It’s 3:30 p.m. on Friday – one of the first sunny, warm-ish ones of the spring – and the last place you’d expect a group of teenage girls to be is on yet another Zoom call, especially after a long day of online learning.
But they’re here in force, more than 30 squares filling the screen, hanging on every word Bethany C. Morrow has to say about her latest novel, the fantasy A Song Below Water, a story about two friends navigating the upheaval of junior year, against the backdrop of a national murder trial with a personal connection. “It’s a story about who gets to be magical and who gets to be powerful,” the YA author (who lived in Montreal for 10 years) tells the group from her home.
Because most of the young women have their cameras turned off, the level of engagement only really becomes obvious when it’s question time for the YA author, and the chat is quickly flooded. “Do you write as a way of relieving stress?” “Did you edit anything out of your book?” “Who are your dream actors to star in a movie version?” Morrow gives a thoughtful, thorough answer to each and every one of the questions, even pausing the wrap-up because she’s noticed one last question has gone unanswered. Time and time again, she returns to the themes of the book – sisterhood, navigating a sometimes hostile world, resilience in the face of injustice.They’re things that even adults struggle with, but she deals with them in a way that’s appropriate for teenage girls, without flinching away from the tough or complicated aspects.
This joyful, warmth-filled hour marked this school year’s last meeting of the Room of Your Own Book Club, a monthly gathering where teenage girls – many from communities in Toronto that experience socio-economic challenges – are tasked with reading a set text and then given the chance to discuss that novel with the author. The woman behind it all, greeting girls by name as they enter the Zoom, is Tanya Lee, who dedicates herself full time to the planning, wrangling and fundraising required to run this book club.
Lee, who has a daughter too, started A Room of Your Own about four years ago after hearing about all the negative impacts social media was having on young people in particular. “I thought, we need to get these girls back to reading,” says Lee, who turned to books to get her through “a lot of horrible things” in her own adolescence. “Reading opens up a whole different world. You get to experience what different characters are going through and you might realize that you’re not alone, or find some answers.”
Growing up, her mother hadn’t been able to afford to buy books, so Lee’s “first love” became the library, where she remembers taking out the same books over and over again, (VC Andrews and Judy Blume, if you’re wondering) but she also knew how special was that rare book that was just hers. It’s an experience she wanted to share with other girls whose parents might not be able to give them everything they deserved. “You can’t choose between paying the hydro bill and buying a book for your kid,” says Lee, who works with publishers and donors to make sure every girl who’s part of the book club gets her own complimentary copy of each book they read together, autographed by the author when they’re able to meet in person. “I want these girls to feel celebrated,” says Lee of the “girl positive” space she works hard to create.
The books Lee chooses for the book club have to fit just one criteria: They must reflect the diverse group of young women who attend. “Canada has an extraordinary mosaic of teenage girls of all abilities,” Lee says, “and I want to make sure the books represent that.” That’s why they’ve read books by Black authors, books about the Indigenous experience, novels that touch on domestic or sexual violence and books that tackle mental health, often with a youth psychiatrist present to talk through any questions the subject matter might have triggered. “I know how important it is for young girls to see themselves reflected in literature,” says Lee, who tried to support Canadian authors whenever she can. “It’s so important for these girls to know that they matter and that they’re not alone.” In a pandemic, when girls are isolated from their friends and the support systems they may have outside the home, a safe, nurturing space like this feels more essential than ever. “As a teenager, you’re going through so much, and I want this book club to let these girls know that they’re special, and that I care for them, their teachers care for them, the authors who wrote these stories care for them.”
The first book club was held in January 2017, in the basement of Lillian H. Smith library in Toronto, attended by 15 girls from Samuel Hearne Middle School in Scarborough. Before the pandemic, its attendance had swelled up to 150 girls at a meeting, rushing to grab a slice of the pizza provided, before sitting down to listen to the author speak and then lining up for their own one-to-one chat with them after. Once the pandemic is over, Lee is hopeful they’ll get to start meeting like this again, and she’s even dreaming of launching a Canada-wide read-a-thon next summer to get girls from other high priority or remote communities involved. “I just want girls to love reading,” she says, “because it will get you through some of the hardest things in life.”
We talked to a few whose lives have been impacted by A Room of Your Own book club.
“I loved the concept, which is why I jumped at the chance,” says Keehn, who was the first author to be a part of the book club, and the only one so far to make a repeat appearance. “The book they’d chosen had a mental health angle and Tanya brought in a psychologist to talk alongside me, which I really appreciated. What I remember most was how talking about my book got some of the girls talking about their own issues. They felt comfortable enough in that environment to speak up and I think that’s a big part of the goal.” The book club was also a much-needed boost for her as a writer. “Writing can be very solitary and it’s easy to forget the readers at the other end, especially when they’re younger and less likely to be interacting with me on social media. The book club gatherings put faces on readers for me and I appreciate any chance to do that.”
“My daughter didn’t like reading and now she loves it,” says Arlene, who was looking for ways to keep her daughter engaged during the pandemic and learned about the book club from another parent. “It’s a pleasure to see her enjoy reading, because I know she’s learning things as she’s reading. I see it as educational, but she sees it as recreational, which is great.” Along with noticing an improvement in her daughter’s vocabulary, Foster has appreciated the way the books have been an opening to talk to her daughter about topics like racism. “She’ll be reading something and she’ll come to me and ask, ‘Is this true? Did this happen to you?’ She’s very curious now, and it opens doors to communication, which is great.”
“It’s really fun,” the 13-year-old in Grade 8 says. “The girls there are very friendly and nice to talk to.” She’s been going to the book club since June, and so far, her favourite book has been My Summer of Love and Misfortune by Lindsay Wong. “I learned about Chinese culture and it taught me some words in Mandarin.” When the book club had the chance to meet with the book’s author, Arianna asked her about the story’s origins. Hearing from the authors is her favourite part, she says. “Before the book club, I never really liked to read, but through it I found more books and I really enjoy it now,” says Arianna, who most recently read Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell. “It’s also really helped with my English marks, because now I ask more questions in my essays and I proofread them.”
“It was so much more than I could have expected,” says Carby, who attended the book club for the first time at this meeting, alongside some of her Grade 9 English students. “I wish there was a way to create a scanning code on the book, so that when you purchase it you get access to that session. The author, the representation, the decode – it was so solid.” When she was selecting students to invite, Carby focused on students who were avid readers, but also on some who she knew were “interested in expressing their thoughts and deconstructing how they’re feeling, but might not have the words for it yet.” Noting that many of her students have shared how “uncool” reading can seem, Carby was thrilled to be able to share a conversation like this one, led by an intellectual, funny woman her students could see themselves in. “Students need to realize that there’s a place for them, and that reading is not just for one type of person or experience.” Even just extending the chance for a “virtual field trip” was a gift, she says. “Mental health right now is huge, so being able to connect with other individuals about things that are stimulating was gigantic.”
“I’m kind of star-struck meeting the authors,” says Ali, an eighth grader who’s been a part of the book club since sixth grade. “Hearing what they have to say, how they wrote the book, how they overcame writer’s block … it’s so interesting,” the passionate reader and aspiring writer says. “Reading a book is such a personal thing, because it’s the author’s thoughts and feelings put into a fabricated world, and they put little pieces of themselves into their work.” Compared to the books she’s given in book club, Ali finds the ones on her school curriculum lacking in diversity and lacking in relevant content about the things she cares about, like mental health and equality.
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