Name of Book: How to (Un)Cage a Girl
Author: Francesca Lia Block
Publisher: Joanna Cotler Books/HarperTeen (2008)
Audience: 16 – adult females. Personally, I would have placed this book in the adult poetry section rather than YA, since it pushes beyond the personal experiences of YA readers. That being said, it would be useful with intergenerational groups of women. I would limit discussion to small group settings.
Summary: This is a collection of poems, written primarily in free verse, that are meant to be read sequentially. The majority of her poems reflect events or periods in “her” life starting at age thirteen. Several poems, however, are written to or about some of the young women whom she has mentored and/or befriended during her career. The poems are often beautifully but brutally honest, which is perhaps because they are the reflections on the past from the perspective of an adult woman. This gives a different quality and depth to the poems that is sometimes absent from poetry written during adolescence. Her first section of poems, on early adolescence, are difficult in the sense that they reflect sexual experiences, illness, and death of a parent in a fairly relentless sequence of painful recollections. The poems written to reflect her adulthood carry themes which move beyond an adolescent’s personal experience (such as having children and divorce).
Literary elements at work in the story: This is a semi-autobiographical collection of poetic works primarily in free-verse. It is written as a sequential work in three parts: 1) years at the asylum, 2) in the lair of the toxic blonde, and 3) love poems for girls. The language is colloquial but creative and often intense. The absence of punctuation (except for question marks) and the all lower case typeface give a stream of consciousness feel to the poems and allow for the reader to punctuate the work as it suits them (i.e., starting and stopping a phrase or verse in different places that produces different meaning). The mood of the poems moves generally from dark to light as the poet works through much of the pain of early adolescence and finds a kind of peace and healing as an adult woman. Illustrations are absent, but would probably be more limiting than instructive in interpreting these poems, which ask the reader to come into her broken world and imagine it for themselves.
Perspective on gender/race/culture/economics/abilities: The strongest perspective seems to come from her love/hate relationship with the people and culture of Los Angeles. Her “girl” sees herself as “other” in this city of beauty and glamour (see, particularly Part II, “Lair of the Toxic Blonde”). She stands for the non-traditional girl who rebels against the stereotypes of feminine beauty (at least in L.A.). Race and economics play much lesser roles in her poems.
Scripture: I would use this book of poetry to work with the theme of women in the Bible and let the group choose the passages they would like to discuss. I would offer the book of Ruth and the book of Esther as possible starting points, but certainly would not limit it to those two. Other possibilities that may be less well known and cover a range of characteristics are Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11-13), The woman of the Song of Solomon, the daughter of Herodias (Mark 6: 14-29), Mary & Martha (Luke 10: 38-42), Deborah & Jael (Judges 4), Hagar (Genesis 16, 21, & 25) and the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mark 7: 24-30).
Theology: Women’s stories are not absent from the Bible but they do sometimes require some imagination to fill in the gaps. Women are presented in so many ways, both positive and negative: we see both the connivance of Jezebel and the obedience of Mary. We see women of advanced years (Sarah) and young girls (Jephthah’s daughter); women in various positions in society and with various expectations of their roles in that society (Vashti, Esther, Ruth). By using this poetic work that follows a woman’s life through adolescence to middle adulthood, an intergenerational group of women could discuss how they believe they fit into society and the church, and how they view themselves as both daughters of God and members of the larger culture. Women as women, with the whole spectrum of human emotions (desires, anger, grief, bitterness, love, etc.) are as much a part of the Biblical story as men. By allowing the group to survey the breadth of stories of women in the Bible they may gain a better appreciation for their contribution to the meta-narrative that comprises our canon. Also, by identifying women of the Bible who themselves were “un-caged” when God’s promises were claimed and when Jesus’ message was proclaimed allows us to place them squarely within God’s story and allows us to see ourselves as part of the on-going narrative as well.
Faith Talk Questions:
- Which woman (or women) from the Bible stories you selected do you most identify with at this stage in your life? Can you remember a time in your life when you most strongly related to another biblical woman?
- Do you see any correlation between Block’s poems and the Biblical stories? For you, does Block’s “girl” relate to more than one woman from the Bible as she grows older?
- What does it mean to be a woman in today’s (U.S.) culture? How is this portrayed in the poems?
- What does it mean to be a daughter of God in today’s culture? In the Biblical culture? Is there a difference between how you answered this question and the previous one? Why do you think that is so?
- What is the strongest message from Block’s poems for you? Is there one in particular that resonates with you? Is there one particular passage from the Biblical stories that resonates with you in the same way?
Review prepared by Nadine Ellsworth-Moran, MDiv/MACE, Entering Cohort Fall 2004
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