Invisible Girls

I’ve been tossing up whether to blog about this year’s CBCA (Children’s Book Council of Australia) shortlist and notable books or whether to let my annoyance settle. But even though a couple of weeks have passed since the list came out, I don’t feel less annoyed. I feel more so.

Last year I wrote an article entitled Invisible Women that was published in Viewpoint magazine. Amongst other things, the essay pointed out how consistently the CBCA favours male authors and male narratives in the Older Readers category of their awards.

Most years, the CBCA shortlist four male authors and two female authors, despite the fact that there are more women authors nominated for the award. This year, the CBCA are in typical form – the 2009 shortlist features four male authors and two female. More worrying, the majority of the shortlisted and notable books in the Older Reader’s section feature male protagonists. Only one of the six shortlisted books features a female protagonist – Jackie French’s A Rose for the Anzac Boys (I could point out this is a book about girls who go to help the boys at the front – because we all know the best stories about girls are always connected to male narratives, but I’ll resist – well, sort of).

I don’t want to detract anything from the work of the very talented authors that made it onto the shortlist. I’m sure they deserve to be there. But it’s worrying the way, as a culture, we belittle stories that focus on the female experience – particularly the young female experience. Books that are about what it means to be a girl are too often dismissed as not being about the real world. What is it about teenage girls, characters coming into the full power of their sexuality, that makes judges shy away from their narratives?

The CBCA judges are faced with a very difficult and unenviable task. It’s thankless and exhausting and CBCA judges don’t even get paid. I know how demoralising judging can be because I helped judge last year’s Victorian Premier’s Awards for YA fiction. So I didn’t want to comment on the shortlist – until I read the books on the ‘notable’ list. If you get a mention on the notables list, it means the judges agonised about your book. It means they -want to acknowledge it but can’t squash anymore than six books onto their shortlist.

So let’s look at the Older Reader’s longlist. Of the ten books on this year’s notables (excluding the six shortlisted titles) five were by men and five were by women. Looks better? Not really. Ten of the titles feature male protagonists. One is a collection of short stories. Only five titles feature female protagonists – out of sixteen books.

The CBCA Younger Readers notable list features 23 titles. The gender balance for the younger readers is much more representative of both the author and reader demographics. It’s a mystery as to why the judges didn’t include more titles in the Older Readers list, especially when there were so many strong contenders of powerful female narratives that were published last year.

Here’s my very incomplete long list of notable Australian authors that produced powerful narratives featuring female protagonists. All these books would have been nominated for the CBCA awards by their publishers. None of these are on the CBCA notable list but many of them are catching the eye of judges of the various state’s Premier’s Literary Awards:

Somebody’s Crying – Maureen McCarthy
Everything Beautiful – Simmone Howell
Sprite Downberry – Nette Hilton – shortlisted for the 2009 NSW Premier’s Award – Ethel Turner Award for YA fiction
My Candlelight Novel – Joanne Horniman – shortlisted for the Ethel Turner Award
A Brief History of Montmaray – Michelle Cooper – shortlisted for the Ethel Turner Award and the 2008 Inky Award
The Push – Julia Lawrinson – shortlisted for the 2008 QLD Premier’s Award – YA fiction
Indigo Girls – Penni Russon – shortlisted for the 2008 Inky Award
Mahtab’s Story – Libby Gleeson

No doubt there are many other fabulous books by female authors that didn’t get a guernsey. The above are just a few titles I’m familiar with. And no doubt some great books by male authors didn’t make it onto the notables list too. But what I want to know, is where are the girls? The wonderful, passionate, complex teenage female characters that so many Australian authors are writing about and why aren’t they being recognised? Do we need a Barbara Jefferis Award for YA fiction? Why are our girls invisible?

Kirsty is an Australian author of books for children and young adults.

“Books are windows into other ways of being.”

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