This is the hardest book I think I’ve given myself the task of reviewing. Girl Online is a record breaker, with the highest ever first week sales and as of last month was also the fastest selling book of the year. For those who don’t know, it’s written (to some extent, as yet undetermined) by Zoella, blogging/vlogging prodigy. That makes it stand out, so I had to read it.
It’s also so not meant for me in any way, shape or form. Teenage girls were quite the different thing when I used to be one. To try to relate via my own experience is about as valid as reviewing Guantanamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Slahi because I once got trapped in a lift. So here’s what’s going to happen: I can tell you what I think about it and then I can guess why it’s so popular with today’s kids, but beyond that I offer no more help.
Penny Porter is a sixteen year old girl, living in Brighton and rubbing along with some of the usual insecurities and some less so. In her corner are her family, her best friend Elliot and an army of her (anonymous) blog followers. Fly in the ointment is so-called friend Megan who seems to be labouring under the misapprehension that making Penny look ridiculous will have a positive effect on her own social status. Things luckily take a turn for the better when Penny’s parents (kooky wedding planners) are offered a New York gig at Christmas! Yeay! And off they go- Penny, parents and Elliot- to a much-needed change of surroundings following Megan’s sterling attempts to be the worst friend ever. Ever.
New York brings excitement and romance and snow to Penny’s world. Even her anxieties begin to feel controllable as she is swept along by love’s young dream Noah. But life isn’t that simple of course, especially not in young adult romance fiction. Dealing with psycho-hosebeast Megan begins to feels like child’s play compared to new developments in which Penny is left spinning a variety of predicament plates including personal integrity, love, friendship and th’internet baddies. Oof. But don’t fret reader, like I said earlier, Penny has plenty of people in her corner to help her reach the last page in one piece.
Why it Works So Well in the Young Adult Market
Essentially, Sugg has made Penny imperfect and likeable for her readership. She has her demons and does daft things, feels shy and stupid at times and her life often feels beyond her control, but unlike ‘friend’ Megan, Penny remembers who she is and is painted as someone who has remained true to her personality. She allows herself to have fun and goof about, laugh and be silly. She likes her parents. She has her own ‘things’: she loves taking photographs and always carries her camera.
This in turn has inspired her blog, which she writes simply and honestly. Her followers are lovely and supportive, which sounds about right because before this, I had a lifestyle type blog and people were just that- lovely. The blog helps her deal with all aspects of her life and also gives her a creative outlet for her photography. School provides social opportunities friendship, boys, gossip and in that it seems the basics remain the same.
That the turns taken in Penny’s life are far-fetched and the stuff of fairy tales is essential to making the book work. It’s the ‘what if…’ factor, escape into the world beyond the plot and let it inspire the reader. Because Penny doesn’t let life roll over her, she acts. In turn she’s rewarded ridiculously. Who wants to read about real life though when you can have a New York boyfriend who looks like a rock star and treats you like a goddess? And why should we have Penny getting excited about one new follower when she could have thousands?
The story is straightforward but plenty happens. It’s a romance, so it was always going to be about the boy but apparently there’s also more to life for today’s teenage girls, which is good to know.
GGGG- Positively page turning and all about the girls.
The book started with a list of reasons why it’s rubbish to be a teenage girl: dealing with face plague whilst trying to convince people that you are attractive. We all remember that. Then in comes Penny, complaining about having freckles like the speckles on mini eggs and uncontrollable curly Titian locks. I can’t say my heart bled for her. Obviously Penny also has ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA that she is beautiful which isn’t at all annoying is it? Still, maybe compared to a lot of teenage girls in books/ films etc this counts as acceptably flawed. Clearly the world still isn’t ready for full-blown acne and tomato soup breath (two things I personally associate with teenagers). Maybe this is not a bad thing.
I can see a lot of parents loving this fact: Penny is a very young sixteen. She doesn’t once try to buy half a sweet cider in a pub and the raciest we get is kissing under fairy lights. So it’s okay for kids aged twelve up, but real sixteen year olds might find her a bit of a blast from the past rather than a contemporary. Because unless things really have changed, being sixteen can mean a whole range of approaches to growing up and that isn’t reflected in the people Penny meets. It’s all very sweet.
I also thought Sugg missed an opportunity to encourage young bloggers more. I really hoped there would be a Q and A at the end, but it just ended. It’s not really about the blogging so much as the boy which I found dull, but I guess I’ve done my time with Lisa Jewell and Jenny Colgan so can’t really criticise, but hope readers enjoy it whilst reading other types of books too.
GG- Reading this over the age of twenty? Prepare for toothache…
After a second opinion? Here’s a cracking review from someone who really enjoyed it: