Candice Carty-Williams’ début novel Queenie took the literary world by storm in 2019. Rightly described as a “phenomenon”, the Sunday Times bestseller won Book of the Year and Fiction: Début of the Year at the British Book Awards in 2020. It’s been racking up accolade after accolade ever since. So when children’s publisher Knights Of recently announced it was publishing Carty-Williams’ first foray into YA, even those of us way past our teen years were excited. Billed as south London’s answer to “Freaky Friday”, Empress & Aniya is a YA novella about two teenage girls from very different backgrounds who accidentally cast a body-swap spell on their 16th birthday.
Queenie fans will recognise the humour, warmth and loving exploration of female friendship alongside an ability to deftly tackle difficult topics with care. The story is aimed at teens, but expect it to charm and captivate readers of all ages.
How did the novella come about?
Knights Of approached me around a year ago, just before we went into lockdown, and asked me about writing YA. At first, I was worried. When I wrote Queenie, this thing happened where I was like “maybe this is the only thing I can write”. But I did more writing, including TV scripts, and realised I could write other things.
I love what Knights Of does. It knows exactly how to serve and talk to the communities it’s reaching out to. Its shop is always so open, so inviting, and it’s a safe, comfortable space.
What appealed to you about writing for younger readers?
Having been a teenager, it’s fucking hard. I was scrabbling for anything to read that represented me. I was always reading way above my year because I felt like I exhausted all the options. Parents at Queenie events would ask me if the book was suitable for their 14-year-old daughters, and I was like “absolutely not. Don’t give it to her until she’s 25”. I wanted the chance to be able to talk to teenagers because I know what it was like to be one. I would have liked a book that talked to me.
The story does a wonderful job of blending moments of joy and hilarity alongside the very real hardship faced by kids like Empress. This is sharply contrasted with Aniya’s dizzying privilege. Can you speak more about your decision to set the story in a private school?
I was accepted to a private school on scholarship at the age of 11. But when I looked around, I knew I couldn’t go there. I felt so alienated. So I went to a school that would have been a private school but it was funded by haberdashers.
I remember even then feeling massively out of place. Setting the story in a private school was also a device to slot someone from one end of the financial spectrum with another. Empress comes from a state school, she’s so intelligent and is dropped into this private school on a scholarship because people have finally recognised it (which isn’t to say that the kids back at her state school are not intelligent).
There’s something very strange about scholarships. They pay for education but they don’t take into account things like lunch money and uniform. Empress can go there and do the lessons, but what about everything else that surrounds it? What about what people say to her when they realise her blazer is second-hand? What then? There are so many things within these institutions that no one really thinks about enough. By that, I mean the people who are running these institutions and giving out the scholarships. So I thought the stark contrast between these two girls was really important to explore.
Despite their differences in background and personality, Empress and Aniya quickly become firm friends. What does each girl have to learn from the other?
Empress has to learn that not everyone is out to get her, which is something she’s understood from a young age because of the relationship with her mum. As her primary caregiver, her mum was the person who was meant to look after her, but she didn’t. So in Empress’ head, why would anyone ever look after her? Why would anyone ever be kind?
Aniya has to learn that she’s very lucky. She’s 15 going on 16, and she’s around a group of people who will sit and casually talk about all the amazing places they are travelling to on their summer holidays. And that’s what she understands to be normal. When you are a teenager, your understanding of the world hasn’t broadened yet because you haven’t had the experience.
When it comes to Empress and Aniya, I wanted to high- light that neither life is necessarily better. Often people think that if you’re poor your life is really bad. Empress knows people on her estate and feels safe there. But the problem is that her mum isn’t well and isn’t taking good care of her.
There’s no romantic interest in this book, and I loved that the core love story was between these two friends. It struck me that I’ve read so few portrayals like that, warm and imbued with love, particularly with Black British teen characters. What other types of stories and characters would you like to see in this space?
I would love more stories about teenagers who are first-generation immigrants and translating English for their families. I think there are so many stories like that we don’t see, but all of those people exist. There are teenagers who go to school then take their parents to the doctors and translate, for example. I think it’s amazing that those stories haven’t been told yet.
What do you hope young readers, particularly Black girls, will take away from this story?
I want them to enjoy it, first and foremost, because it’s a story that centres young Black girls just living their life. Some stressful things do happen in the story, but there are also funny moments. I want them to laugh and to see themselves. I want them to think about what it’s like to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. I think we could all do with doing that a bit more.
Empress & Aniya by Candice Carty-Williams will be published by Knights Of on 7th October 2021, priced £7.99 in paperback