‘Game Girls’: a tough tale for today’s young readers.

I read Game Girls by Judy Waite in two hours, trying to imagine myself as a fourteen year-old reader. I was lying in a hammock in the sunshine and there was nothing to disturb me but a few tweeting birds, yet I still managed to slip from my idyllic setting into the whirling world of sixth formers, Fern, Alix and Courtney. Three girls, very different in nature, are united in their new hobby, to make easy money as sex workers.But they are very naive:

 ‘It’s actually better to charge for sex than it is for cooking. You need certificates and inspections and things to sell cooked food.’

Recently, at a writers’ conference, I signed up for a class on ‘using visual stimuli to improve  writing’. Judy Waite was the tutor. It was last thing in the afternoon – the graveyard slot – and I’d just been to one of those lazy sessions where the person leading it had prepared nothing. We were simply asked to ‘ask questions’ and I was bored.  An hour later I was thinking about going down the pub instead, but I’m so glad I went to Judy Waite’s session. Swirling around the room in a white dress, she offered us all a variety of stimulating visual images to work with and she led the group through a process which had us all writing in superb detail. She knows her stuff and she is an inspiration. I bought her book.

Game Girls is a story which will worry some school librarians in terms of its content: it’s a fast paced tale of three girls who think raising money for designer clothes and fun through paid sex will be perfectly safe. Of course, it doesn’t turn out that way, and it’s a clever story about risk and danger and Waite is warning her YA market of the pitfalls involved.

I researched readers’ response to this book – (since I’m not fourteen) – and the reception was very positive. ‘Game Girls’ benefits from the slightly risqué content.  I remember reading Go Ask Alice (by Beatrice Sparks) as a teenager for its content about sex and drugs. Novels which fill in a lot of gaps about the changing world are fascinating to youngsters. Mind you, I read the Miller’s Tale because I was told not to by an English Teacher at A-level: a bit of spice and the odd expletive will always make a story more appealing.

My research suggested that some readers found the ending of ‘Game Girls’ a bit disappointing or surprising. I read the novel from the perspective of learning from a skilful and experienced writer, so I was constantly asking myself ‘How is she going to resolve this?’ or ‘How will she deal with the next scene?’ I think the ending works very well.

Judy Waite writes with detail and flair and her characters and their dilemma are absorbing. The three central protagonists aren’t very likeable. Alix is selfish, Fern is weak, Courtney is confused. I don’t think that matters too much: the characters are deliberately flawed and written to entice the reader to enter into their lives. Waite is to be congratulated as she is unafraid of facing  important issues: she touches on child abuse, a dying parent, sexuality, bullying, rape, and she is to be lauded for her gutsy take on presenting these aspects of life to teenagers in such a way as to provoke thought.

The ending is very satisfying in some ways. Courtney meets a charming character called Elroy and he instigates a change in how she views life, offering hope. Fern and Alix, however, have different stories. I was a bit surprised about what happened to Fern and  yet it served to shape the rest of the story, leading to an ending which, like it or not, crackled with tension and resolved the action very cleverly.

Waite writes with confidence and a real understanding of character and purpose. She is also able to create setting well and bring a scene to life. For me, the strength of ‘Game Girls’ is her determination to face important issues while creating a safe platform for readers to explore the world and the potential consequences of risk. Teenagers for whom sex is a new and fascinating subject will be drawn in by Fern’s character: she is an ingénue with little confidence, a girl who finds it difficult to say no, and her experience with an on-line date at the opening of the novel is poignant and shocking, and sets the pathos of the character up for the rest of the novel.

Young people will empathise with Courtney, who is more likeable but suffers from the trauma of her past secrets and has no real respect for herself. Alix is the instigator, a spoilt rich girl for whom money is more important than the love she has been denied. All three girls learn lessons in the book and teenagers will find their experiences gripping. The consequences, too, are hard hitting enough to be thought-provoking.

Judy Waite is a good story teller and I would recommend the book to teeenagers of both genders. Her novel is part of a huge debate about banned books in school libraries and the dilemma that exists for teachers. Teenagers want to read edgy books which reflect their lives and their interests: this includes books with expletives, sexual content and issues which concern them.

Parents, however, worry about their child being confronted with material which may confuse or frighten them; parents worry about their child’s innocence being taken away, or that their child will be exposed to something which contradicts their parents’ beliefs or lifestyle. Parents have the right to monitor what their child reads but there are so many good, award winning books which may be edgy or sexually explicit which reflect the adolescent’s world back to them in a meaningful way. Certainly, I’d have read this novel as a teenager to explore a world outside my own experience..

I think Judy Waite gets it right: it’s well written, almost credible and with the right balance of explicit content. ‘Game Girls’ is a coming of age story which brings with it a warning of the dangers of the world from the safety of the desk, the armchair, the bedroom or the hammock.


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