Jeremey. Lydia has also experienced sexual harassment from boys at her Catholic school. After the adults in her life let her down, Lydia turns to a spell book she finds in the deteriorating old house her mother just bought, hoping that a bit of magic might protect her from being touched in ways that she hates. Though there is no blood or gore, the sexual predations Lydia, in particular, experiences are psychologically violent and can be quite scary, with lots of tension and fear in scenes where Lydia is alone with Jeremy. Other sexual content is mild: Adults hug and kiss, kids talk of crushes. There are some insults, such as "idiot." This is a great pick for starting family discussions around consent and sexual harassment.

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What's the story?

In HOW TO BE A GIRL IN THE WORLD, we meet Lydia dressed in long sleeves and sweats, in the August heat of a Brooklyn summer. We quickly learn that she's trying to deflect unwanted attention from her growing body. Boys at school and Lydia's mother's boyfriend, Jeremy, have teased and touched her in ways that make her skin crawl, but she worries she's overreacting, especially when her friends tell her she's lucky the boys "flirt" with her. Emma, her cousin, seems to enjoy hugs from Jeremey, and her dad doesn't stop a manspreader from touching her at a Met's game. Lydia's mother buys a run-down fixer-upper, and Lydia likes its creepiness, but is thrilled when she finds a spell book that contains a spell for protection. She hopes the magic will stop the teasing boys at school and Jeremey from touching her and Emma. But when the magic doesn't work, how will Lydia manage to ever feel safe again?

Is it any good?

This powerful tale of a girl trying to make sense of the world is an urgent and necessary book to keep conversations going in our post-#metoo era. How to Be a Girl in the World's preteen characters are realistic and sympathetic. The various forms of violation described in this story advance the book's central questions: Is any form of unwanted touch acceptable? Who gets to decide? Author Caela Carter trusts her readers' ability to handle nuance and decide for themselves. Carter's writing is well-paced and clear, her characters are interesting, and the resolution is quiet satisfying.

The lack of depth regarding why so many girls in this book seem to accept sexual attention, and, at times, to actively desire it, may bother some readers. This may unintentionally imply that some girls want such attention, since they aren't vocally objecting to it. It's also never quite clear why Lydia doesn't reach out to her family for help sooner. These concerns aside, this is a strong and memorable story, one that can inspire tween readers to stand up for themselves and others when faced with unwanted attention.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the sexual harassment Lydia (and Emma) experience in How to Be a Girl in the World. How does Lydia try to protect herself? How does she try to figure out what's acceptable and what's not? What do you and your family think is acceptable or not when it comes to teasing and touching?

  • Lydia observes Emma and her friends deal with unwanted touch and sexual attention in different ways. Do these different reactions surprise you? How do you think you'd react? Who could you go to for help in understanding these issues?

  • What do Lydia and Emma ultimately learn over the course of the story? What does the book say about staying silent and keeping secrets? Who can you trust for help with big problems?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love middle school books and stories that deal with consent

Themes & Topics

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