“RED” by Alison Cherry
Felicity St. John has it all—loyal best friends, a hot guy, and artistic talent. And she’s right on track to win the Miss Scarlet pageant. Her perfect life is possible because of just one thing: her long, wavy, coppery red hair.
Having red hair is all that matters in Scarletville. Redheads hold all the power—and everybody knows it. That’s why Felicity is scared down to her roots when she receives an anonymous note:
I know your secret.
Because Felicity is a big fake. Her hair color comes straight out of a bottle. And if anyone discovered the truth, she’d be a social outcast faster than she could say “strawberry blond.” Her mother would disown her, her friends would shun her, and her boyfriend would dump her. And forget about winning that pageant crown and the prize money that comes with it—money that would allow her to fulfill her dream of going to art school.
Felicity isn’t about to let someone blackmail her life away. But just how far is she willing to go to protect her red cred?
We’re thrilled to be a stop on the official blog tour for author Alison Cherry’s debut young adult book, “RED,” a fun and fabulous story about a popular senior in Scarletville, a safe haven for redheads where the redder the hair, the higher your social status (only of course, she’s really a strawberry blond with an awesome dye job). It’s funny and deep at the same time. There are lessons you can take way beyond the obvious self discovery story (you can see below how Diana and I overthink things). If you need any more encouragement to read “RED,” here’s a blurb from one of our favorite authors: “Clever, wickedly funny and with so much heart.” —Melina Marchetta, author of the Printz-award winning “Jellicoe Road.” Here’s our interview with Alison.
TLR: Is Cherry really your last name? It’s too good to be true!
Alison Cherry: Unbelievable as it may seem, it is my real last name! I can’t tell you how many times someone has said to me, “Hey, did you know your last name matches your hair?” Everyone seems to think they’re the very first person to notice…
TLR: What inspired you to write this story?
AC: The idea first came to me when I read an article about how redheads would likely be bred out of existence in the next hundred years. Fortunately, the article turned out to be a hoax, but it got me thinking about what would happen if redheads really were an endangered species. Would people create redhead sanctuaries and try to save us the same way they try to save pandas and tigers? And what would one of those sanctuaries look like from the inside?
TLR: Do you feel that you’ve been treated differently because you’re a redhead? Do you perceive a difference in how redheaded girls and women are treated versus ginger men? From our perspective, redheaded women are considered glamorous, whereas we can’t think of songs or poems dedicated to redheaded men.
AC: I’ve never been teased about my hair color, but I definitely experience the world a little differently from my non-redheaded friends. The biggest difference is that people recognize me from the internet all the time and tend to remember me for ages even if we only meet briefly. In a way, this is wonderful—I’m pretty shy in person, so I really appreciate it when other people approach me first. But being so recognizable also has its drawbacks—if I run into people I don’t want to talk to, it’s absolutely impossible to hide from them. (I once wore a ridiculous fedora to an event because I was afraid I’d run into my ex.) I’ve also had more awkward conversations than I can count with people from my past who know exactly who I am, but whom I can’t place at all.
Yes, I think there’s a huge difference in how redheaded women and redheaded men are treated. Tons of men have told me they have a “thing for redheaded girls”—which is infuriating, by the way—but I’ve only ever met a couple of women who find redheaded guys attractive. On women, red hair is seen as a sign of strength and sexiness; on men, it’s often perceived as ridiculous. There’s actually a wonderful documentary about this by Scott P. Harris called Being Ginger, which follows his quest to find love as a redhead in the UK. He tells an anecdote about a hairless chemo patient who spotted him in the park and muttered to his friends, “Well, at least I’m not ginger.”
TLR: Since you’re a natural redhead, we have to ask whether you have “red-dar” and can tell if women are “real” redheads.
AC: Oh, definitely. I’m excellent at spotting fake redheads! My sister’s also a natural redhead, and she’s great at it, too.
TLR: What do you hope readers will take away from the story? We loved the social commentary about a group of oppressed people creating a safe haven in which they end up treating others likes second-class citizens.
RED can definitely be taken as an allegory for prejudice and oppression. But to me, it’s just as much about learning to let people see who you really are, no matter how scary that is. I think nearly every teenager has a secret like Felicity’s, something that makes her think, “If my friends knew this about me, they wouldn’t like me anymore.” Maybe she’s gay. Maybe she’s having problems at home. Maybe she’s struggling with anxiety or depression. Maybe she’s a cheerleader who secretly wants to be a Mathlete. I hope all sorts of girls will be able to see themselves in this story, and I hope they’ll draw comfort and inspiration from the courage Felicity finds in herself.
TLR: The story reminded us of a documentary about the Iowa schoolteacher who divided her class into brown-eyed and blue-eyed students as a lesson in racial discrimination after MLK’s assassination. Do you hope your book will be used to launch discussions about discrimination?
AC: Absolutely! I love stories that can be read on lots of levels, and I hope people find this book meaningful and provocative as well as fun.
TLR: Diana lives in a small town in Central Florida where the annual Strawberry Queen pageant is a huge social event. Did you base the Miss Scarlet pageant on a particular small town’s pageant scene?
AC: No, I didn’t have a particular town in mind! I’ve actually never lived anywhere smaller than Boston, so I’ve never had any access to the small-town pageant scene. To research this book, I attended the Miss Brooklyn Outstanding Teen Pageant and took tons of notes. But Brooklyn doesn’t exactly count as small-town America, so I also did a bunch of reading about other pageants to fill in the gaps. The Rhinestone Sisterhood: A Journey Through Small-Town America, One Tiara At A Time by David Valdes Greenwood was particularly helpful.
TLR: How familiar are you with pageant moms? You really nailed the single-mindedness with which some pageant moms, particularly those who went through pageants themselves, approach the pageants.
AC: I’m relieved to say that I have no experience at all with pageant moms! But strangely enough, Felicity’s mom was one of the easiest characters in the book to write. Ginger is an abysmal parent, but I don’t think she’s a bad person. She truly wants what’s best for Felicity; she just can’t wrap her head around the fact that her daughter has different wants and needs than she herself had at seventeen.
TLR: We’ve read a lot of books about young women who have to juggle their dreams and desires with their parents’ expectations. How would you encourage teens to communicate more openly with their parents if they feel their parents don’t get or understand them?
AC: I was very lucky to grow up with parents who encouraged me to pursue whatever I wanted, but I definitely know people who didn’t have that advantage and ended up getting degrees in subjects that didn’t interest them. I think the earlier you can start sharing your passions with your family, the better. Your parents may have to get used to the idea of you being an underwater basket-weaver instead of a surgeon, but they’re more likely to support you if it’s something you’ve consistently loved, not something you’ve sprung on them at your college graduation.
TLR: What authors or books inspired you as a teen and also as a writer? What are you working on next?
AC: My favorite book when I was a teenager was “Fugitive Pieces” by Anne Michaels, a super-poetic literary novel about a boy who’s taken in by an aging Greek naturalist when the rest of his family is killed in World War II. (I was a Very Serious Reader back then.) I was also obsessed with Margaret Atwood, whose characters crept inside my brain and stuck with me as if they were old friends. I didn’t really discover young adult fiction until 2005—my roommate worked in publishing and kept bringing home YA books for me to read, and I fell in love hard. Some of my favorite YA writers are Stephanie Perkins, Rainbow Rowell, E. Lockhart, and Melina Marchetta. I can (and do) read their books over and over.
My next book, FOR REAL, is another contemporary YA that comes out in the fall of next year. It’s about two sisters who go on reality TV in order to take revenge on a cheating ex-boyfriend. Right now I’m working on a funny contemporary middle grade, but I can’t tell you anything else about it yet!