Sunday, April 11, 2021

How to Be a Girl in the World, by Caela Carter

It may be hot outside, but the only way that Lydia is going to be comfortable is by covering every inch of exposed skin.  She's roasting, of course, but ever since boys started teasing her about her body in sixth grade, she's been unable to be in the presence of boys or men without being wrapped up like a mummy.  Her cousin Emma (who lives with them) and her Mom keep demanding an explanation, but Lydia can't actually say what she is feeling out loud.  Whether it's the boys and their jokes or the way that grown men look at her on the subway, she feels overwhelmingly self-conscious.  Worst of all is Mom's boyfriend Jeremy, whose hugs last too long and who always seems to find an excuse to touch her.  Lydia would say something, but Mom likes him a lot and he's good to the family, so Lydia doesn't want to do anything that would make her Mom angry.

That same summer, Mom surprises Emma and Lydia by buying a fixer-upper.  While the house is badly neglected, Mom assures the girl that it can be rehabilitated.  But first of all, the house needs to be cleaned out.  The former tenants left it full of abandoned possessions and the three of them work hard over the summer to clean it out.  While cleaning, Lydia finds a secret room full of vials and dried herbs.  A leather-bound book left behind claims to explain how to use them to cast spells for love, fortune, and (most important of all) protection.  Convinced that the only way that she will be able to ever go outside uncovered and looking like a normal person is to enlist some supernatural help, Lydia tries to concoct a magical talisman.  In the end, she finds that the way to protect yourself is much more straightforward.

An extremely fast 300-page read (I had intended to only start it this afternoon, but ended up finishing it instead).  Lydia's inability to speak up throughout most of the book drove me nuts, but given the sensitive nature of the subject, I can accept it.  And, in showing us how even a shy girl can find the strength to say what needs to be said to protect herself, Carter is providing a roadmap for young readers who may feel themselves in a similar situation.  It's no easy journey as Lydia discovers that not every grownup is going to help her or that she will always be understood even when she finds her voice.  But in the end, the right people do the right things.

The story gently and age-appropriately clearly conveys the message that only you get to decide how your body will be touched.  I can't think of a more important message. While there are actually a fair number of good books for middle school readers about privacy, body positivity, and the importance of boundaries, sadly there really cannot ever be too many.

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