Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Blogging: Remembering Author Louise Rennison
The YA author's beloved Georgia Nicolson series could accurately be described as "'Bridget Jones' Diary' for kids," but it was so much more than that.
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Yesterday morning I woke up to two surprises: 1) The author of my favorite books from childhood, Louise Rennison, had died at the age of 63, and 2) I actually felt some emotion about this. Aw, I thought, The author of my favorite books from childhood is dead!
I have rolled my eyes at many other Twitter users who have expressed as much upon learning their own formative cultural figures had died, so I didn't tweet about it, but I did have an experience. It wasn't sad, exactly; as I have silently pointed out to many people online, I didn't even know her. Besides, I grew out of the Confessions of Georgia Nicolson books fast enough that I didn't read the last few of the ten-novel series, as I would imagine is true for many fans of my generation: The first one, Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging, was published in 1999, and the last, Are These the Basoomas I See Before Me?, was ten years later (ignoring the three-book spinoff series about Georgia's cousin, comprised entirely of titles with puns on the word "tights"). It was more of a moment for looking back in complicated nostalgia at one of the few good things about my pre-teen years, by which I mean: those books.
I didn't know much about Rennison before I started writing this; in fact, before I don't know if I could have given you her name if you'd asked, at least not off the top of my head. Yet most millennial women, I'd venture, born in or around 1990, will probably gush if you mention her books, which are immediately identifiable if not by the name Georgia Nicolson then by Angus, Thongs, and—. Rennison's UK sales amounted to about 2.6 million physical copies; the author herself once described a school visit she did as being "like a rock concert, all of them in this one assembly room, all asking questions and giving me hugs at the end."
Rennison's novels were based on her own adolescence: At the age of 15, she moved with her family from Leeds in the UK to New Zealand. After getting pregnant and giving her daughter up for adoption, she moved back to the UK, where she study performing arts; was once asked to "be an embryo" in an audition; and eventually wrote a very successful one-woman show called "Stevie Wonder Felt My Face"—a typically straightforward, yet absurdist title for her—about growing up. The show toured the UK for four years, and as a result, Rennison "got lots of radio work and offered lots of things."
Those things included the opportunity to write a book, though to hear her tell it, in a letter to her young readers on the Georgia Nicolson website, the offer was something of a backhanded compliment:
Anyways, I got a call from Picadilly Press and they said, "We loved your article, it was so funny, would you like to write a book?" And I thought, "Ooh, how sophisticated!" And she said, "No, no, no, we'd like you to write a teenage girl's diary." And I said, "Oh, I'm quite flattered, but why me?" And she said, "Well, we read your article and we thought that it was so self-obsessed and so childish that you could really do a good job."
This is the type of self-deprecating, punchline-y humor Rennison brought to the Georgia Nicolson books. Her scrappy, resentfully large-breasted protagonist often pushed plays on words to the absurd: "He who laughs last laughs the laughiest," Georgia says in the fourth book, Dancing in My Nuddy-Pants. And despite wanting to be accepted (mostly by men), Georgia often expressed a disconnect—sometimes manifested in not belonging, other times in pure disdain—with the world around her: "Honestly, what planet do these people live on?" she asked in On the Bright Side, I'm Now the Girlfriend of a Sex God. "And why isn't it farther away?"
I don't remember much from the books, which is probably how it should be; revisiting the beloved cultural artifacts of your youth is famously disappointing. There was a love interest who was a Sex God; a love interest named Masimo (possibly the same love interest?); a trip to a nightclub; a trip to a Boots-like drugstore (might have actually been Boots); a much complained-about family vacation to Scotland (I think they brought the cat? It was an insane cat); and a related car ride during which Georgia was probably trapped in the backseat and her own head, thinking aggressively about snogging one of the sex gods while her annoying family tried to bond. A coworker told me that when she was reading the books as a child, she would describe the series to adults—who, Rennison said, often objected to her chosen themes—as being like "It's like Bridget Jones's Diary, but for kids!" This made her seem smart, she says, because she was an eight-year-old who knew about Bridget Jones's Diary. Indeed, at times the books read like a string of more creative, better-written, women's magazine embarrassing moments, though Georgia Nicolson's antics were often actually embarrassing in a way that CosmoGirl!'s "I did something that isn't actually very embarrassing!" sections rarely were.
Of course, I'm probably conflating the novels with some of my own teenage memories. The associations I have with the Georgia Nicolson books are tangled up with memories of hanging out in the Border's café (in the mall) with my best friend, who always somehow managed to have just gotten a disastrous, very bad haircut; with lying across the backseat of the van—with a book—on a sulky, 12-hour drive to a family vacation destination; with many, many snarky, now-deleted Blogspot posts about boys and various angsts and (I'm sure) wishing I were British.
The feminism of recent years has focused a lot on young girls, on how they are valid individuals with valid concerns that should be treated seriously. Having been a teenage girl, I don't necessarily think that's totally true; the "young adult" demographic tends to lack a certain worldliness, a breadth and depth of experiences from which to draw conclusions. (For example: the knowledge that you don't have to be British to have a dry sense of humor and a nice voice.) Successful writers for young people understand this, just as they understand that pointing it out would be disastrous and very bad. Rennison was a master of balancing what kids know and what they have yet to learn, able to hilariously yet subtly introduce new information (often about sex) in a totally singular voice that was relatable and entertaining even as it instructed.
Yes: Now comes the part where I say these books "taught me" something about how to accept Georgia Nicolson's qualities and experiences in myself, an awkward, almost-friendless writer-teen. They did, of course, though I am loath to admit it: I grew up to play perhaps too much on words; to be EXTREMELY funny; to hate pretty much everyone around me, except for men. Which is, as for Georgia, probably to my detriment.