Saturday, 17 March 2012

Orange and Pink by Keren David

The longlist for the Orange prize was published this month, and a fascinating list it is too, taking in books by eight British writers, seven American, three Irish, one Swedish and one Canadian author, on subjects ranging from the love between two Homeric heroes to post 9/11 New York.
 Oh, and they’re all by women. After all, that is the point of the Orange Prize, specifically set up to gain attention for women writers, and address the bias shown in the literary world towards men.  For many  this seems unnecessary, sexist, demeaning, patronising and unfair. However the bias is there – just look at this survey - and so why not have a prize which showcases some of the best writing by women?

Louise Rennison, the first Queen of Teen
 As the Books Editor of the Telegraph points out, prizes have differing values and purpose, and the important thing is to bring good books to the attention of readers.


In British teen fiction we have our very own Orange prize equivalent, and it’s a little more problematic. I’m talking about the Queen of Teen title, which opened for nominations this month.

 What’s good about Queen of Teen?  It recognises the body of work of a writer, not just one book. It gives a chance for writers of books with girls as main characters to be celebrated by the girl readers themselves. Its first two winners were Louise Rennison and Cathy Cassidy, both wonderful authors whose books can be enjoyed by all ages and all genders.

What’s bad about Queen of Teen? Well, check out the award’s website. It uses a font which may well be called Curvy Chicklit. The organisers seem to think that you can’t celebrate girls’ fiction without adopting a weird form of ‘chickspeak’.  Here’s their description of the award ceremony: ‘The super-stylish shortlisted authors arrived in incredible pink limos before entering the marquee where they met some of their biggest fans, nibbled on delish cupcakes, sipped pink lemonade and admired each other’s über-glam outfits.’

The winner sits on a throne, wears a tiara, and everyone dresses in pink. It’s an award ceremony for grown-up authors, styled by a very girly eight-year-old.

 The über-glamness of it all makes it easy to mock, which is a shame.  And the incredible pink frilly sillyness invites one to assume that the books and authors celebrated are silly and frilly as well. Which then leads you on to the notion that most books written by women for girls, often published with covers that feature a certain rosy hue, are the decorative end of children’s literature, as unhealthy and insubstantial as those delish cupcakes.


So, this week we’ve seen Anthony McGowan -  a writer for teens famed for his  mischievousness – beg for nominations as Queen of Teen, even though he's most definitely not Queen material and his books all feature boys as main characters. Furthermore, fantasy writer Zoe Marriott asked for nominations ‘to show that there is more to YA than snogging.’


I’m sure that Tony doesn’t mean to imply that books about girls aren’t as award-worthy as those about boys. And I’m sure that Zoe can’t possibly mean that most YA books aimed at girls are only about snogging – I can’t think of one, anyway (let me know if you do, I'd be very interested to read it).


 This is what the Queen of Teen organisers say about their award. ‘Queen of Teen has to be the most glitzy and glamorous award in the world of books, rewarding the nation's favourite authors of teen fiction. The award was founded in 2008 to celebrate the fantastic teen and tween authors who bring so much enjoyment to their readers, dealing with real-life issues in a way that is honest, entertaining and fun!’


Perhaps they should spell out that Queen of Teen is there to promote contemporary books with girls as main characters, well-written books which often handle difficult subjects with a light or humourous touch. That QoT recognises a bias against girls' fiction in the world of children's literature, and wants to reassure girls that the authors that they enjoy are more substantial and important than adults sometimes realise or recognise.

 Do we need Queen of Teen? After all the Romantic Novelists Association have just introduced a YA award, won for the first time by debut author Caroline Green for her book Dark Ride.  Teen authors are usually over-represented on shortlists for the Costa Book Award, the Carnegie Medal and the Branford Boase.  But, since the demise of the Booktrust Teenage Prize, the only other national award specifically for teen books that I can think of is the older age section of the UKLA award. The shortlist, out this week, is dominated by Kings of Teen -  Kevin, Phil, Andy, Kenneth and Carnegie-winning Patrick, all writing about boys (in fact, one book is called iBoy, another is Half Brother and yet another includes a boy’s name, Billy) The only woman author is Lindsey Barraclough, author of Long Larkin.


 Of course, I have nothing against  these wonderful books and authors, and indeed, with a first book called When I was Joe and a preference for writing boy characters, I’d look very foolish to begin to complain about a possible bias towards boy books. I do suspect though that part of the reason why 'boy' books do well, is that girl readers are happier to read a book about a boy than boys are to pick up anything with the pink and sparkly covers that marketing types love so much. All the more reason for an award that celebrates books for and about girls.

 If I wrote ‘girl’ books and Queen of Teen was my best chance of recognition, I think I’d be feeling pretty upset by the way that other authors mock me and my kind of book, and by the way the QoT organisers play into their hands.  Girly books have enough prejudice to contend with, without the people who like it making things worse.


 I know there is prejudice, because when my daughter was ten (before I started writing for children) I was less than impressed (why? I'm not sure)  to see her reading books which looked 'girly' -  until I discovered the excellent books by Cathy Cassidy, Karen McCombie and Hilary McKay hiding behind those covers. Recently, a friend of mine complained that her 10-year-old daughter was reading 'terrible' books - she was talking about Cathy Cassidy. Needless to say she had never read any of her books, and I was able to put her right.


 Awards aren't just for authors. They exist to recognise all sorts of excellence, and encourage more young readers, and the adult gate-keepers who guide them, to learn about more books. Queen of Teen is part of that process. It’d just be nice if they could step away from the pink and towards the Orange.

26 comments:

Keren David said...

I'm not quite sure why my paragraphing hasn't worked - it's not meant to read like this...

Keren David said...

Fixed!

YA Yeah Yeah said...

Great post Keren! Have never read Hilary McKay (somehow!) but would class both Cathy Cassidy and Karen McCombie as being amongst the very best children's authors out there. Agree that the way the award's website is presented doesn't really fully represent the excellence of the authors involved.

Keren David said...

Oh,you are missing out. Hilary McKay is wonderful. Start with Saffy's Angel. I did, and I read nothing else until I'd finished all the Casson family books.

Tam said...

Excellent post, Keren. Of course all girly books aren't just about snogging (although there's often a bit, because I don't know about you but from the age of eleven onwards, I thought about snogging A Lot), in the same way that boyish books aren't only about spies and explosions.

It's a shame that QoT shoots itself in the foot because I do think they're trying to applaud an under-appreciated genre (under-appreciated by the industry, I should say, not by readers) and do a good thing. And I expect Antony McGowan just wants the tiara - they don't give those out when you win the Teenage Prize ;)

Ness Harbour said...

This is a fantastic post Keren and I agree with so much of what you say. Though the thought of Tony appearing in a pink limo to wear a tiara and drink pink lemonade would be worth seeing ;-)

Keris Stainton said...

I couldn't agree more, Keren. I like the idea of Queen of Teen, but the execution... not so much. Having said that, I thought the point of it was to celebrate the type of novels that tend to be overlooked elsewhere, so I've found it pretty infuriating to see quite a few authors campaigning for nominations either for a laugh or to prove that teen girls read "better" books than Queen of Teen would suggest (I don't think anyone's said that outright, but it's certainly been implied).

Stroppy Author said...

Do you think a gay man writing about a gay boy could win Queen of Teen?

It's not the type of book I like to read or write, but I can't see why anyone would want to stop them having an award! You don't see writers for 10-year-olds grumbling about not being eligible for picture-book prizes...

Nicola Morgan said...

Keris, precisely. I'd assumed that the award was supposed to be about exactly the genre that Louise R and Cathy C write in, and I assumed that was why it was branded like that. If its not, then the branding and marketing are very misleading! All awards, whether for adult books or not, have their own style and their own criteria, and why not? On that basis, I'd never expect that my type of books in any way qualified me for a nomination. Horses for courses, etc. So, I hope and assume that pink and sparkly is what the organisers want and are looking for, because that's certainly how it comes over. Not my scene but I defend the right of others to love it.

Stroppy Author said...

Just looked at their website - HIDEOUS!!!

fionadunbar said...

Excellent post, Keren: well said! QoT organisers, please take note! As a sometime nominee, I do find the website embarrassingly patronising, and I'm sure a lot of readers do too.

You briefly mention the fact that QoT celebrates a writer's whole body of work, rather that focusing on one title; this is a really important point, as most of the writers who get nominated for it write, or have written, series fiction – which, whether aimed at boys or girls, tends to be looked down on.

The other problem is regional awards: fifty percent of the readership there is male, so anything that's obviously marketed towards girls is straightaway going to be at a disadvantage. And we authors *need* prizes! They are so important in raising one's profile – and that's why we need QoT. But oh, the relentless PINKNESS...

Catnip said...

A fantastically reasoned post on the pros and cons of the QoT. It is a shame that an award ceremony that purports to be such fun means that the perceived literary merits of those shortlisted are diminished. It's a very clever art to write a book that's both important to its readers *and* entertaining.

Luisa Plaja said...

Excellent post. I certainly can't think of a single book that's only about snogging, and I read (and write) a lot in this genre.

adele said...

Agree with everything esp the injunction to read Hilary McKay. She ought to be on prescription to all!

Sue Ransom said...

Excellent post Keren, and tells me rather more about the prize than I had gathered from the website when I found I had been nominated.

Anthony McGowan said...

What a sensible and well-balanced piece. Just to stress that my bid for Queen was not done either satirically or particularly mischievously, it was just a bit pof playful silliness, really. I don't actually have any strong views about the award, except to say that it's been won by some truly excellent writers, which is what counts, in the end.

Hilary said...

Excellent post and I agree wholeheartedly with all the points you make.

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

Excellent post, Keren. I think Queen of Teen is vitally important to publically recognise the talents authors so unfairly reviled or ignored elsewhere. Until all categories of fiction are recognised equally on their merits, there will be a need for this award.
As to the pinkness - well, it isn't to my taste, but girls have pink relentlessly marketed at them from birth, so it's hardly surprising, is it? Address that and perhaps the obsession with pink covers and pink awards will become more balanced with time.
Oh and I also highly recommend Hilary McKay. My boys loved all her books too. I read them every one.

Keren David said...

Well, the evidence would suggest that QoT is being won by excellent writers who deserve to be read more widely than just by those who actively like pink and sparkly. I'm absolutely not suggesting that the award should be about a different kind of book; it's more that the award should shed some of its campness and take itself just a tad more seriously. Keep the cupcakes, lose the tiara perhaps? And my nominations go to Luisa Plaja, Fiona Dunbar, Keris Stainton, Tamsyn Murray...

Keren David said...

Do we need a King of Teen, with the nominees arriving on motorbikes, styled in black leather and snacking on delish bacon butties? And may-be a cross-dressing Monarch of Teen for those of us who like to write for the Other Side...

Savita Kalhan said...

A very interesting blog, Keren. I knew very little of the Q of T prize before this.
As someone who writes mainly from boys POVs, and mainly 'real' contemporary teen fiction, like you, it would be nice to have a 'real teen fiction' prize.
I've missed Hilary McKay, so I'm off to rectify that.

Susie Day said...

I couldn't agree more, Keren: you've nailed perfectly my frustration with an award that has such potential to celebrate a neglected, unfeted corner of kidlit, yet seems determined to undermine it at the same time.

Must echo Keris's comment too. While I'm sure there's no malice in it, it's a little depressing to see this treated as a joke by fellow authors.

Jenna said...

Great post, Keren. The award in general sounds like a good idea, but the pink-soaked award ceremony would sit happily in my idea of a personal hell. Pink limos and tiaras?

sophiabennett said...

I do so agree, Keren. Beautifully put. It's a great prize in an area that badly needs one, with two worthy winners so far. But I don't know any girl over four and a half who's that obsessed with pink tiaras. Teens are so much more varied and interesting. Which is why we like to write for them, isn't it? A ceremony that really reflected them would be truly wonderful.

catdownunder said...

Just got to this - pink and sparkly is not my scene either but, like Nicola, I would passionately defend the right of others to write it and read it.
Really enjoyed reading this too! Thanks.

Catherine Butler said...

Just want to add my voice to the chorus of McKay lovers - but also, don't forget her earlier Exiles series, once you've run out of Cassons!