How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

A book a mother doesn't want her 14-year-old to read. But mom: YOU read it.

About How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran: What do you do in your teenage years when you realize what your parents taught you wasn’t enough? You must go out and find books and poetry and pop songs and bad heroes—and build yourself.

It’s 1990. Johanna Morrigan, fourteen, has shamed herself so badly on local TV that she decides that there’s no point in being Johanna anymore and reinvents herself as Dolly Wilde—fast-talking, hard-drinking gothic hero and full-time Lady Sex Adventurer. She will save her poverty-stricken Bohemian family by becoming a writer—like Jo in Little Women, or the Brontës—but without the dying-young bit.

By sixteen, she’s smoking cigarettes, getting drunk, and working for a music paper. She’s writing pornographic letters to rock stars, having all the kinds of sex with all the kinds of men, and eviscerating bands in reviews of 600 words or less.

But what happens when Johanna realizes she’s built Dolly with a fatal flaw? Is a box full of records, a wall full of posters, and a head full of paperbacks enough to build a girl after all?

Imagine The Bell Jar—written by Rizzo from Grease. How to Build a Girl is a funny, poignant, and heartbreakingly evocative story of self-discovery and invention, as only Caitlin Moran could tell it.

My two cents

This is the book a mother doesn't want her 14-year-old to read. But it is the book a mother needs to read precisely to remember what it was to be a teenager and to know what her daughter is going through.

This reminded me so much of the movie Almost Famous which features a young boy who travels with rock bands and writes about them. Except this one features the whippersnapper Johanna who gives the novel such a great voice.

She is the everygirl who trips, fumbles, and tumbles through her teenage years, remaking herself from the plain old boring Johanna to her alter-ego Dolly Wilde who is larger than life with her brash mouth and riproaring sex life. It's a wild ride, a trip in fact, to hear Johanna speak about her life, her family, her sex life, her journey to becoming a music journalist in unedited, profanity-laden prose. It's like eavesdropping on a internal teenage conversation and I found myself laughing a lot but mostly ... cringing. (You know what I mean, teenager-hood is meant to be cringed at decades later!)

Granted that Johanna at 14 is probably smarter, spunkier and braver then most girls her age. With her  circumstances of being in a family on welfare, a disillusioned musician-father, her depressed mother, and two brothers, I felt sorry for her yet I just kept cheering her on; I knew she would come out ok!

I especially loved her descriptions of her family. While not exactly model parents, the honesty of their relationships stands out. Her brothers Lupin and Krissie are endearing in their own way and the openness of their relationships are enviable. 

There's even more to love if you're into music, have any illusions (erm) of being a music journalist, or hail from the working class. I'm betting you'll give this extra brownie points too if you hail from the UK.


I'm not a prude by no means, but as fair warning: There is a lot of profanity. And there is a lot about sex -- self-satisfaction (in fact the book starts with Johanna masturbating), Johanna's first sexual experience, and thereafter all her sexual conquests (including descriptions of fellatio).

Maybe three-fourths into the book, the Dolly alter-ego started to grate on me. I felt that the experimentation was feeling a tad drawn out: the profanity was starting to feel put on, the constant "sloganeering" was feeling overused, and the insistence of sleeping around was getting a little annoying for my taste. Gritty started taking on a feeling of vulgarity. 

Towards the end, the book took a turn which slightly pissed me off. After all is said and done -- and after a first-person, in-the-moment unfolding of Johanna's life -- the tone shifted and it sounded like a mom lecturing her daughter. What a let-down.

Verdict: There's something quite special about this book but overall it was a mixed bag for me. I liked so much about it ... I kept going Oh my gawwwd in my head (in a good way) because I found Johanna's innocence, her uncertainty and her tentative steps to self-discovery and self-making so endearing. I can relate and I know a lot of women will be able to relate. Towards the end of the book, I started to feel that the grittiness turned vulgar and I disliked the sudden voice shift. 

Caitlin MoranAbout Caitlin Moran

Caitlin Moran was named the Columnist of the Year by the British Press Awards in 2010, and Critic and Interviewer of the Year in 2011 for her work at the Times of London. Her debut book, How to Be a Woman, won the 2011 Galaxy Book of the Year Award and was an instant New York Times bestseller.

Connect with Caitlin through website, or follow her on Twitter.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher via TLC Book Tours in order to participate in this tour with an honest review. Don't forget to check out the rest of the tour here

Hardcover: 352 pages, Publisher: Harper (September 23, 2014)


  1. Boy do I remember my difficult teenage years! I wan't a wild child by any means but those were some very difficult days.

    Thanks for being a part of the tour for this gritty and heartfelt book!

  2. I read a portion of Moran's book How to Be a Woman and really wanted to like it. I too am not a prude, but it was just too crass for me. After reading your review of How to Build a Girl I imagine I would feel the same way about that book. Though I do think I would have really enjoyed it as a teenager.

    1. I never read How to Be a Woman. I like gritty stories but the vulgarity of this isn't something I'd like my teenager to read. Although they'll read it precisely because I said no, I guess.


© guiltless readingMaira Gall