Maureen Johnson: Bridging the gender gap

Published on: 07 November 2013

Maureen JohnsonKatherine caught up with reigning Queen of Teen Maureen Johnson about her novel Suite Scarlett, her love of funny writing, and why there's no such thing as 'books for girls'.

'Since getting here last Wednesday, I've been to Newcastle, Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham and Cheltenham,' Maureen Johnson tells me. The US author has had a jam-packed schedule for her UK tour, and no wonder: as the reigning UK Queen of Teen, her 'royal subjects' have been queuing up to meet her at venues all over the country.

After days of events, she's only just got her voice back ('it was just a warbly little squeak') in time to talk about gender in young adult fiction alongside author James Dawson at Waterstone's Piccadilly in London. First though, she's squeezed in some time in the store's Fifth View Bar to tell me more about her novel Suite Scarlett - first published in the US in 2008, but which has just been published in the UK for the first time.

Suite Scarlett is the delightful story of 15-year-old Scarlett Martin, growing up in a once-famous but now down-at-heel art deco hotel in the heart of New York City with her unconventional family, who finds herself embroiled in some unusual summer adventures. Johnson wanted the book 'to feel like musical comedy', and deliberately set out to write 'a funny story with its little scrapes, its romance, but nothing that would destroy you.'

'Funny books are so important,' she elaborates. 'A perfect comedy is one of the highest forms of art –this is far from a perfect comedy, but that was what I had in mind. People said "funny doesn't sell, don't do it, no one likes funny books" but I did it anyway.' The book takes its inspiration from funny writers that Johnson loves such as Patrick Dennis and P G Woodhouse. 'Patrick Dennis was a true genius – he had such a sharp, observational style – there's a beauty to it,' she explains, citing Dennis's The Joyous Season as an especial point of inspiration for Suite Scarlett: 'It's an amazing story of these two kids whose parents get divorced over Christmas. The kids are hilarious: it's very heart-warming but there's nothing saccharine about it – it's just very beautiful.' Another source of inspiration was one of her own favourite childhood books, All-of-a-Kind Family, which fascinated her when she was growing up, 'a series about a huge Jewish family in the Lower East Side at the turn of the century. It was super-fun – all about having a big family and running around New York.'

New York plays a hugely important part in Suite Scarlett, which is firmly set amongst its bohemian artistic communities. Johnson explains: 'When I was a kid growing up outside Philadelphia, I always wondered what it would be like to grow up in New York. Then I moved there as a graduate theatre student. I had no money and I hung out with crazy people. I based some of the book on real things I saw. I knew what it was like to have no money, to be scrabbling, and yet to be doing interesting things.' The book was also an antidote to what Johnson describes as 'New York rich people books' that show 'how you live in New York when you go around in a limo, whereas I wanted to write about how you go around New York on your broken-ass bicycle.'

Fans of Suite Scarlett will be happy to know that there is already a sequel to this first story, Scarlett Fever, which takes place just a little while after the action of the first book – and Johnson is also currently working on a third installment of Scarlett's adventures. 'I always thought of Scarlett and her family as series characters,' she explains. 'Because they're musical theatre characters, they very much exist to have funny things happen to them.'

But the Scarlett series is very much the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Johnson's writing. Her talent is not only for humour: since she published her first book in 2004 (The Key to the Golden Firebird, also published in the UK for the first time earlier this year), she has written a huge variety of fiction for teenagers – from dark fantasy in the gripping Shades of London series, to Let it Snow, a festive collaboration with John Green and Lauren Myracle.

Crowned the UK's Queen of Teen in 2012, she is often seen as a writer 'for girls' yet she herself very much resists the idea that her books should be pigeonholed in this way, debunking the idea of 'books for boys' and 'books for girls': 'People will often say that boys need special books because they can't relate to girl characters, but the truth is you can find it within yourself to relate to any story. I can relate to anything – I can relate to a bear who wants his hat back. The idea that only certain material will be of interest is a construct.'

This specific problem is one that Johnson has grappled with throughout her career. She is hugely entertaining on the subject of her own experiences of seeing her books published with covers featuring a succession of 'headless girls': 'I assumed everyone would think I had a major interest in great abs,' she deadpans. 'There's nothing wrong with being girly - but so often I'd hear people say things like "ignore the cover – you'll really like it!" I felt misrepresented.' She is quick to clarify that that publishers' marketing 'comes from a good place – an attempt to sell books' but 'ultimately what it does is to perpetuate certain stereotypes.'

It was these experiences that helped motivate her CoverFlip project, which began earlier this year when she tweeted 'I do wish I had a dime for every email I get that says "Please put a non-girly cover on your book so I can read it. - signed, A Guy". Following on from this, Johnson came up with a challenge for her social media followers, asking them to take the cover of a well-known book, imagine the author of the book was of the opposite gender, and then tasking them to come up with what the book would then look like – generating hundreds of replies in just 24 hours. What the responses so vividly expose is how often books by male authors are presented as 'literary', whilst many of those by women are depicted as being much more 'commercial' as well as being specifically aimed at female readers. Johnson continues to stress that a lot of thought goes into the design of book covers, 'but it's which covers get chosen for which projects that is where the problem comes in.'

For Johnson herself, projects like CoverFlip are really important. 'There's a contingent online who are like, "I see a problem and I'm going to kill everyone in the immediate vicinity!" But that's not the answer. If you don't like a cover, put another one on it. Put a bird on it! Subvert it! Talk to publishers about it – they are nice people who work in publishing because they like books and want people to read.' Online reviewers and book bloggers, says Johnson, have an increasingly important role to play in cutting through the marketing surrounding a book, and talking about the actual content, helping to get books into the hands of the readers who will enjoy them most, whether or not they belong to a perceived 'target audience'. 'It's limiting if we say that only certain books are for certain people' she says.

Ultimately for Johnson, the most important thing is that books should be accessible to everyone. Talking about growing up going to a convent school where 'no one ever just sat down and read' and she had to shape her own reading, she concludes: 'You shouldn't ever be embarrassed about reading anything. There should be no shame attached to anything you want to read.'

Take a look at a video of Maureen Johnson's UK tour:

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