How this book club helps teenage girls across Canada discuss tough topics
Founder Tanya Marie Lee created the club she would have wanted as a girl
When Tanya Marie Lee created a book club for teen girls from low income neighbourhoods, it was with a single hope and purpose: to give them the things she didn't have growing up.
"I never felt secure," Lee said frankly. "I barely felt wanted. I barely felt safe."
Inspired by Virginia Woolf's classic essay, A Room of One's Own, Lee founded her book club in 2017 and named it "A Room of Your Own."
It was originally intended for teenage girls from Toronto schools and neighbourhoods identified as high priority, where poverty, violence and home insecurity may be part of daily life.
Today, the non-profit book club is open to teen girls across Canada. The books spark conversations about a range of topics, including drug addiction, homophobia, racism, sexism, bullying, sexual assault, mental illness, gender and sexual identity, and human trafficking. The sessions also provide professional mental health support to girls who request it.
"Teen girls are always treated as second class citizens. I hate that," explained Lee. "I was treated as a second class citizen as a teen girl... My opinions didn't matter as much as the boys in my class. That stuck with me, and I wanted to change that."
Lee cold-called Canadian publishers of young adult novels and asked if they would provide some books for free. All said yes.
For the first book, she selected a thriller, The Masked Truth. Its author, Canadian novelist Kelley Armstrong, agreed to attend the session in person.
"I was blown away," recalled Lee.
She reached out to vice principals and teachers at the Toronto District School Board. They helped find students who might benefit most. Other interested students were also welcome to join.
On January 13, 2017, fifteen enthralled teenage girls showed up at Toronto's historic Lillian H. Smith Public Library to attend the first meeting. A book club was born.
It grew quickly. In the first year it tripled in size and met monthly in person. In 2019, a core group of the book club met Michelle Obama in person in Toronto. In March of 2020, in response to the pandemic, the club went virtual.
At first, only a handful of students attended online. Knowing how much the books meant to the students, Lee mailed them to participants herself, out of her own pocket. The authors continued to attend, even if only one student appeared on the screen.
Lee selects the books herself. She looks for powerful stories that she hopes will resonate with participants — stories with strong female protagonists of all backgrounds.
Today, the club meets twice a month and the number of participants is in the hundreds. February's author was Nobel Peace Prize recipient Nadia Murad, with her memoir, The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight Against the Islamic State.
Last November the guest author was Canadian criminal defence lawyer Marie Henein, with her memoir, Nothing But the Truth. A TDSB superintendent informed Lee that the board's students would not be allowed to participate, citing concerns that Henein's role as defence lawyer to Jian Gomeshi in his sexual assault case could send the wrong message to students.
The event went ahead as scheduled, without TDSB students. (The school board later reviewed its decision and backtracked. A second session with Henein was held in January.)
For many of the girls, such as Grade 11 student Ivy, the club and the free books are a lifeline. (The Doc Project is only using the first names of the teens to protect their privacy.)
"In my home, I did not have many books because we have very low income in our family," said Ivy. "So we don't have a lot of money to spend on things we like, our hobbies and such. Rent is more important than reading, right?"
Lee understands. "I remember being at school and always wanting to own my own books, and every month the Scholastics calendar would come out—a monthly calendar of all the books that they had available," said Lee.
"I circled the ones that I wanted, and I would go home to my mom, and she would always be very sad that she couldn't afford to get me those books. However, I had my library card and that was a life saver."
The local library, Lee added, was her refuge, a temporary escape from a violent home life. She hopes to share that love of reading and the strength she gained from it with other teen girls.
She also hopes to give them the opportunity to talk about the tough stuff in their daily lives. Adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Karen Wang from Toronto's Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre has attended the sessions since the club's inception. Students have the opportunity to speak with her during the session.
One of the club's original members, Vivian, says she was trepidatious at first about speaking openly about her own personal struggles.
"It was horrifying… I remember I was twiddling my thumbs wondering, 'Should I ask, should I ask?' I was just so worried about what other people would think," she said. "But I asked anyway, and they responded with no judgement, and I got all the answers that I needed. And this was kind of the beginning of how I got into getting help for my own mental health."
For 15-year-old Sheyma, a session that focused on racism was difficult, but also encouraging. As a young Black Muslim woman, she says she's been shamed for not wearing a hijab and called racist names.
"But through all those moments, I just had to tell myself, I don't believe them. I don't need to believe them. But I can't lie — sometimes it does get to me, [but] being in that book club with a bunch of other people, the diversity was crazy, and I felt like I belong there."
That sentiment — about diversity and belonging and transformation — is echoed by Vivian.
"Meeting all of these people and learning about their experiences, it definitely made my mind more open," she said. "But it also made my world a more interesting place. It's not so black and white anymore. There's a lot of colour in my life knowing all of these people. And it's wonderful."
About the producer
Alisa Siegel is a CBC Radio documentary maker. She has produced stories on subjects as varied as the underground railroad for refugees in Fort Erie, daring women artists in 1920s Montreal, the return of the trumpeter swan, Canadian nurses in World War I, and violence in elementary school classrooms. She lives in Toronto with her family.
This documentary was edited by Alison Cook.