British Fiction Focus

And the Winner of the Inaugural YA Book Prize Is…

The inaugural YA Book Prize was awarded to Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill: a “startling and refreshing” dystopian debut described as The Handmaid’s Tale meets Mean Girls.

The book had some stiff competition—from The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick, A Song for Ella Grey by David Almond and seven other shortlisted novels.

The award, which welcomed nominations of any and all YA titles written by authors living in either the UK or Ireland and was supported by World Book Day and The Reading Agency, “was launched by The Bookseller at its Children’s Conference in September 2014 after publishers and booksellers bemoaned the lack of recognition for YA in current book awards.” Ironically in light of its intent, the prize ultimately went to a previous award-winner, Louise O’Neill having been named Newcomer of the Year at the 2014 Irish Book Awards.

I’ll be honest: I hadn’t paid a huge amount of attention to Only Ever Yours till today, but the synopsis sounds both potentially progressive and promising:

In a world in which baby girls are no longer born naturally, women are bred in schools, trained in the arts of pleasing men until they are ready for the outside world. At graduation, the most highly rated girls become “companions,” permitted to live with their husbands and breed sons until they are no longer useful.

For the girls left behind, the future—as a concubine or a teacher—is grim. Best friends Freida and Isabel are sure they’ll be chosen as companions—they are among the most highly rated girls in their year.

But as the intensity of final year takes hold, Isabel does the unthinkable and starts to put on weight. And then, into this sealed female environment, the boys arrive, eager to choose a bride.

Freida must fight for her future—even if it means betraying the only friend, the only love, she has ever known…

O’Neill’s novel has been hailed by many since Quercus published it last summer, not least the judges of the inaugural YA Book Prize:

Melissa Cox, head of range and children’s at Waterstones, said Only Ever Yours is a “fantastic and challenging book that pulls no punches.”

Another judge, Rick O’Shea, presenter at Irish broadcaster RTE, said: “Only Ever Yours is, as far as I’m concerned, not just a worthy winner of the prize but one of the best speculative fiction books I’ve read in years. It pushes the boundaries of contemporary YA. I’ll be pressing it into the hands of anyone who might read it.”

Me! Me! Me!

“I have no words to say how thrilled I am to have won the YA Book Prize,” O’Neill tweeted in the hours following last night’s announcement. I’m sure she’ll come up with a choice few sooner or later, but in advance of that, let’s look to the piece she put together for The Guardian back in January:

We hold women up to a higher moral standard, we tell them to be nice, to protect their virginities, to be the gatekeepers. We expect them to be “good girls.”

That’s why I wrote Only Ever Yours. I wrote it because I felt tired. I wrote it because I felt intrinsically ashamed of the parts of myself that made me female. I wrote it because I felt a bit broken. I wrote it because I wanted to start a conversation about how we see and treat women.

Given which, we should all be celebrating the success of O’Neill’s novel.

Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and He’s been known to tweet, twoo.


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