At-risk teen girls draw support through innovative book club
In a world where owning your own book, reading books for the sheer pleasure of it, daring to dream about what you have read, engaging your imagination through the written word, and exploring different worlds is a reality to a lot of teenage girls, this is not the reality of teenage girls living in poverty. For many at-risk teen girls living in poverty in the Greater Toronto Area and across Canada, owning a book of one’s own is a complete luxury and privilege. The possibility of attending book clubs and discussing books with authors seems far-fetched and implausible. One woman, Tanya Marie Lee, dared to change all of this through her book club initiative, “A Room Of Your Own” that started in Toronto in January 2017.
“A Room Of Your Own” is an interactive book club targeted primarily at teen girls (13-18 years of age) of all races and ethnic backgrounds. Allowing them to express their curiosity, ambitions, hopes and frustrations, “A Room Of Your Own” is a forum for these girls to share their feelings and opinions with their peers and with their favourite authors. This book club for a new generation meets once a month for an hour. The book club’s chief objectives are to have fun and give teen girls what they feel they need and to focus on the girls’ mental health. The target group for participation is at-risk teen girls from underserviced/high needs communities in the Greater Toronto Area. We hope that eventually, such book clubs will be spread across the country.
This fully interactive book club for teenage girls discusses all subject matter that pertains to being young and maturing into adulthood with today’s societal standards and social pressures. This unique and innovative book club focuses on a teen novel every month and the participants discuss the theme of the book and the relevance to their lives. In choosing books to be discussed, the range of topics is wide-reaching and great consideration is made with regard to the relevance to these girls’ lives. We have the author present along with a specialist in the particular subject area that is being discussed, enabling the novel to be a doorway into the lives of teen girls of all backgrounds. The book club is held at Lillian H. Smith Public Library in Toronto. What makes this book club so special is that the publishers provide the books free of charge to the book club for the teen girls. The girls then get the books to read about six weeks before the allotted book club session. They are asked to read the book and to generate questions for the author and for discussion. We love having lively and thought provoking discussions. Often, forty or more questions are addressed during the hour.
Tanya Marie Lee is the founder of “A Room Of Your Own”. Intimately observing and studying the world of teens, she realized that the choices one makes when one is young affect the rest of one’s life. Most adults seem to forget that their adolescent years were difficult – difficult because at such a young age one is not always adept at communicating feelings, frustrations, and fears, nor might one have the sophistication to handle the various problems being faced. Lee states, “Not only have I studied it, I have lived it. I am a survivor of sexual abuse. I came from a dysfunctional family, and by the time I was 18, I was pregnant. At 19 I was a teenage mom with no money, and my options were limited”. Tanya realized the difficulties she faced, and knows the importance of teaching young teens the skills of how to cope with the hardships of maturing mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically into adulthood.
“A Room Of Your Own” is a space where at-risk teen girls feel valued, loved, respected, heard and honoured. They get to be regular teenage girls and not worry about anything for a short time. These amazing young women have a space they can call their own. They know that as soon as they walk into Lillian H. Smith Public Library, are greeted by Wade the security guard and are let into the basement, it’s their space. No one is allowed into the basement when the girls arrive. In this space, they have a chance to be themselves, to be girls and to not be put down because of it or treated as second class citizens! These girls can celebrate and honour their ethnicity, they can celebrate and honour their religious background (if they so choose), they can celebrate and honour their unique voice, and they can celebrate and honour being treated and valued as an equal member of society. Just their presence at these sessions is a celebration and honouring of who they are.
Quotes from some of the young women from grades 9 to 12 with regards to the book club:
“I felt valued, trusted, loved and accepted in the club. Being able to experience all of the positivity and love was beyond amazing. It would be awesome if other girls who don’t get enough support had a chance to experience all of that.”
“It gives us girls the advantage to express ourselves and our voices that other girls can relate to. Meeting the authors is a big advantage to me because I can ask questions about their experiences as authors. It is also a great opportunity to meet new friends. For all book lovers, it is a great experience to do a variety of activities. Also, you get delicious foods!”
“This club allows girls to speak up in an environment which is safe for them. It allows them to talk about topics that may be bashed anywhere else. Being able to meet other girls and to be able to talk about topics such as racism, sexism and how it negatively impacts our world is absolutely amazing. Having not only a place where women can speak out, but women of colour, is taking us a step closer to change.”
One of the goals of “A Room Of Your Own” is to eventually be live-streamed across Canada to different cities and schools via YouTube. Teen girls across Canada can then participate via Twitter and send in questions to the book club to have the questions answered by the author(s). We have applied for grants to be able to do this as soon as possible. Our hopes are that we will be able to live-stream the book club and provide more books to at-risk teen girls who would like to participate in the book club across Canada. If you would like to participate in the book club with the girls from your school, please contact Tanya Lee at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note that to qualify, your school must be in a zone that is deemed high priority and in a neighbourhood that is under-serviced.
By: Tania Marie Lee