Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

The Geography of Girlhood

The Geography of Girlhood

Kirsten Smith
For ages 12 to 14
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2007   ISBN: 978-0316017350

As far as Penny is concerned being a fourteen-year-old is all about being stuck in a world where she stands on the sidelines waiting for things to get better. Penny enviously watches Tara, her beautiful older sister, sashay through life, with a boyfriend following in her wake. Penny wishes that she could be like Tara instead of being a girl who looks like her father, a man who is not “pretty” at all. Penny wishes she could wake up one day with “a new life / that doesn’t look anything / like this one.”

When she was just six, Penny’s mother left, and since then her father has done his best to be a father and a mother to his daughters, which is not easy. Tara in particular likes to live life to the fullest, which can lead to problems. Sometimes Tara plays one teenage girl card too many. One night Penny comes home and finds out that Tara came home with hickeys all over her neck and their father is furious. So furious in fact that he tried to put a new lock on Tara’s bedroom door.

After this piece of drama, more and more things start to happen in Penny’s life. She gets detention for the first time, a boy blows a kiss at her, and when the star of the school play gets bronchitis, Penny has to step out of her in-the-background understudy role and onto the stage to play the lead part. This could be the opportunity of a lifetime. It really could. Except Penny does not know her lines and the first night is a bust. A second understudy takes on the lead role for the remaining performances of the play.

When she leaves the theatre that night, walking in the rain, Randall Faber gives Penny a bunch of flowers. He does not seem to mind that she made a complete mess of the play and suddenly she isn’t just Penny Morrow, the “Screw-up In the School Play.” Now she is “The Girl Randall Faber Likes,” who then becomes the girl who fainted when Randal Faber kissed her. To say that Penny feels humiliated is an understatement.  The surprising thing is that Randall still wants to be her official boyfriend and so Penny finds herself holding hands with him, dancing with him, and trying to have conversations with him. She should be happy with her new status in life, but the truth of the matter is that she really does not like him that much. How did that happen?

Penny is not the only one in a relationship either. Her dad starts seeing a biologist, and Penny cannot believe how changed he is. He tries new things, steps into the unknown, and stops hiding from the world. By the time summer is rich and ripe with sunny days, Penny’s dad has married Susan and Penny and Tara have a new stepmother and a stepbrother.

Change happens so fast during the summer months and Penny is barely about to keep up. Her friend Denise really falls apart and has to take medication; Tara breaks every rule she can; and in September Penny gets sucked into the world of high school. The thing is that Penny has no idea what she is doing half the time and so on she stumbles, trying desperately to keep her head above water and survive.

This sometimes gritty, poignant, and often painful novel in verse takes us into the world of a teenage girl who, like so many teenagers, has no clue how to navigate the world she finds herself in. As her sister and best friend slip into deeper and deeper waters of recklessness (Tara) and illness (Denise), Penny tries to figure out where she belongs and who she is. Change and loss make her last years in school complicated, and readers will find themselves wishing that they could hold this girl who misses her long-lost mother, longs for a life somewhere else, and struggles to understand her world.