Book of the week: Girldom and its dragons

Queen Bees and Wannabes
By Rosalind Wiseman
Piatkus pound;9.99

Rosalind Wiseman has a message for all mothers of adolescent girls: "It's not just about the shoes!"

And if you don't know what that means - if you're lucky enough never to have stood in a shoe shop, in an overheated stew of emotion, brandishing a sensible shoe at your daughter, while she thrusts back some stacked, wedged, stiletto-ed version of what the average streetwalker might wear on a Saturday night back at you - then you may not follow this book's expedition deep into the dark and tangled heart of teenage girldom. It will only leave you shaking your head and saying: "It can't be that bad. Surely?"

It is. And Wiseman, who is not only young enough to remember it herself, but also now well-known in the United States as a teacher who works on social issues with adolescents, unpicks every last nuance of it - the cliques, the teasing, the tyranny of appearance, the politics of the classroom, and the minefield that is sex, drugs and parties.

Being a teenage girl, she says, is like being cast adrift in a life raft with only your peers for company. The cruise liner of normal life sails off, and your survival depends entirely on their approval. And any adult who doesn't understand this, has no hope of being able to reach out to a girl who is being battered and broadsided by the storm hitting her frail craft. This isn't just a book for parents: any teacher working with adolescents could spend a few profitable hours reading it this summer.

At one point, for example, Wiseman asks girls to draw diagrams of their schools, showing the places where they feel comfortable, and the places where they don't. The resulting "here be dragons" maps should be an eye-opener to any school complacently thinking that gender issues are a thing of the past, and that school is much the same sort of place whether you're a boy or a girl.

Also of interest would be her close dissection of girl types - the queen bees, sidekicks, floaters and bankers (of gossip) - and why they all behave as they do. As would her explanations of why girls lie and sneak, how they can bring up with teachers difficult issues such as teasing and bullying, and where, exactly, oral sex and hard drugs fit into their adolescent world.

Wiseman is on the girls' side, and understands completely that while to the objective observer their troubles might sometimes seem small, even tiny matters such as not being invited to a party can devastate a girl's feeling of self-worth. Serious problems, too, such as bulimia and self-harm, are far from uncommon.

The book is filled with the authentic voices of her students and their anxieties and defences. "Once I got up to do a presentation in front of the class and one of my friends whispered to another friend `Olivia's thighs are so fat'," says Olivia, 16. "I could totally hear her." But Zoe, 17, barricades herself against criticism. "When my mom wants to talk to me, this is what I imagine: I have a shield, I'm wearing armor, and I have a stick that I'm poking at her while I say `Back! Back! Stay Back! Stay Away!'"

This is not a comfortable read for adults. It prods painful memories and asks us to examine what old baggage we might be lugging with us as we try to talk with our daughters or pupils about sensitive issues. But it is eye-opening in its detail, and its only real flaw for British readers is its inevitable, but unrelenting American-ness.

On this front, the jargon and cultural differences offer a few minor problems (Who are the British equivalent of jocks? Do boys and girls "hook up" over here, and if they do, does it mean the same thing as over there?), but Wiseman's saccharine suggestions for how mothers should try to talk to their teenagers will set most British women squirming.

This, for example, is your script for when your daughter comes home and tells you someone has circulated a petition calling her a "megawhore": "That's terrible! I'm so sorry! Okay, I have to admit I'm really angry. I can't believe anyone would say that about anyone, let alone you, but I'm so glad you told me. I can totally understand how upset you would be. If it was happening to me, I would be upset too. Let's figure this out together."

The sentiments are entirely sound. But the words. Well, yuck, as a teenage girl might say. Don't go there. Puh-leeeeese. I'm not listening. It's, like, so totally embarrassing.

For more reviews, see this week's edition of the TES.

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