On “beautiful girls”, bookclubs and Zoella

Zoe ‘Zoella’ Sugg is a vlogger. She is incredibly successful at what she does and regularly posts videos on Youtube covering beauty, fashion and general lifestyle topics. She is the author of Girl, Online, a book with a controversy of its own regarding the authorship, and which I reviewed here. It is a charming, and rather lovely book in its own distinct way.

Zoella featured in this article yesterday on the Guardian, an article which I tweeted and described as interesting but – and that ‘but’ is embodied in the extract tweeted below from Holly Bourne.


There’s a lot in that screenshot to unpick. To start with, let’s compare it with the description of ‘Between Two Books’


And here’s the description of Emma Watson’s book club (in two images, the only thing I’ve omitted is a picture here)


One of the recursive discourses around young adult literature and teens reading is that they do not do as they are told. I’m harking back to a theme that’s dominating me at the moment, and it’s one of unruliness. Teens are other. Everyone other than yourself is other, but teens are vividly, sharply unruly other. They are transgressive. You were a teen once but your teenager life bears no existence to theirs. And yet we reflexively seek for that connection, we reflexively twist ourselves to try and understand the otherness. To mediate it, to control it, to harness it. But we can’t, we can’t ever. We can perform a semblence of understanding, we can mediate and we can be empathic, but we can never wholly understand teenage life unless we are experiencing it and even then, we experience our own iteration of it and to cast a global reading from that iteration is to deny a thousand other voices their right to be heard.

So where do we find ourselves amidst that cacophonous discourse? We find ourselves footholds, we understand our own critical perspectives, we engage, we disengage, and we question, always, always. And we particularly question articles like this which perpetuate questions and stereotypes without twisting back on themselves and ask whether they contribute to or question that stereotype.

Zoella’s Book Club is a welcome initiative. It’s overtly run with and through WHSmith, to which I have no problems. Any book club is a welcome initiative because anything that gets people reading and articulating thoughts around literature is a Good Thing. Always. Give me positive feedback or negative feedback or ‘this book was written by monkeys with typewriters’, I’ll take it and I’ll be happy in doing so because it means you’ve read the book. You’ve critically responded and that’s one of the most important things about literacy. You are able to understand it and to refract it through yourself. You’re in charge.

The first titles that were selected for Zoella’s Book Club were: Fangirl by Rainbow RowellBeautiful Broken Things by Sara Barnard, All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven, Billy and Me by Giovanna Fletcher, Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon, The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson, Potion Diaries by Amy Alward and We Were Liars by E Lockhart.

Of the ones I’ve read (I have read some which I didn’t review) one made me lose the will to live, another made me fall in love, another broke my heart, and I will give Fangirl to everyone from now until the end of time.

Her second selection included: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness,  Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella, The Twelve Days of Dash and Lily by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn,  Lying About Last Summer by Sue Wallman, The One We Fell in Love With by Paige Toon, I Was Here by Gayle Forman, Frozen Charlotte by Alex Bell and If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo (Usborne).

Again, not a list I’ve wholly read, but the ones I have looked at and know of don’t easily wed themselves with a ‘beautiful white girls’ narrative.

Zoella’s Book Club is a good thing. I suspect much of the problematic coverage it gets come with her platform existing outside of the traditional paradigms for critique and comprehension. She’s not wholly selecting canonical novels, nor wholly selecting popular literature, but rather mediating between the two and creating a dynamic selection with wide appeal. This, if I’m frank, is the nearest we’ll come to the realisation of a contemporary critical canon for some time.

That’s not a bad thing.  If anything, this rooting of children’s and young adult literature within society and this firm foothold is a brilliant and wonderful thing, and I am frustrated by this reflexive urge to critique her.

I will never deny the right for discourse around literature. I will, however, question the urge to critique the figures such as Zoella and their apparently inappropriate and unwelcome dialogue around literature. Zoella’s Book Club is not the problem here.


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