Book Review: “Letter to My Teenage Self” edited by Grace Halphen (#AWW2017 @AffirmPress)



I first heard about Letter to My Teenage Self (Affirm Press, 2016) while attending the graduation ceremony of a young friend. When the principle concluded the event, she mentioned a Melbourne teenager named Grace Halphen who had a tough time transitioning from primary school to high school. At the tender age of 13, Halphen wondered why she felt so alone. She then started to contact various Australian public figures she admires, asking them to “provide advice to help teenagers navigate the inevitable ups and downs of adolescence”.

The result of Halphen’s project is Letter to My Teenage Self, where a total of 54 outstanding Australians share the advice they wish they had been given growing up. While readers may not feel familiar with all of them, reading the letters they wrote to their teenage selves helps to reveal not only the kind of life lessons these individuals have learned since adolescence, but also their reflections on the nature and significance of success as adults.

While reading this book, I kept thinking about the 2002 movie The Time Machine, a loose adaptation from the 1895 novel of the same name by H.G. Wells. In this movie, Dr Alexander Hartdegen (played by Guy Pearce) keeps travelling to the past in an attempt to prevent his fiancée from being murdered, only to realise that any attempt to save her will invariably result in her death through other circumstances. There is no way for him to alter her fate, because her death is what drove him to build the time machine in the first place.

Obviously, all the contributors to Letter to My Teenager Self know this logic. Fully aware of the fact that the past cannot be changed, they appear to be saying to their teenage readers, “Look, you’re not alone, and don’t you fret what you’re going through now. I was exactly like you. See how I’ve turned out!” In this process, many of these extraordinary men and women openly share the secret thoughts and emotions they experienced and endured as teenagers. It is likely that many teenagers find it easier to encounter such openness among strangers than within the close circles of their families and friends.

Indeed, what is shared in this book is perhaps more valuable to parents than to their teenage children, as it provides a rare glimpse – at least for those parents who do not believe in Young Adult books – of the complex and often self-contradictory feelings that teenagers have about themselves and their surroundings. While the mums and dads out there may find this book full of clichéd suggestions – “learn as much as you can”, “love thyself but laugh at yourself”, “be grateful of what you’ve got”, “don’t let the negatives shape your life”, etc – these wise words help them to reflect on their own attitudes towards life and to offer encouragement and take actions to assist the younger generation.

Finally, Letter to My Teenage Self is a highly informing and entertaining book. Not only is it delightful to discover and learn from those who have achieved well and are now giving back to society, but it is also amusing to see their revelations to their teenage selves about the “future”. For examples,

  • “Enjoy your hair. You’ll start losing it in six years!” (Chris Judd)
  • “DO NOT get that haircut… DON’T DO IT. You will go home crying and your mum will ‘even it out’ and you will have a short bowl cut that makes you look like a ten-year-old boy for the next three months.” (Eva Orner)
  • “In December 1980, invest 100 quid in Apple shares. Yes, Apple. They make computers. Don’t ask questions, just do it.” (Fiona Scott-Norman)
  • “The good news is that while Lina will come around, you don’t need her. Tania is your true BFF (QUICK, go spread that turn of phrase, you’ll be the first by 10 years and be LEGENDARY!!).” (Jo Stanley)
  • “While you are not on everyone’s party list at school, trust me when I say your name becomes a loved household brand and you’re invited to more things that you care to go to.” (Peter Alexander)

Parents, please read this book before introducing it to your teenage kids. Then you can laugh and learn together.

More details about Letter to My Teenage Self edited by Grace Halphen can be found here.


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