Reading Girlhood

I am the criminal Sister of the Pen

Crime fiction was my first literary love as a reader. As a writer, it took the support/intervention of my Sisters of the Pen (aka SoPs) to let go of the paralysing pressure to write the Next Great Australian Novel, and embrace the genre I love. I was a wannabe writer with hangups, and now I am a productive crime writer. And lovin’ it!

But there are gaps in my knowledge of the crime genre. I grew up with four big brothers (hi, bros!), and I mostly read their hand-me-downs: Phantom Comics and Ian Fleming. I was a ‘bonus baby’, so my parents were older and had drinking problems and were generally not up for going another round with another kid. I received a good education and all that, but I was neglected in a few crucial ways. Having dealt with the substantive psychological and behavioural fallout (thanks, rehab), it’s now time to redress some of the less harmful yet still formative oversights in my upbringing.

Reading the girlhood canon

As a girl, no one curated my reading. On the upside, this meant I avoided some negative aspects of girlhood literary indoctrination. And here’s a grainy picture to prove it (and yes, that is a Mack Truck shirt I am wearing, plus faded clown makeup!).

Pic of Meg as a girl tomboy


But this Boys Own literary diet produced a woman crime writer who has never read Nancy Drew or Trixie Belden!

With the help of my SoPs, especially Kim, I am being guided through a girlhood reading list ranging from Anne of Green Gables and Pollyanna, through Nancy and Trixie, to Little Women. I’m abandoning myself to it, setting aside my adult critical faculties for now and inhaling the stories as would a ten-year-old girl. It is producing some unexpected results…

Girltopia nightmares

My blossoming idealistic and utopic girl’s sensibility is sitting uncomfortably alongside my adult self; a self drawn to understanding the hidden violence and injustice of the world. Today I was grocery shopping and, as usual, on my mind were the things I’ve read recently: Anne of Avonlea, and this compelling MotherJones article exposing the conditions of warehouse workers who pick, pack and ship our online purchases.

There is so much cruelty in the world. It’s in the chemical-drenched food we eat and the sweatshop clothes we wear and the war-fuelled cars we drive. The contrast to gentle Avonlea is stark. It breaks my heart, and gives me torturous nightmares.

If we live in a system where all wealth is based on growth – of population, productivity, and consumption – and yet the earth’s resources are finite, well, any girl could tell you that the end game is approaching. Like Ursula LeGuin’s wanderers who, upon viewing the tortured child in the basement cupboard, realize they must leave Omelas for the unimaginable world that lies beyond, I want to find another way.

The power of the crime narrative

I believe crime fiction is such a popular genre because it reveals the wounds of that hidden violence we all perpetuate and are victim to, while also offering hope for justice and retribution.

My novelette ‘Provocation’ (just out, in The Review of Australian Fiction) is about a young woman in recovery from anorexia who is triggered into psychosis because of a stalker. It is dedicated to a real-life young woman I knew and loved as a girl, who died after a covert attack—she was dependent on medication for a chronic illness, you see, and her stalker was court-ordered to keep his distance from her, her house, and her workplace. But he put two and two together, and loitered around her neighbourhood chemist. She spied him, ran home, and died there, alone.

Her death was never recorded as a murder. There were no charges laid, nor action taken.

Hidden violence.

Crime fiction allows me to tell stories exploring a topic that means the world to me: the survival strengths of girls and women. As an adult, I have avoided reading the girlhood canon out of fear it would make me soft-hearted and conventional. I was wrong. Sure, it is opening my heart. But is also ramping up my rage, and calling into question the ethical choices I make in my daily life.

Girlhood is powerful. Am I strong enough to be my girl?

If you have any titles to add to my reading list of the girlhood canon, please jump on in and leave them in a comment – suggestions for crime, fantasy, and Australian titles especially appreciated.


Posted on March 22, 2012, in Meg Vann and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 23 Comments.

  1. I’ve always had a blind spot for the girl/boy thing … but here’s what I remember reading as a kid: Dakota King mysteries, Penny Pollard, The Swiss Family Robinson (only spotted the big religious stick in there rereading as an adult), plus of course anything with horses in it – so Black Beauty and all the Silver Brumby series. I found it heaps easier at that age to identify with animal characters rather than other people (sometimes still do) … and if you’re exploring hidden violence, Black Beauty is a good one.

    • Of course, Black Beauty! Animal welfare and human kindness – great suggestion, thanks, Char. And what a heartwarming author experience too. Apparently (according to wikipedia), Anna Sewell wrote Black Beauty as a housebound invalid. It became an immediate bestseller, and she died five months after publication – just long enough to see her first and only novel become a success!

  2. I have no doubt you are strong enough to be your girl. 🙂

    I love reading your thoughts on things, Meg. They always leave me with fresh ideas and perspectives.

    I was like you, and read widely, mostly my dad’s old boyhood books, or his adult ones. But a few stand out.

    Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner. Judy and Meg were formative characters for me.
    My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin
    The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

  3. Seven Little Australians has a Meg in it – how did I miss that?! Can’t wait to read it! I was always desperate to find books/songs featuring characters with my name when I was a girl – searching for identification and validation, I guess. A couple of birthdays ago, I bought myself a full set of Meg & Mog books in a neat little carry bag 🙂

    The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett also looks intriguing – another classic that began in serialised form.

    Thanks for your warm comments as well as your suggestions, Nic. You are so inspiring xo

  4. a little princess, meg, by same author as secret garden. it haunted me for years.

    • Nancy, that story looks so beautiful and heartbreaking and inspiring – no wonder it haunted you. I went to boarding school and clashed with the principal, so I think I’ll really relate. Can’t wait to read it!

  5. Ah Meg – I like your childhood reading list. The original one! I went from The Famous Five and Ms Blyton’s ‘Adventure Series’ to Biggles, James Bond, Agatha Christie and Leon Uris, to Robert Heinlein and finally the women crime writers of the 1990s and beyond.
    I’ve had a fabulous reading life!

    • Hi Lindy – it sounds like you and I have a lot in common when it comes to formative reading. I remember when I found Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky in the 80s – it was like a homecoming!!

  6. Reblogged this on Cauldrons and Cupcakes and commented:

    A thought-provoking post on writing, reading and the philosophy of healing!

  7. WEP Postgraduate 2011

    Seconded! As an avid reader in a family of non-readers, and growing up in the Army life, I was left to my own devices in regards to my reading material. Or was gifted fantastic literature at highly inappropriate ages.
    I went on a girly-canon bender around 15 and recommend the following:
    Black Beauty
    Seven Little Australians
    Hans Christian Andersen fairytales
    The Borrowers

  8. good blog! my fantasy suggestion is “daughter of the empire” series – Mara is a fab female heroine! also “the fionavar tapestry” – black beauty is the best girl book ever! (until i think of the other ones!) tnx! sx

  9. Wow Sarah, both of those fantasy trilogies look super cool! I’ve just googled Mara -what an amazing character – smart and strong. Thanks for the great suggestions x

  10. Seconded!
    As an avid reader in a family of non-readers, and growing up around boys, I was left to my own devices in regards to my reading material. Although my primary problem was probably reading texts inappropriate for my age
    (e.g. Spiral of Death at age 10 ).

    Recommend the following:
    Black Beauty
    Seven Little Australians (this book broke me for a very long time)
    Hans Christian Andersen fairytales (cunning women and sarcastic children <3)
    The Borrowers
    For Aus literature, recommend Blinky Bill. Not paritcularly a girl-centric text and quite young, but interesting representations of authority and the human/nature questions.

    • thanks Aims. I’m fascinated to know why Seven Little Australians had such a profound effect on you! Sounds like I might need a box of tissues handy for that particular book?

  11. It’s not a crime story, exactly, (though plenty of them are committed), but it starts out with a murder, so ….. it’s a book called “Friday” by Robert A. Heinlein, and the protagonist is a young woman who is a “battlefield courier” in a future world ruled mostly by megalomaniacs manipulated by multi-national corporations…. I think you will love it; the main character is a surprising and unusual heroine, for any genre, is one of Heinlein’s most complex, interesting characters ever (and he’s had a lot of strong women characters over the years), and one of the most empowering examples of the power of being female I’ve ever seen… and I read a LOT!…. check it out!…. I like what I’ve read here, so I’ll be following your blog now, so I can see new stuff you post…. glad I got directed here by Fierce Buddhist!…thanks for that, dude… and well met, Meg, et al…… take care & Blessed Be….

    • HI Ned, Thanks for checking out my blog! I love the quote on your blog ‘The more articulate one is, the more dangerous words becomes’ – fantastic, and so true.

      Thanks also for the Heinlein recommendation – I’m sure I remember that name being on my brothers’ bookshelves, but I never read any. I will start with Friday – the themes sound still so relevant today!

      And a big hi and thanks to Fierce Buddhist as well – great handle!!

      All best wishes, meg

  12. sallyamberantler

    Oh Meg, I love this post and I am so proud to be your Sista! I love how you say it like it is. And I’m loving some of the reading suggestions! Looks like I better seek out 7 Little Australians seeing as it’s a recurrent theme – I never read it.
    So glad you’re reading the Anne books. Dear, passionate Anne who probably ought to have married Diana, not Gilbert. 😉
    My earliest Australian girly (I suppose they were girly, I’m not sure I saw it that way) readings were picture-dominated – the Ida Rentoul Outhwaite books, especially ‘The Enchanted Forest’. I looooooved that book to death. Mainly for the pictures of fairies.
    If you want boarding school fun, you better read Enid Blyton’s stories. I just remember lots of midnight feasts on strange things like potted shrimp that were sent by dear mama in the mail. ?? 🙂
    Is Ruth Park on your list? The Harp in the South series is so good. Really brought the past alive and made me think how lucky I was to live in a world that had feminism happen in it.
    Also, as a teen, I loved Anne McCaffrey’s Crystal Singer and Dragon books. I wonder if I still would, now? Same with the Fionavar and Daughter of the Empire series – not sure I’d enjoy them so much nowadays. I also loved those Dragonlance books and the David Eddings Belgariod series at that age. High Fantasy FTW! 🙂 But Ursula Le Guin always wins hands down, with both fantasy & sci fi.
    As a young dreadlocked femmo uni student I went on to seek out all the femmo sci fi I could, and have a list I could offer there if you move out of girlhood-reading and into young womanhood … another time 🙂
    Big respect & love,

  13. Hello gorgeous Sal!! I love all your suggestions – I think I will give Harp in the South a go, despite sister Char’s reservations 🙂
    You and I would have loved each other in undergrad uni I reckon – I had a nearly complete collection of the Women’s Press sci-fi imprint – and what a mixed bag that was!
    PS You are so right about Anne and Diana xo

  14. Jennifer Tucker

    Another wonderful book is Jane Eyre .

  15. HI Jennifer, I agree completely! Jane Eyre is one of my all-time favourite books. I just love Jane’s character, so downtrodden and smart and strong. She was a great inspiration for me as a girl, to hang in and be myself no matter what the world told me I had to be! Thanks for your suggestion, and happy reading 🙂

  16. sallyamberantler

    We woulda loved eachother for sure, Meg! ‘Specially cos Jane Eyre remains one of my all-time faves, too. Jane RULZ.

  1. Pingback: ‘Provocation’ and gratitude. | mamaguilt

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