Tumbling the building blocks: A review of Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl

Cover of How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

“So what do you do when you build yourself—only to realize you built yourself with the wrong things?”

How To Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

 It is 1990 and Johanna Morrigan is fourteen years old, living in Wolverhampton, a city in the English West Midlands, with her unemployed rock-star-wannabe father, depressed mother, two brothers, and twin babies. Johanna has more childcare duties and financial worries than any teenage girl should have to deal with and she ultimately dreams of finding a way out.

In order to make this happen, Johanna reinvents herself as Dolly Wilde–fast talking, hard drinking Lady Sex Adventurer and freelance music journalist. Johanna is determined to build herself in the best way she knows how: on the fly. As Johanna navigates her way through this adult world as a working class girl, her notes are as follows:

How to Build a Girl

By sixteen, Johanna is living the life of lots of sex, lots of drug, and lots of rock ‘n’ roll all in an attempt to build herself, but she soon wonders if during all these wild adventures whether she has gone about this whole “building herself business” in all the wrong ways, and can she change it?

How to Build a Girl is a fast- paced tale of a working class girl whose brains and way with words ensure that her everyday actions will lead to wild parties and unexpected opportunities that allow her to escape the drudgery that is Wolverhampton and somehow find success in the most round-about manner feasible.

This new book reads very much like Moran’s semi-autobiography; she also grew up in a large working class family and became a successful music journalist at a young age (although Moran declares it is pure fiction). Whatever the truth is, Moran has created an authentic teenage voice through her character Johanna. Moran puts the pubescent roller coaster on full display from the exaggerated emotional response to ANYTHING and EVERYTHING to the self-conscious body image moments in front of the mirror.

While Johanna is often over the top and highly excitable in all that she does, it is a very true-to-life portayal. Everyone as a teenager has had moments of exclaiming that it is the end of the world as he or she knows it because this or that happened etc. I believe I said this more than once while growing up…I sometimes still say it on occasion.

How to Build a Girl is also very frank about sex, specifically female sexuality. Moran does not shy away from the subject, but places it front and centre with a wank (specifically, Johanna masturbating in the dead of night next to her sleeping brother with a pillow between them for privacy, because, yes, young girls have urges too and those urges need to be satisfied). Aside from the occasional wank, Johanna also goes out and has lots of sex with lots of different people because, as Moran puts it, “it is what young teenage girls will do. It’s what I did. It’s what my friends did.” Moran said her intention behind this book and the character Johanna is to reclaim the word “slag” and “slut” from society’s shaming culture and renaming it fun names, such as “lady sex pirate” or “swash fuckler.” It’s not about shaming but experiencing. When I attended Moran’s launch at the Toronto Public Library’s Appel Salon, she described the teenage girl’s life in the perfect fashion: “It is about going out and having amazing experiences and awful experiences, which later turn into amazing anecdotes.” And she’s right, you know. After all, how many of us have gone out for drinks talking about our latest adventure in bed or otherwise, both good and bad? All of us, I would think.

While the reader may not be able to relate to everything Johanna goes through in the book, it is all honest and it is all written in a hilarious fashion that only Caitlin Moran is capable of. You may not always be able to say, “I’ve done that,” but you don’t mind going along for the ride with this fun and easy read.

Essentially, How to Build a Girl is about class, social privilege, feminism, and building yourself and rebuilding yourself as you go through life. Johanna may think she has the right building blocks at first, but she soon learns there is no right or easy way to build yourself. Johanna Morrigan is a beautiful work in progress and Caitlin Moran’s book ends with a promise that we haven’t seen the last of this spunky teenage girl.

5 out of 5 book thumbs up

Image of a green book giving the thumbs upImage of a green book giving the thumbs upImage of a green book giving the thumbs upImage of a green book giving the thumbs upImage of a green book giving the thumbs up

How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran, published in Canada by HarperCollins Canada, © 2014

Available at Indigo, Amazon, and independent bookstores everywhere.

The appeal of a man in a kilt: A talk with Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series

author, Diana Gabaldon and I

I have had a fascination with the Outlander series for quite some time now. And even before I was able to actually read the books myself, I knew of them. My mother had borrowed the first three books from my aunt, and these ones had the really old covers from when they were first published. I remember flipping open the cover that had the secret hole in the centre to then reveal the full cover image on the first two preliminary pages. I specifically recall a tall red-headed woman with wind-swept hair. I was clueless then that I would be a future Outlander addict obsessed with Claire, the pictured woman I had absently admired, and Jamie’s turbulent love story in historical Scotland.

Written in My Heart's Own BloodOn June 21, 2014, I attended a segment of Diana Gabaldon’s Canadian Tour for Written in My Own Heart’s Blood. This is the second time I’ve seen Diana in person—the first was at Fergus’ annual Scottish Festival and Highland Games last year. I waited in a very long line to ensure I got every single book in the series signed, aside from the newest edition to the series (only freshly signed last month). While the line up in a London Chapters was not quite as long, it did wrap around the store in a snake-like fashion.

Diana is an amazing speaker. She is definitely up there as one of the top authors I love to hear speak in person. And despite her telling the same anecdotes I had previously heard in Fergus, I was enthralled and, frankly, she has some pretty great lines that don’t get old. My favourite is the rhyme she would tell at the beginning of her science classes when she frequently came up against a row of half-sleeping jocks:

“In days of old, when knights were bold and condoms weren’t invented, they wrapped old socks around their cocks and babies were prevented.”

Needless to say, these words got the jocks’ attention very quickly, and they also certainly have the ability to also grab an audience of adoring Outlander fans. Hearing it for a second time, I still chuckled to myself.

Another line I absolutely love is her reference to a time when she was asked by a German journalist (I think) what the appeal of a man in a kilt was. Her response? “Well I guess it has something to do with fact that you can be up against a wall with him in a second.” A shocking revelation said matter of factly that this journalist never forgot, and it is one that I have taken a liking to. Who wouldn’t want a dashing fellow in a kilt with a Scottish accent up against a wall? Especially an eighteenth-century man such as Jamie Fraser.

In addition to Diana’s book during this tour, there is also the added excitement of the new television series based on the Outlander series, which will be airing this August on STARZ. Whether or not the adaptation will live up to fans’ expectations has yet to be revealed, but Diana seems optimistic, and she warns against fans expecting producers to be able to “read minds” when every readers has a different fantasy concocted. Frankly, if the author has given the seal of approval then I have a lot of faith in the upcoming show.

Meeting Diana for a second time was amazing, and there was also the added pleasure of being recognized by the publicist on duty as one of the many interns at Random House of Canada last fall. I’m so glad I made a lasting impression there and that I had the opportunity to work where great storytellers like Diana Gabaldon see their work published. As a reader and publishing professional, I have never felt more privileged.

If you want to learn more about Diana’s tour, her books, or just her personal musing in general, which are often highly entertaining, then check out her blog. If you didn’t get a chance to get up close and personal with her during this tour then her blog is the next best thing.

One question Diana did answer was when/if the series had a foreseeable conclusion? Diana provided us eager listeners with a very flippant and , in my opinion, appropriate response: “Not yet.” Therefore, Diana can’t promise what book number in the series will see Claire and Jamie’s long love story end, but her fans, myself included, can make a promise: We will all be eagerly awaiting the next one, and the next one after that.

Me and the Outlander TV series standup ad




I’M SO EXCITED!!!! (for the show and to be this close to a cardboard apparition of Jamie)