'Girlhood' and 6 other unflinching stories about being young and female

Updated 11th August 2021
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Credit: Courtesy Algonquin Young Readers/Masuma Ahuja
'Girlhood' and 6 other unflinching stories about being young and female
Written by Jacqui Palumbo, CNN
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Like many girls who grew up in the '90s, journalist Masuma Ahuja often found her own experiences reflected in Ann M. Martin's series "The Babysitters' Club." Her favorite character was the effortlessly polished Stacey McGill, but not necessarily for her style or New York City roots: Stacey, like Ahuja, is a Type I diabetic, and, as a child, Ahuja didn't know anyone else her age who dealt with the day-to-day complexity of the disease.
"Those books were really important to me, because it was a way for me to feel seen, and to understand that I wasn't alone, even if it was a fictional character," said Ahuja in a video interview.
As an adult, Ahuja has reported on the lives of girls and women through a political and social lens for the Washington Post and CNN. But her first book, "Girlhood: Teens Around the World in Their Own Voices" chronicles the everyday lives of 30 girls, ages 13 to 19, from their own perspectives. Together, they come from 27 different countries.
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"Girlhood" highlights the lives of 30 different girls who are 13 to 19 years old. Credit: Courtesy Algonquin Young Readers/Masuma Ahuja
If, like Ahuja, you find resonance in the details of others' lives, the diaristic entries offer an anthology of experiences that you can keep returning to. Through "Girlhood," Ahuja sets out to answer the question, "How would the story of girlhood be told if girls were the ones to write it?"
"When I was reporting on important subjects like gender-based violence or child marriage, I would end up having long chats with girls about... the things they were staying up nights worrying about, or the conversations they were having with their friends," Ahuja said. "And the stuff of day-to-day life, which felt like it was universal, wherever you were, wasn't actually covered in any media and wasn't represented in any meaningful way, which is why I set out to do this."
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Halima, a 17-year-old, from Afghanistan wants to become a midwife and teach English at the university level, or become a journalist. "Afghan society is still a male-dominated society," she wrote in "Girlhood." "People do not believe in power of their daughters." Credit: Courtesy Algonquin Young Readers/Masuma Ahuja
Those nuances of everyday life are similarly often bypassed in pop culture stories of teenagerdom, where drama is heightened in service of the narrative.
"We get to see the highlights and the lowlights and we don't get to see the in-between, and the in-between is how most people spend most of their lives," she said. "And that felt like a theme that was resonant in a lot of girls' entries as well, where they assumed that other people's lives were more interesting."

'There's so much universality in the ways in which we move through the world'

Though Ahuja provides her own additional context about each of the teen contributors, "Girlhood" was meant to be a blank slate that the girls could fill in themselves. There's Alejandra, a 17-year-old from Buenos Aires, who plays soccer but was intimidated at first by the sport; meanwhile in London, 14-year-old Amiya writes on being biracial and the politics of her hair.
"I was born with an afro and I must embrace it, because that's how God intended it to be. I may occasionally feel like the odd one out, but that's who I am," Amiya wrote. "It's also made me realise that as black women -- and black men, too -- we're constantly put down because of our hair unless it's conventionally straight or curly. It's bloody irritating."
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Emma, 16 years old, from Ireland, spends her free time running fan accounts for Canadian singer Shawn Mendes. "Girls are such drivers of pop culture everywhere in the world," Ahuja noted, calling them a "powerful force." Credit: Courtesy Algonquin Young Readers/Masuma Ahuja
In entries from 16-year-old Chanleakna about leaving Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to study abroad in Australia, Ahuja saw flashes of her own childhood. Ahuja had lived in three different countries -- India, the US and the UK -- by the time she was a college student, and she could relate to feeling a pull from her home.
"That experience of leaving home and trying to figure out your place in the world and living in a new environment away from your family at a young age (reoccurred) through a lot of the stories, which I was very surprised by because I didn't realize it was as common an experience as it is," Ahuja said.
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Sattigul, a 16-year-old from Mongolia, was born into a family of nomadic herders who move four times a year. She is pictured with her eagle, Akhyikh, who she writes "always gives me courage and energy." Credit: Courtesy Algonquin Young Readers/Masuma Ahuja
No matter how seemingly disparate the girls' lives were, Ahuja found that they often dealt with the same things in their family life or with their friends.
"There's so much universality in the ways in which we move through the world, and the things we hope for and dream about and we worry about," she added. But, she pointed out, the inequalities that women face also share a symmetry. "The forces that make girls everywhere -- and women everywhere -- feel small, and compel us to be silent; the ways in which we are taught by culture to think that we're not enough... that is very similar across the board."
"Girlhood: Teens Around the World in Their Own Voices," published by Algonquin Young Readers, is available now.

Add to Queue: Inside the minds of girls

Watch: "Thirteen" (2003)
Director Catherine Hardwicke's drama depicted the lives of former good girl Tracy (played by Evan Rachel Wood) and her new influential friend Evie (Nikki Reed) as they spiral into sex, drugs and shoplifting. Reed was 13 years old when she co-wrote the screenplay, then brought Evie to life onscreen the following year.
Read: "Brown Girl Dreaming" by Jacqueline Woodson (2016)
Woodson recalls her childhood in verse, telling the story of feeling split between South Carolina and New York as she grew up as a young Black girl in the 1960s and '70s.
Listen: "Fake it Flowers" by Beabadoobee (2020)
The 20-year-old Filipino-British guitarist and singer, who rose to fame through YouTube and TikTok, throws it back with a '90s alt-rock vibe on her debut album about the highs and lows of young love.
Read: "Walk Two Moons" by Sharon Creech (2003)
Creech's beloved book tells the story of 13-year-old Salamanca Tree Hiddle, who embarks on a road trip with her grandparents and weaves together an imaginative story while searching for clues of her own missing mother.
Watch: "Now and Then" (1995)
In this quintessential coming-of-age flick with an all-star cast, including Christina Ricci, Rosie O'Donnell, Thora Birch, Melanie Griffith and Demi Moore, four childhood best friends reunite and flash back to the pivotal summer of their younger years.
Watch: "Girl Rising" (2013)
This documentary introduces viewers to nine courageous girls around the globe who are chasing their dreams. They work with writers and A-List narrators, including Meryl Streep, Kerry Washington, Chloe Moretz and Salma Hayek to tell their stories.