Notes From the Teenage Underground by Simmone Howell
This book has remained one of my favourite young adult reads of all time, since I read it when it was published back in 2006. It has a timeless appeal - with its universal themes of navigating shifting friendship dynamics and family relationships, and learning to embrace your true self - but these themes are explored in a unique, smart and compelling way which makes this book stand out from many other YA reads.
Seventeen-year-old Gem narrates this smart and edgy novel, her intimate style of sharing story allowing her readers a window into her world as she tells us about her precarious position in her friendship group, her new awareness of co-worker Dodgy, and her thoughts on art and cinematography. Gem and her friends, Lo and Mira, are planning a 'Happening' - which means making an underground film, along with various other subversive activities. Gem quickly realises that the volatile Lo is planning something dark-edged that Gem herself is not privy to, and it also becomes clear that she and Lo have 'artistic differences' when it comes to film and art. How will Gem find a way to take part in these activities while staying true to herself and her art?
I love how references to art and film are woven throughout the narrative, providing context and meaning to the development of Gem herself. Gem's mother Bev talks to Gem about the way art can be like a ‘psychic mirror,’ explaining that this means ‘when you look at something and it seems to reflect what you're feeling on the inside.' This theory is built upon by Howell throughout the text, as the movies Gem watches throughout the narrative seem to reflect how Gem is feeling or what she is thinking about at that given point. The plots of some of these movies often seem symbolic of what is happening in Gem’s life.
Gem is a self-aware and intelligent protagonist, and I love the snappy dialogue between Gem and her friends. The precarious balance of Gem's friendship with Lo and Mira is realistically drawn, as is her awkward crush on Dodgy (her co-worker at the video store). I particularly love Gem’s relationship with her single mum Bev, who is an important source of information and advice for Gem, and inspires her creativity and knowledge. I am especially drawn to YA novels which illuminate mother-daughter relationships (having completed my PhD on this very subject!)
Bev’s narrative is an important source of inspiration for Gem – her story about hearing Germaine Greer talking during her university days inspires Gem to embark on her project about formidable women in history, and illuminates the importance of revelling in who you really are. Towards the end of the story Gem has a new sense of empowerment, gleaned from the female role models in her life, and is able to look ahead to future possibilities – film making, forging new friendships, and reconciling her relationship with her long absent father.
Books such as this empower our teen readers by inviting them to reflect on meaning within the text, and by illuminating the ways in which engaging in a creative activity can provide a sense of meaning.