Welcome again to Bec, who answered some questions about the Stella Prize Schools Program the other day and who now has kindly written us a guest post about it. An award and program well worth supporting! Take it away, Bec.
Young adults need to read books about women and girls written by women and girls.
I can’t tell you the number of female author friends I have who have told me stories about changes they’ve had to make to their books to give them wider appeal. The suggestions range from using their initials instead of their first names on the cover (because a woman’s name won’t sell ‘boyish’ books) to changing the cover illustration to something more or less masculine depending on the perceived audience. I’ve also heard of boy characters being included to make sure boys stay engaged, or a love interest is added or emphasised because that’s what girls want. But what if they don’t? What if these prescriptive gender assumptions are in fact doing both boys and girls a great disservice by slamming shut the very important doorways into the lives of others that books offer?
The problem is not that women aren’t writing. It’s just that they’re not getting noticed. Or maybe it’s that they’re not getting noticed by enough people. Or maybe it’s that they’re not getting noticed in a way that affords them the same relevance as books written by male (generally white, often long dead) authors. There’s a whole other argument here about YA in general not getting taken seriously, but what if that’s just a further consequence of the gender bias found in the adult world of literature? If, as adults, we find that women’s stories are considered less relevant, less intelligent, less universal – and underrepresented in literary prizes and on the books pages – then it follows that that attitude is amplified in a category of writing dominated by women.
We need more books by Australian women on school booklists. We need more books by Australian women on school booklists because only by giving them more space can we truly begin to show what it is to be a girl growing up in Australia today. We need books by women living on farms, in cities, living corporate lifestyles, bohemian lifestyles or farming free-range cattle. We need books that show women with disabilities, Indigenous women, refugee women, women exploring their sexuality, women whose cultural background makes their experience different from other women. Why do we need them? Because young women from all kinds of backgrounds need to see themselves represented in literature, and they need to feel that their voices will be heard in the discussions about our future. We need them because it’s as important for young men to read stories about young women as it is for young women to read them about young men. Books are a conversation that sets the tone for our future, so let’s make sure everyone gets heard.
The Stella Prize Schools Program was established in 2014, and I’m lucky enough to have been on board from early on. I’ve seen schools begin really important conversations about the kinds of texts that they’re putting on booklists, and whose voices are being sidelined. And I’ve spoken to wonderful, inspiring young people who are passionate about change. I’ve had books recommended to me by young women who are deeply affected by something they’ve read. I’ve seen students set up clubs to create an open space where diverse stories can be shared. I’ve also had students tell me they feel ‘betrayed’ when gendered marketing has turned them away from a book. Change is happening, but that doesn’t mean we should stop. As the Stella Prize Schools Program pushes through its second year and on towards its third, I look forward to seeing more Australian women on booklists and in schools running talks and workshops. I look forward to running Professional Development sessions with more schools to make these changes happen. And I look forward to seeing a generation of girls and boys evolve who are not limited by their gender.