Monday, September 19, 2011


The Girl Project, Kate Engelbrecht, Universe, 2011, 224 pp

The most amazing thing about this amazing book is that it got published at all. Kate Engelbrecht, who majored in sociology but didn't actually want to be a sociologist, then worked in advertising but did not actually want to do that either, reinvented herself as a photographer. After some years spent mulling it all over, she created The Girl Project out of her two passions: photography and girlhood. Girls, teens, chicks (call us what you want) are fortunate that Kate turned her project into a book.

Kate's quest was to understand female adolescents by going to the source. In 2007, she began sending a disposable camera and a questionnaire to teen girls all over the United States with requests to fill the camera with pictures representing the girl's life, fill out the questionnaire, and send both back to Kate. Anonymity was promised.

Eventually 5000 young adult females 13 to 18, of varied backgrounds, faiths, and races, sent in their photos and answers. Kate had developed her questionnaire by adapting the Proust Questionnaire, a nineteenth century personality profile made famous by Marcel Proust who used the list several times over his life to record his tastes, views and aspirations. Kate's version asks such questions as "What adjectives best describe you? What is the hardest part about being a teenager? Tell me one thing about you that nobody seems to get?"

Any female reader of The Girl Project will find herself in this book. Any young adult female reader will feel less alone and more herself. If I were a teenage girl, I would get all my friends to answer the questions and take pictures of themselves so we could make our own book. I will be giving copies to all the female teens I know (and maybe some male teens) as well as moms and grandmothers of teens.

Reading what these young women have to say about what life is like for them socially and privately is a sobering experience, because of how much most of them keep inside. Almost universally they are unhappy with how the media portrays teen girls at the same time that they struggle to live up to the body and fashion images they are presented with at every turn. The most wonderful answers are to the question, "What are your favorite qualities in a person?" Those qualities are a recipe for a better world.

The layout is perfect. Some pages show the entire questionnaire filled out in the girl's own handwriting. Many are whole page photos of girls with their friends, in their rooms, or showing us what they love and how they feel. Since not every questionnaire could be included, there are pages full of the answers from just one question, again in each individual's handwriting. All of it is beautiful and so expressive. You must see the book to fully comprehend and appreciate what a treasure it is.

(The Girl Project) is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

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