‘Here you go Dad, you’ll enjoy this then. It’s her best book.’
I had been relating to my BTD (Beautiful Talented Daughter) how much I had savoured another recent borrowing, Lili Wilkinson’s ‘Love-shy’ – and then BTD handed me it, placing it in my hands. I recoiled somewhat – I hope she didn’t notice – and muttered some thanks. Once I recovered from my shock I thought – ‘I may possibly enjoy what is inside this, but how do I get over the cover!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I am not sure what percentage of the male population are confirmed readers, but I would guarantee that very few would not have had the same reaction as I did. I reckon every last one of them would avoid this like the plague. The male reader was obviously not the demographic Ms Wilkinson was aiming at – for you see the cover was entirely – PINK!!!!!!!!!!!
I adore reading BTD’s recommended YA excellence, and have perused quite a few overtly designed for the fairer gender – but this was going beyond the pail – a wholly pink cover. How could I be seen out in public with this! And I love reading out in the wider world – in my favourite watering holes, coffee houses etc. I know it’s only a colour, but what would people think!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
What is it with the colour pink and males? To find the answer I took to Wikipedia and found it did have a very interesting history. At one stage, and not so long ago, it was considered to be the tinge for baby boys, rather than that prissy blue which was relegated as the chosen hue for mere new born girls. Pink was considered more robust, manlier. Well that made me feel better – perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad after all!
So, pretending not to notice the offending cover, I eventually retreated to my sunny nook and delved in. What a page turner it turned out to be – I was immediately hooked and remained so throughout, devouring it over the course of a few long, sunshiny sittings. No need to concern myself with public outings at all. As a writer, Ms W sure knows her onions.
Essentially her offering is about Ava wanting to find her sexual identity. Her current squeeze is Chloe, a spiky gay teen, but Ava longs to be ‘normal’, or at least investigate the possibility of being so. To do this she feels it is essential to change schools, from the rambunctious public system to the more academically challenging, but hip, Billy Hughes High – and this is where the history nerd in me kicked in.
Did Ms W, in choosing the name for her fictional place of learning, simply randomly select from a list of our PMs, or was there something more to it than that. For you see our seventh leader, and our longest ever serving parliamentarian, was a pretty interesting guy. To my knowledge there are no real schools with his appellation, and Google seems to verify that – and there is a reason for that. Although beloved by our serving men in the Great War as the ‘Little Digger’, he was nonetheless a pretty divisive gentleman and the ultimate Labor ‘rat’. He kept changing political ‘hues’, seemingly trying to find the most comfortable fit for the winds of politics at the time. Imagine, if you like Julia, swapping to the Greens, and then joining Tony Abbott on the opposition benches because the polls were against her – that’s a bit like our Billy. And this is basically what Ava was doing – changing sides. Did she like girls, boys or both? Possibly, then, this fine author didn’t choose her PM without some thought of correlation.
Ava enters BH High with an overstated notion of her own abilities, but is quickly cut down to size. She soon meets with Josie – at this institution of instruction, being so utterly cool, students are required to address their teachers by their first names. Josie is her ‘integration architect’, babbling ‘eduspeak’, which Ava struggles to make head or tail of, in the first of many LOL moments in the novel. But she does gather she gets to write her own report! At first our heroine links up with the ‘Pastels’, a wonderful name for the ‘in-crowd’ – and who are definitely ‘straight’. But after a disastrous audition for the school musical, she finds some commonality with the motley SCREWS, responsible for props and lighting, a more ambiguous lot sexually. But this is nothing like the execrable ‘Glee’; this saga has substance. For a while Ava attempts to straddle both student worlds, but it all comes undone big time. She tries to do ‘the business’ with a student god – of the male persuasion - and screws around with the love lives of the SCREWS, both to her cost. It is no spoiler to say she does, after a fashion, find her place, and the final chapter is a wondrously pinkified delight.
This is a charmingly witty, and in places, genuinely moving book. Ava’s parents are a joy, and Ms W has the clique-athon, that school life in the digital age is, down pat. There is the rapacious bitchiness of a certain type of mid-teens female – and, speaking from more than forty years experience in the game, a fright to behaviorally manage when compared to the usually thick, clueless male bully. But all this author’s teensters are good kids at their core, with even the most outwardly sophisticated and worldly-wise having secrets, often of the humiliating variety, insecurities and need for comfort. The SCREWS, though, complete with their puerile repartee, but being the ultimate in humanity, come out the winners in terms of attractiveness.
As for sexual identity, this was bought home to this now retired teacher when, in his final year, he found two Year 8 girls in deep vice-like entanglement of passion behind some shelves in the school library. In discussing the incident with his worldly, vivacious assistant Julie, my expressed opinion was that, at their ages, these girls couldn’t possibly know which side of the sexual ledger they fell. Jules wasn’t so sure. She reckoned it was pretty much in place by the time they entered high school – they knew if they weren’t ‘normal’, to use Ava’s term, by then. After reading ‘Pink’, I am still not sure whether either of us are correct, but the novel was a lovely journey to go on to discover (spoiler alert) Ava isn’t sure either.
Almost the last word in all this should go to the female doyen of guiding lights for women everywhere in modern times who, as quoted in ‘Pink’, exhorted those of that gender to, ‘Be strong, believe in freedom, love yourself, understand your sexuality, have a sense of humour, masturbate, don’t judge people by their religion, colour or sexual habits, love life and your family.’ I won’t quote Ava’s pithy rejoinder to that mush, but why does it, Madonna, only apply for women?
Lili Wilkinson is a gem of a writer. There is lightness to her work, a seamless readability, that many of her more highly gonged colleagues in the YA field lack. This book is just so accessible. I would like to think that all over Oz savvy school library workers would quietly be handing this over to young people discerned to be struggling with their sexuality. I know my Julie would.
And yes, my darling BTD, your dad does think of himself at times as an anachronistic throwback, but he is trying very hard to overcome his fear of pink. This helped.
Ms W's website = http://liliwilkinson.com.au/