Two new teenage lists this year from The Women’s Press and Virago
Pat Triggs talks to the editors and previews some of the books.
The Women’s Press
Books for young people from a feminist press?
When Carole Spedding started to explore this idea for The Women’s Press she found that most people assumed she must be talking about a series of handbooks, a kind of teach-yourself-feminism packed with analysis and explanation. No such thing. Far from telling readers what they should be thinking the idea was to provide books of all kinds which would reflect the experience of the present day teenager. Looking around, Carole and her co-editor, Christina Dunhill, found little evidence of this in publishing for this age-range and teachers and librarians confirmed that this was indeed a shortage area. Three years and a lot of research later The Women’s Press are launching Live Wire books.
It’s an imprint which Carole Spedding believes has an eager readership all ready and waiting. ‘They are demanding books like these. This is a generation which has reaped the benefits of twenty years of feminism. They have different ideas of what they want, they don’t want to put up with things they find unacceptable. They should be able to find this in their books.’
Carole’s view of the market for Live Wires is not daunted by the sales figures for series like Sweet Dreams which she sees as teenage Blyton – nothing to worry about unless they don’t read anything else. ‘I believe teenagers read far more than many people think. And, like adults, they read a huge range and variety of stuff according to how they are feeling. They only stick to Sweet Dreams if that is all there is to read.’
The first four Live Wire titles are published in April (there will be twelve each year) and between them express much of the philosophy of the list.
The younger end of the intended 13-18 age range is well catered for by French Letters: the life and loves of Miss Maxine Harrison, Form 4A. Maxine’s letters (from Hornsey, London N8) to her best friend Jean (removed to Ashton-under-Lyne, The Far North) are likely to be as avidly consumed and discussed as the diary of her literary counterpart, Adrian Mole. A whole cast of characters rise from her partial prose: Dad (who reckons he’s Hornsey’s answer to Arthur Scargill); Mum (who turns up to buy school uniform at the dead posh School Outfitters in her purple nylon chip shop overalls); new friend Imelda (who wants to be the first woman Pope); the upwardly mobile neighbours, Amanda and Nathan (hanging plants hanging everywhere and white sofas with no tea stains); Michelle and Kim, the school snobs etc. Family and school, being fat, part-time jobs, clothes, friendship: it’s all here. But of course, at the centre of the whole story is SEX – a bet between these two 14-year-old correspondents about which will be the first to get ‘a real boyfriend’. Maxine acquires a French penfriend (Jean) who turns out to be a boy. (She doesn’t know about French names and she also has to have the pun about French Letters explained to her – go on, suspend your disbelief.) And when he announces that he is coming to England …
Elaine Fairweather, Maxine’s creator, is a journalist, a playwright and a comic actress. At 32, ‘still essentially a teenager’, she drew on her own memories of being fourteen, of copious letter-writing for the pleasure of getting replies, ‘though you never got as many as you sent out.’ But she checked out Maxine’s impressions and reactions with current teenagers, in particular Carole Spedding’s 13-year-old daughter. Carole is enthusiastic about French Letters because ‘as well as being funny it is not afraid to portray the contradictions, and teenage life is riddled with contradictions.’
You Worry Me Tracey, You Really Do continues a humorous look at teenage life in a collection of cartoons by Angela Martin. Work was commissioned and the final selection is the result of the reactions of a teenage ‘panel’ who Carole Spedding recalls were quite ruthless in their response.
Push Me, Pull Me is a first novel. Its author, Sandra Chick, is twenty-four and finding herself unemployed she decided to write a book. At school in Somerset Sandra, by her own account, was not particularly good at English, and didn’t enjoy reading or writing much. ‘I’ve only started reading in the last couple of years. The books we were offered at school didn’t interest me; they always underestimated how much you knew about sex, life, everything.’ Push Me, Pull Me is a strongly written narrative in the voice of fourteen-year-old Catherine who in the opening pages is raped by her mother’s boyfriend. The book covers about a year in Catherine’s life during which her mother gets pregnant, marries her boyfriend and is separated taking Cathy and the baby with her. Although the rape is significant, and child abuse was something Sandra Chick wanted to write about (When you mention it people close up; they don’t want to know about it.’) the heart of the book is the account of a mother daughter relationship. Catherine simultaneously despises and admires, loves and hates the desperate optimist, ‘the brave coward’ who is her Mum. Her vision is coloured by the confusion, the anger, the disgust and the guilt created by the rape but somehow this seems more grafted on than central. The whole is unremitting and uncompromising; there is little if any light at the end. ‘That’s how I think it would be,’ says Sandra Chick. There couldn’t be a pretty-pretty, happy-ever-after ending. But at the end Cathy is stronger, she’s survived. She’s worked out her anger; she’s started to analyse things but there is still confusion about her situation. She sees no way out yet. But I can see her eventually talking to someone, though not someone in the book.’
Unlike many first novels Push Me, Pull Me is not autobiographical. ‘Though I have drawn on my own experience; things I can remember thinking and feeling. But I read a lot about child abuse and thought about it a great deal.’
Carole Spedding is delighted that Sandra chose to send her manuscript first to The Women’s Press. ‘It epitomises what I hope will develop with this list. We want actively to support writing by young women.’ Carole sees Push Me, Pull Me as for the older end of the Live Wire age-range both in its subject matter and in the challenge it presents in literary style. `It’s a powerfully emotional story but teenagers are not frightened of emotion; it’s a time for wildly extreme feelings.’ Sandra hopes that women her own age and boys might read it.
The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou by Kristen Hunter is an American novel first published in 1968 and until this edition out of print and unobtainable. It appears on the Live Wire list as a result of pleas and requests from a group of school librarians who are currently sharing the remaining copies which are collapsing from use and still in demand. It’s a pacy novel with a strong storyline about the street life of black teenagers in the inner city who form their own band. Soul music, street gangs, the history of black music all feature with sensitive, talented singer/composer Lou, a characterful girl at the centre.
Coming in the next batch of Live Wires is Skirmish, an American SF story by Melissa Michaels, lightly written and with a girl as the central character; Relationships: who needs them, a collection of original short stories; Second Wave, a collection of eight short plays by young women, and Over the Water, a first novel by Maud Casey, another young writer, about a relationship between a girl returning to Ireland as a teenager and her grandmother. In preparation is a series of Profiles of notable women from different countries designed to complement geographical and historical studies, and a book about assertiveness, Strength Without Muscles, to help teenage girls speak up for themselves effectively at home, at school and in the street.
French Letters, Elaine Fairweather, 0 7043 4903 5, £2.95
You Worry Me, Tracey, Angela Martin, 0 7043 4902 7, £1.95
Push Me, Pull Me, Sandra Chick, 0 7043 4901 9, £2.95
The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou, Kristen Hunter, 0 7043 4900 0, £3.50
Virago has been a long time thinking about and preparing for an entry into the teenage market. Consultation with teachers and librarians (who have long been urging this) and with teenagers themselves has been extensive. The move, now it comes, is as much for philosophical as commercial reasons. Lennie Goodings, one of the editors of the new Virago Upstarts imprint: ‘As feminist presses we have not been particularly good at directly addressing the concerns of young women. The climate girls are growing up in today is different but we still need to show them that they do have options, that the possibility of change exists. We have now got the editorial and marketing staff to go into this area and co-incidentally it’s happening at the right time with W.H. Smith having success with Young Adult Sections and the recent BMC promotion.’
Upstarts are intended for young women of 13 plus who are actively seeking a better/different read; but they also hope to have an effect on those who perhaps have not yet thought objectively about themselves.
Two out of the first four Upstarts (published in May) quite deliberately seek to give teenagers a voice. Bitter-Sweet Dreams is, in the main, the result of an invitation in Just Seventeen magazine to ‘be a Virago author and tell us what your life is like.’ Over a hundred replied and nearly forty of them appear in the book, augmented by a few specially commissioned pieces to extend the range. ‘The majority of what came in was about school and boys,’ says Lennie Goodings. And indeed it is the immediacy of their lives and experiences that seems uppermost: exams (0-Levels), revision, fashion, pop music, boys. There is a marked similarity of voice in many of the pieces, and comparatively little on wider issues, morality, racism, politics, (nothing on AIDS).
It’s an interesting sociological document with some powerfully individual voices: some, barely coherent (like CRW’s which is casually organised and speaks of senility, death, separation, work, hairstyles and television in the same undifferentiated laconic tone) mean far more than they say, perhaps more than they know. The trite, conventional ending reveals the pain of CRW’s piece. Here too are some real writers. There was no rewriting and very little editing – the contributions were used as they came. It’s tantalising to think what some of these young writers might have achieved with support and encouragement to redraft.
The introduction to Bitter-Sweet Dreams by Janice Long sets out to give the collection a sense of perspective by analogy with another Virago title Truth, Dare or Promise in which women looked back on their adolescence in the fifties.
For many reasons Bitter-Sweet Dreams has much to offer, not least to teachers willing to handle and build on what it might release in connection with the experience of living and the experience of writing about living.
Falling for Love is sub-titled Teenage Mothers Talk. The voices this time have been captured by Sue Sharpe in a series of interviews transcribed and then skilfully and sensitively edited into a fascinating document. Forty-five interviews were recorded; eighteen of them appear here quoted in detail.
Upstarts fiction kicks off with two wildly contrasting titles. My Love, My Love is Rosa Guy’s lyrically tragic story of the Caribbean peasant girl, Desiree and her love for Daniel Beauxhomme, the son of a rich and powerful man. A version of Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, it mixes realism with magic, the cosmic and the fated with the everyday. This is not a long book (120 pages) but a slow start and Rosa Guy’s literary prose mean that this is probably not for the inexperienced reader.
Hotel Romantika is a collection of stories by Melanie McFadyean, the advice columnist of Just Seventeen magazine. Ms McFadyean may be a first class advice columnist and have an excellent understanding of her readers but, on this evidence anyway, she is no writer of fiction and lacks even the basic craft skills needed for that most demanding of forms, the short story. Germs of ideas are not achieved (some struggle to become novels); there is no clear consistent control of genre, voice, viewpoint, timescale, stance; there’s too much telling and precious little showing; there’s caricature and stereotyping. As for content, there is nothing here that hasn’t been already done better for this age-range. In all, whether it sells or not, this is out of place on the Virago list. It may be read but it is certainly not what those who urged Virago to start a teenage list had in mind. Melanie McFadyean should read Jan Mark, Berlie Doherty or even Bitter-Sweet Dreams.
Later this year the second batch of Upstarts, in their distinctive new ‘Virago green’ includes an American import, a story of a Brooklyn girl who races pigeons; and a newly commissioned detective novel featuring a ‘Virago Nancy Drew’.
Bitter-Sweet Dreams, 0 86068 913 1, £2.95
Falling for Love, 0 86068 841 0, £3.50
My Love, My Love, 0 86068 804 6, £2.95
Hotel Romantika, 0 86068 918 2, £2.95
Freeway from Corgi/Bantam
Bantam Young Adults, the Transworld imprint which publishes Sweet Dreams, Sweet Valley High and Couples is launching a new list in July. Freeway is for older readers and Philippa Dickinson, editorial director, says it is a project very close to her heart. ‘I am keen to publish fiction which can deal with teenage interests and issues with a light touch of humour. Most of our titles have been published before but some will be original – Jean Ure is writing an original trilogy for Freeway – and we have a mix of American and British writers.’
Launch titles all competitively priced at £1.95, include:
The Fat Girl, Marilyn Sachs’ interesting exploration of the relationship between love and power in the, story of how Jeff, the narrator, helps Ellen lose weight (0 522 52406 9); Zak, Frances Thomas’ story of what happens when a rich, mysterious and magnetic boy joins a local comprehensive school (0 552 52362 3); Jean Ure’s sequel to A Proper Little Nooryeff, You Win Some You Lose Some (0 552 52431 X) and Peggy Woodford’s Please Don’t Go (0 552 52457 3). Plus the first of Robert Leeson’s Time Rope quartet (0 552 52344 5) – the rest will follow.