- 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|
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.