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Tanya Lee on making room for girls to read


MARCH 08, 2022

Editor: This interview was first published on Rakuten Kobo.

Follow The Reader is our series featuring unconventional leaders and trailblazers.

Tanya Lee is the founder of A Room Of Your Own, a monthly book club for high-risk teenage girls (including trans girls and teens who are non-binary), ages 13 to 18, that aims to inspire and build community by removing barriers to reading.

Relying entirely on donations and connections since launching the program in 2017, Tanya has moved mountains to create safe spaces and unforgettable experiences for a growing number of young women. Bringing in authors and subject-matter experts to guide discussions, she believes firmly that everything is a learning opportunity and that no subject is off limits.

“I didn’t want to choose traditional books that they read in school because they can get boring,” she quips. “Everything just starts to feel like homework, you know?!”

If Tanya’s enthusiasm—palpable throughout our discussion—is any indication of how much fun the girls are having (and I don’t doubt that it is), then homework will just have to wait. Read on to learn more about Tanya’s work, the club’s encounter with one of the world’s most influential leaders, and the books that are inspiring the next generation of readers.

Tell me about A Room Of Your Own. What’s the significance of the book club’s name?

It started off as a hope and a promise. A long time ago I read A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf and it struck me that women need to be independent. We need to carve out our own niche. I always kept that in the back of my mind as I was advocating for teen girls and I called this A Room of Your Own because this book club is for them; it’s their space.

Kelley Armstrong was the first author to agree, even before I had things figured out, and she was a godsend. Her publisher at the time, Penguin Random House, donated all of the copies of The Masked Truth, which dealt with issues of mental health. In addition to having Kelley there, we invited Dr. Karen Wang, a youth and adolescent psychiatrist, so the girls were able to ask her a ton of questions as well.

Fifteen girls came to Lillian H. Smith Toronto Public Library, and at that first meet up you could just hear the buzz when they were coming down the stairs to the basement—you know that kind of excitement that only teenage girls have? Where they’re talking really quickly and their feet are moving as fast as fast as their mouths? It’s this really great energy. Nobody can beat that.

Why are young women the focus?

Teen girls are always treated like third-class citizens, especially if you’re racialized, so I came up with the idea for a book club geared towards high-risk teen girls.

A lot of these students have parents who are new immigrants to the country. They work really, really hard and all of their money goes to paying rent. Books are a luxury and I don’t think a lot of people realize that. Reading is a determinant of health, though. When I created this book club, I wanted to give young women a chance.

How did reading help you through your own childhood?

love libraries, so I was always in one. I was definitely more into books than toys. We couldn’t afford books, so I would sit in the library and read and dream about owning my own one day. Books were my escape.

Which books had the biggest impact on you as a kid? Are there any stories that you still hold dear today?

Remember The Princess and the Pea by Hans Christian Andersen? I always hoped that I would be a princess and could feel the pea in the mattress!

I also used to listen to Bluebeardby Charles Perrault on the record player…remember record players?!

And I read just about every single V.C. Andrews book there was. So there was a wide range of stories that I liked as a kid.

What about as an adult? Which books have left a lasting impression?

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl left a HUGE impression on me. Whenever anything goes wrong, I just remember that Viktor Frankl survived the Holocaust because he wanted that manuscript published. It was his will to live. He makes me feel like I can do anything.

“Teen girls are always treated like third-class citizens, especially if you’re racialized, so I came up with the idea for a book club geared towards high-risk teen girls.”

There’s also The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. It’s another book that I read all the time. I just keep going back to it whenever I need inspiration.

And I can’t forget, The Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George. I have to get a girly one in there! I really love that one too.

I know you encountered some roadblocks in your club introducing books by Marie Henein and Nadia Murad. Do you feel that any books or topics should be off limits?

Um…NO. There are definitely topics that might make me feel uncomfortable, but I honestly believe that books are a learning tool and that we always need to keep our critical thinking in check. We need to make sure that we can tell the difference between right and wrong; what’s moral and what’s not; when we’re being totally self-centred, and when we need to focus on community and social impact.

Even in the worst-case scenario, I think we should look at why a certain topic is making our stomachs turn. I don’t believe we should ban books. It’s important to examine what someone may have been thinking and feeling when they wrote it, then we can talk about the effects of what the person has written.

We can learn from the worst things that society has thrown at us. We can learn from WWII. We can learn from slavery. We can learn from a lot of the atrocities that have happened in life and look at how we prevent evil from taking root. We have to pay attention to history. Books are the greatest teacher of history ever and we all need to read history.

Is there a book so far that has been a favourite in the club? A standout?

Yes, Breaking Faith by E. Graziani. I know the girls talk about that book a lot. Also Marie Henein’s book, Nothing But the Truth, because they loved meeting her. And Names in a Jar by Jennifer Gold, which is about the Holocaust.

I do a wide range of books because my goal is to make sure that everyone sees themselves in the characters. Some lead characters might have mental health issues; some might be poor and struggling to survive; some might have addiction issues – and it’s a wide variety of young women of all racial and ethnic backgrounds.

“I don’t believe we should ban books.”

One of the philosophies of book club is that we learn about each other from each other. We don’t learn from stereotypes. We talk to each other, listen to each other and celebrate each other.

One of your most high-profile events was a meeting with Michelle Obama in 2019 when she came to the Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. What was that experience like for you and the girls?

Yeah! I was given a handful of tickets and decided to take the girls who had been coming to book club since the beginning. The tickets were in the nosebleeds, so we weren’t sure that we would see anything, but we were excited to go and have fun. Then I decided to see what else I could do.

I emailed Penguin Random House and I got the publicity director for Michelle Obama’s people, but was told that she’s not doing a meet and greet. Oh, come on. You know I didn’t believe that. So I decided to put it out into the universe and tweet at her and see what happens.

Next thing you know, I get a call. Michelle Obama’s team came looking for me; they found the tweet. And guess what? There was a huge line of people waiting to meet her… I knew she was doing meet and greets!

A Room of Your Own book club meets Michelle Obama

When we got up to Michelle, she spent the longest time with us. She’s so authentic. She’s the real deal and all of the girls got their Becoming books autographed. She treated each and every one of them like queens; that just made my heart sing. And then our seats got upgraded—we were right by the stage! It was really, really nice. A night to remember.

What has been your biggest learning since launching A Room of Your Own in 2017?

Even in your darkest days when you want to give up, you just have to keep going forward. This is what I keep telling people. If something doesn’t work out for me, I know it’s because God wants me to have something better.

How do you hope A Room Of Your Own evolves over the next few years? What are your ambitions for the club?

First of all, I applied for federal funding and I’m really hoping that we get it. I find out at the end of February, but I just don’t know because everybody and their mother applies for that funding.

We don’t have a website yet, but it’s being built. We’re also going to do a podcast with the book club, so that’s underway. And we have a partnership with the Canadian Human Rights Museum – we do books on human rights and they do a virtual exhibit at the museum for the relevant subject matter. I’m very excited.

We’re virtual now because of the pandemic, but Zoom has its benefits, so I’m hoping we can do a hybrid version in the future. I just want the girls to keep meeting extraordinary women, to be inspired and to never give up. Ever. ◼

Source: Rakuten Kobo

Email address for the book club: [email protected]
CBC Radio Documentary on the teen girls’ book club: