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Review: Moxie; Amelia Westlake

by Alexa Wilson Kelly

These days, girl power is ruling the market for children’s literature—and given the current sociopolitical climate, it’s not hard to see why. Between the legacy of the Women’s March (which has itself been the subject of a picture book) and the ongoing discomfort and uncertainty that comes with being a woman in Trump’s America, it’s become more imperative than ever that girls grow up strong and self-assured. For many, equipping young girls with tales of heroic women—like the explosively popular Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls—has itself become an act of resistance. And it’s not a uniquely American phenomenon: since I moved to Australia in 2016, I’ve seen copies of Rebel Girls creep into every household, obsessively given as gifts for birthdays and Christmas. In the children’s section of Dymocks, Australia’s major chain bookstore, Rebel Girls and its dozens of spin-offs and imitations have swelled to dominate their very own multi-shelf section.

The young adult reading level has seen a smaller influx of resistance-themed books, with titles like A Girl’s Guide to Joining the Resistance and How I Resist, the latter an anthology that boasts contributions from big YA authors like Libba Bray, Sabaa Tahir, and Malinda Lo. But my focus has always been on fiction, and lately, I’ve noticed the trend reflected there as well: a rising genre I like to call “Teen Girls Get Fed Up and Form Vigilante Girl Gangs to Knock Out Sexism at the Local Level.”

 

The first of these novels came with Amy Poehler’s seal of approval (she also acquired film rights!) and an unapologetically livid black-and-pink cover, splashed with a call to arms for girls to rise up and fight back. Moxie, Jennifer Mathieu’s explosive fourth novel, draws inspiration heavily from the Riot Grrl movement, with its tone of sheer, unapologetic female anger pervasive throughout. However, it’s counterbalanced by the practicalities of being a teenager in high school: our heroine, Viv Carter, is miles away from fighting back against anything at the start of the novel. She’s your typical girl next door protagonist: she has a cool mom, kindly grandparents, and a best friend she’s known since kindergarten. Boys confuse her, and she’s counting down the days till college. But she’s also trapped in a hotbed of casual sexism that runs rampant at her high school, at best ignored and at worst abetted by teachers and staff. The novel does its subject matter a great service by making it clear that Viv’s high school is not “unusually” bad in this respect—only that Viv, who has grown up with the legacy of her mother’s former Riot Grrl days, is perhaps uniquely positioned to be bothered by it.

Yet Viv, by her own admission, is an unlikely candidate to actually do something about it. Already at a power disadvantage as a student, she holds no particular social clout, and considers herself too ordinary to be worth anyone’s attention. But when she finds a box of her mother’s old Riot Grrl things, including a series of feminist zines, she suddenly finds herself with an idea she cannot bear to dismiss. What follows is the creation of Moxie—a zine with a brutal, unapologetic tone that calls out the sexist policies of the school administration, starting with the unfair dress code. Viv herself is a one-woman printing press, creating and making copies of the zine before distributing them in the girls’ bathrooms. It’s thrilling and empowering to watch Viv grow in confidence as Moxie, initially a point of confusion and even discomfort for the other students at her high school, takes off and grows into a movement much bigger than just Viv herself.

The brilliance of Viv as a heroine (and of Moxie as a whole) is that nothing about her is extraordinary. At no point does she become a leader in this movement. Throughout the course of the novel, we see her grow in confidence, but not in power: other girls, inspired and emboldened by the zines, begin to hold events and protests under the name Moxie, but Viv attends these as an observer, never revealing her involvement in Moxie whatsoever. When the truth does eventually come out, it’s less of a revelation as it is an opening for other girls to add their voices, with the bold claim that yes, Viv is Moxie, but they are Moxie, too. The message of the novel is also what it demands of each and every one of its readers: all it takes to enact change is an ordinary person with a bit of extraordinary courage.

If Moxie is an angry rock and roller (best read to the music of Joan Jett), Erin Gough‘s Amelia Westlake is her more buttoned-up—but no less furious—little sister. Our heroines, an odd couple of fussy perfectionist Harriet Price and grungy troublemaker Will Everheart, are students at an ultra-elite private school, Rosemead Grammar. As with Moxie’s public American high school, Rosemead Grammar, with its state-of-the-art facilities and student body of future innovators, has a dark underbelly of sexism, elitism, and general disregard for its students: teachers play favorites with grades, money is funneled into grandiose, unnecessary projects, and the gym teacher leers at his teenage charges in the pool. While the students feel the effects of this corruption, they also feel the power and prestige associated with the Rosemead name, and their own powerlessness in the face of it.

Enter Will and Harriet—and Amelia Westlake. As students, Will and Harriet exist at complete opposite sides of the spectrum: Will is a scholarship student and known troublemaker, known for her distaste of authority. Rosemead is designed to put people like her down, and she knows it; yet rising against it gets her into trouble time and time again. Harriet, meanwhile, comes from a place of wealth and privelege: a model student who benefits greatly from Rosemead’s system, and would rather ignore its “minor” problems than make any waves. But when their worlds collide, Harriet finds herself finally unable to look away from Rosemead’s problems, and agrees to help Will with a prank: a series of political cartoons, drawn by Will and written by Harriet, published in the school newspaper by a student named Amelia Westlake—a student who does not exist.

Will and Harriet’s school responds initially to Amelia Westlake in much the same way as Viv’s classmates respond at first to Moxie. There is interest, and even agreement, but it fizzles out quickly. But by this point, something has begun that is not so easy to let die completely, and as Will and Harriet escalate with pranks that directly target the school—each using their particular skill sets and advantages—Amelia Westlake takes on mythic proportions, escalating into a movement. The message here, so similar to that of Moxie, seems to be that anyone can change the world: rich, poor, priveleged or not, everyone has something to bring to the table. All that’s required is a bit of courage—and, if you’re lucky, someone by your side who completes you.

Girl power is by now an old concept, but political contemporary YA is relatively new. It’s exciting to see the genre overtaken by female anger, female power, and ultimately, female triumph; and in this day and age, a reminder of the power of ordinary people is never misplaced. And as much as I hope that the anxiety of the current political regime is short-lived, I also hope that literary girl power is staying for a long, long time.

A bit about the columnist:

Alexa Wilson Kelly is a writer from New Jersey. She lives in Sydney, Australia, where she spends most of her time with a notebook and an entire sleeve of Tim Tams, lurking around the Opera House waiting for inspiration. Visit author page

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