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Shannon Hale's blog, author of "Princess
Academy" (Newbery honor last year), and "Goose Girl".
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When writing any book, I always cut more than I keep. I just have to go through a lot of sentences, try out a lot of ideas, before discovering what works just right. Sometimes what I cut I really like but doesn't work for the best of the story. In this case, Dean and I adored the Epilogue to The Princess in Black and the Perfect Princess Party. It made us laugh. But we cut it for two reasons.
1. Originally we didn't have a chapter about Frimplepants in book 2, but we decided to add one in order to introduce him again. New readers might not yet be familiar with him. And besides, I just never tire of saying the name Frimplepants. Adding the new chapter 2 also added several pages. We want to be mindful of page count. The more pages, the longer the book for young readers and their parents, the more illustrations LeUyen must complete, and the more expensive for the publisher to print it. This book was already longer than the first, so we had to watch that page count!
2. It was nice to end the story in the celebratory moment with Princess Magnolia and all the princesses enjoying the party. Cutting away to Monster Land after that was funny but also anti-climactic.
But at the least, I'll post it here. It might be fun to read it with a young PIB reader and help them understand a little bit about the process of writing and editing a book. This epilogue would also be a good one to discuss in terms of reading comprehension and inference.
The pink monster could not get out of that goat pasture fast enough. It was good to be back in Monster Land. No shiny sunlight. No unpleasantly fresh air. No yelling princesses.
The pink monster put its clawed hands in its pockets. It went for a stroll.
A slimy monster was heading toward the hole. It had its nose in the air. It was taking in the smell of goats.
The pink monster put out a clawed hand to stop it.
“ROOAARR!” it said.
That meant, “No goat hunting today, my slimy friend. Things are awkward up there. It’s the Princess in Black’s birthday, you see. I wouldn’t dare go up without a gift.”
The slimy monster said, “ROOAAARRR.”
That meant, “Thank you for the warning. You have been most helpful.”
The slimy monster turned away from the hole. It went home.
It wrapped a gift.
Hopefully the Princess in Black liked toenail clippings.
DON'T ASSUME MY GENDER
My fourteen-year-old, green-haired, artist of a daughter is dressing as a gender-bending Spock for Halloween. There are no Spock dresses; she is sewing it herself. This is a surprise to no one. Sometimes my kid dresses like a “boy.” Sometimes she dresses at a “girl.” She sees gender as a spectrum and sexuality as fluid, and isn’t afraid to tell you either of those things.
These ideas did not come from me, though I embrace them. My daughter is part of what I think of as the Tumblr generation, a universe of middle schoolers who are growing up in constant communication with each other, and who define themselves in terms of specific fandoms and individual self-expressions, particular memes and re-imagined cosplay themes.
In my daughter’s world, gender rules are different. In one of her favorite popular fandoms, Steven Universe has three de-facto “moms,” and Gems like Steven can combine and re-combine into powerful partnerships regardless of their gender.
Even my daughter’s language is different. She wants to “marry” both Foggy and Matt Murdock from Daredevil, and isn’t afraid to tell you that, in the same way she isn’t afraid to try out “boy” eyebrows in brown eyeliner on her face. On the first day of school this year—at an admittedly arty, liberal private school in an urban environment—she wrote DON’T ASSUME MY GENDER on her arm in Sharpie. Nobody bullied her; in fact, one of the senior girls told her she thought she was cool.
She is cool, but so is the kid that could say that. Why can’t we all be that cool? Our world changes every day. Why can’t we let it? Why can’t we admit it? All we have left to do, as parents and teachers and educators and grown-ups, is to follow our children’s lead.
Why should a bookshelf be more rigid than reality?
Sometimes I want to borrow my daughter’s Sharpie and write DON’T ASSUME MY GENDER on every book in the Middle Grade or Young Adult shelves. Books shouldn’t be less gender-fluid than the kids who read them. Growing up, even I identified with Holden Caulfield, Ponyboy, and both Murray siblings, Charles Wallace and Meg. When Pam Ling and Tessa Roper and I held our Dark is Rising fan club under the steps of the classroom bungalow in third grade, we all wanted to be the Seventh Son of a Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, what Susan Cooper considered the most powerful of her magical race of ancient Old Ones. It never even occurred to me that there would be a gender issue there, because we were Will Stanton, all of us. We knew what it was like to be him, because we had been him, for as long as we’d read the books.
My latest book, BLACK WIDOW: FOREVER RED, out this week, has three main characters and three POV’s. Two are female and one is male. Is it 2/3 a girl book? Or 1/3 a boy book? How do we define either one of those labels? All three characters are equally heroic. All three kick major butt. All three write their own destiny, star in their own story arc, rescue themselves and each other on any given page.
At YALLFEST and YALLWEST, two book festivals I work with, Veronica Roth invented a panel called “STRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS UGH!” In other words, it’s the WHY DO WE STILL NEED TO HAVE THIS PANEL PANEL. In the same way, when Shannon asked me to contribute to this week of posting, I thought -- books are for everyone. Of course they are. Why do we still need to write a post about that?
DON’T ASSUME A BOOK’S GENDER.
Maybe I can’t write that on all the books, so I’ll try to write it into your brain. Because my kid may not be the norm but the truth she is trying to articulate is far bigger than just one Vulcan in a dress.
She’s a person.
People are people.
Books are books.
Readers are readers.
Stories are everyone.
Margaret Stohl is the #1 New York Times Bestselling co-author of the BEAUTIFUL CREATURES Novels and DANGEROUS CREATURES novels, as well as the author of BLACK WIDOW: FOREVER RED (Marvel YA), and the ICONS Novels. Prior to becoming an author, Margaret worked in the video game industry as a writer and lead designer for sixteen years. She is also the co-founder of YALLFEST (Charleston, SC) and YALLWEST (Santa Monica, CA), two of the biggest kid/teen book festivals in the country. An alumnus of Amherst College, Stanford University, and Yale University, Margaret lives in Santa Monica with her family, two rescue cats, and two bad beagles.
There’s a feeling I get in the pit of my stomach whenever I see a message from my editor in my inbox with a subject line that says, Cover. I take deep breaths before I click the email open because I know that in many cases, the cover sells the book. The cover is a marketing tool. One image is supposed to convey the essence of the entire novel, while also being aesthetically pleasing, while also whispering to readers, “This book is for you.” And then of course, there are my own feelings. I want to be proud of the cover. That image will be side by side with me on book tours, on posters and flyers for events. I need to like it, want to love it.
I’m sure all authors have some degree of anxiety over the cover. I’m going to assume that female authors who write stories where the main character is a girl might have even more anxiety because we know that books with girls on the cover get put in the “For Girls Only” category. I know many authors have experienced doing author visits to girl-only audiences because the school thought their male students wouldn’t relate to the author, to her book. What this teaches young people is that stories by and about females are less than stories by and about men. It teaches young boys to silence the female voice, to disregard it, to give it less weight than their own.
As an author who is black and female, who writes stories about young black girls, I know that many librarians and teachers will only recommend my book to black girls. And let me say, that I want black teenaged girls to read my work. I hope they see their experiences mirrored in the pages. But I also hope my work opens up the world a bit for readers who are not black, not female. That they learn new perspectives, that they find ways to relate with the characters who maybe seemed so different from them. Most importantly, I want books by and about women, stories by and about people of color, to be made available for all readers. Because our stories matter. Because the young people sitting in our classrooms, coming to our libraries, will soon be adult citizens who will need the life skill of empathy and the ability to understand and analyze themselves, their society, and contribute in a positive way. They will need to understand the importance of valuing many viewpoints.
I am thankful for the educators, librarians, and parents who have shared my work with young people regardless of their ethnicity or gender. These gatekeepers know that themes of loss, change, resilience, love, and redemption are universal. These gatekeepers are committed to pushing against the norm and asking themselves, What if we recommended books to young readers based on the quality of the story, not if the cover has a girl or boy on it? What if we were intentional about making sure young readers have a variety of stories to choose from where protagonists may or not look like them or come from places similar to the place they live? What if the cover of a book that looked “different” or “too girly,” or “too ethnic” was seen not as a deterrent but an invitation to step outside of oneself? What if stories were for everyone?
Renée Watson is the author of This Side of Home (Bloomsbury 2015), which was nominated for the Best Fiction for Young Adults by the American Library Association. Her picture book, Harlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills (Random House 2012), received several honors including an NAACP Image Award nomination in children’s literature. Her novel, What Momma Left Me, (Bloomsbury 2010), debuted as the New Voice for 2010 in middle grade fiction. Renée is on the Council of Writers for the National Writing Project and is a team member of We Need Diverse Books. She currently teaches courses on writing for children at University of New Haven and Pine Manor College.
Shannon’s idea of Stories For All is absolutely fantastic … and absolutely vital.
Fifteen years after founding Guys Read (a web-based literacy initiative for boys at www.guysread.com) in response to the dismal underachievement of boys in reading, I still get questions that let me know we have a long way to go in understanding the role gender might play in reading. And a long way to go in using this understanding to help kids become real readers.
I get questions like:
1. “Why do you have women authors in the Guys Read story collections?”
2. “What should I put in a book if I want to write for boys?”
3. “Why don’t you like girls?”
One of the primary goals of Guys Read is to promote a discussion of gender and reading – how gender might effect reading, how our assumptions about gender might effect reading. Maybe the answers I try to give to these questions can help add to our Stories For All discussion.
1. The Guys Read story collections are original short stories, grouped by genre, by some of the best writers in kids’ books. So OF COURSE they would have women authors.
Boys can, and should read writing by men and women.
Check out this amazing bunch of authors who have contributed to the first six volumes: Kate DiCamillo, Margaret Peterson Haddix, Gennifer Choldenko, Jackie Woodson, Anne Ursu, Shannon Hale, Rebecca Stead, Candace Fleming, Sy Montgomery, Elizabeth Partridge, Thanhha Lai, Lisa Brown, Adele Griffin, Claire Legrand, Rita Williams-Garcia, Kelly Barnhill, and Nikki Lofton.
Who wouldn’t want to read those authors?
And yes, girls can read the Guys Read books too.
2. No one should be writing for boys. Or writing for girls. Please don’t do that.
Our job as authors is to write the best stories we can, and maybe help those stories find their best readers.
If that reader happens to be a boy – great!
If that reader happens to be a girl – great!
3. Efforts to help boys are not efforts to hurt girls.
Literacy is not a zero-sum proposition. Good things we do for boys can make a better reading world for girls.
The more literate any citizen is, the better off we all are.
While working as our first National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, my platform was “Reaching Reluctant Readers”. Visiting schools, speaking at conventions, presenting at libraries, I quickly found that what we had learned about reaching reluctant boy readers applies to every reader. Here are some tips and strategies we can all try. For every reader.
– expand the definition of “reading” to include non-fiction, graphic novels, or genres like sci-fi, even if you personally don't particularly enjoy them
– allow readers a chance for choice. Their choice.
– treat every reader as an individual.
And most importantly
– raise awareness about gender issues and reading.
Suspend quick judgment and blame, and have a discussion.
What I love most about Stories For All is Shannon’s call to hear from the experts – teachers, librarians, booksellers, moms, dads, and the kids themselves. This is not a test with a simple right answer or a wrong answer. It’s a discussion, a process, a chance to make a change for better reading for all.
Jon Scieszka is the award-winning and bestselling author of a boatload of books, including The True Story of the Three Little Pigs!, The Stinky Cheese Man, the Time Warp Trio series, the Trucktown series, and the Frank Einstein series. He was the USA's first National Ambassador for Young People's Literature and is the founder of Guys Read. Jon lives in Brooklyn with his wife. They have two children.
A few years ago, I had sold my first novel, The Clockwork Three, and begun to work, very tentatively, on my second book. I had started writing it after reading a novel by a friend of mine, Rebecca Barnhouse. That book is called The Coming of the Dragon, and retells a part of the great epic Beowulf, and it is wonderful. So because of this book I had Vikings raiding the shores of my thoughts, and invading my dreams, and one night I dreamt of a girl named Solveig. She had a story to tell me. Many stories, in fact. And she quietly, but very firmly, demanded that I listen.
I did listen, and then I sat down to write Icefall. The first 10 pages of the novel remain almost exactly as I wrote them the first time through. Solveig was ready, but I worried that I was not. I worried that I wasn’t a good enough writer to do her justice. I worried about getting it wrong. Solveig was a Viking princess (a word I have been reluctant to use in the past—princess, that is, not Viking—but more on that later), and I am neither a Viking nor a princess.
But with the advice of my agent I wrote Icefall, anyway, and I nervously sent it to my editor fully expecting her to pass on it. But she didn’t, and to this day, it is usually the book of mine that readers speak with the most passion about. But there are some other people without whom I simply could never have written it, and that is not an exaggeration.
The first is Mary Lennox, about whose secret garden my mom read to me and my siblings, a little bit each night. Mary was followed by Sara Crewe, against whose miseries at the hands of Miss Minchin I raged. I next owe a thank you to Anne Shirley, a fellow writer, and a force of nature. Ramona Quimby, who I found hilarious, and who made me laugh out loud at a book. Kit Tyler transported me to another place and time, instilling in me a love of history. I thrilled with Aerin as she took up the Blue Sword and became the hero and queen of her people. I walked with Tenar as she literally and figuratively stepped out of the darkness of the Tombs of Atuan and into the light. All of these stories, I experienced as a young boy, but there are so many more I didn’t read until I was an adult. Charlotte Doyle. Lyra Silvertongue. Miri of the Princess Academy.
Richard Peck has said that we write by the light of every book we’ve ever read, and when I wrote Icefall, I was doing so by the combined, blinding wattage of all these amazing characters and so many others I can’t possibly name. You have probably noticed that the books I’ve just listed all have one thing in common. They feature female protagonists, and have even been labeled “girl books.”
There’s a question I am frequently asked about Icefall, and it never ceases to confound me. It takes several forms, but usually comes back to this: Why did you choose to write the story from the perspective of a girl?
To be honest, I don’t know how the hell to answer that question. It’s got a couple of major problems with it. The first is that it proceeds from a false premise. It presumes a choice when I never made one. It never for a moment occurred to me that Solveig would be anyone but herself. The second, larger problem with that question is that it implies a default male narrative, and that it would be a choice for me to deviate from that. To put it another way, I haven’t had a single person ask me why I wrote The Lost Kingdom from the perspective of a boy. Perhaps this happens because I’m a male writer, but I don’t think that’s the entirety of it. The reason goes back to that word I mentioned earlier.
For a long time, too long, I wouldn’t use that word if I was talking to a boy about Icefall. Instead, I’d talk about Vikings, and Thor, and the violence, and the body count. Even then, I kinda judged myself for it, but that didn’t stop me. I had on some level bought into the false dichotomy of boy books and girl books, almost without realizing it.
We each carry around a suitcase full of assumptions and biases that go unpacked, unchecked, and unchallenged. Things we take for granted as self-evident. (“Boys don’t like books about princesses.” or worse, “Boys shouldn’t like books about princesses.”) When we humans are faced with something that confronts our biases, we typically react in one of two ways. We sound the alarm, raise the defenses, and prepare for war. Or, we do the truly brave thing, open the gates of our minds, and let a strange new idea come in to sit at the dinner table. To get to know it better. We examine it. We interrogate it. Maybe we learn from it. Perhaps we even let it stay.
This recently happened to me when I learned of something that happened to Shannon Hale. Many of you are probably already aware of it, so I won’t go into great detail, but succinctly, she spoke at a school where half the students were not allowed to hear her. The boys simply weren’t allowed to go to her assembly, and this has actually happened to her before. I had never even stopped to consider that this kind of thing could happen. I’ve never once worried that when I go to speak at a school I’ll get up on stage and face an audience of only my gender, because that would likely never happen to me. I’m a male writer, and I’ve enjoyed a privilege of which I wasn’t aware. I’ve taken something for granted that I never earned. But with Shannon, it was assumed that boys would have no interest. That Shannon would have nothing of value to say to them. Because princesses.
I find this appalling. Shannon is brilliant, and those boys missed out on what she might have taught them.
Shannon recently told this story to a group of librarians. One of them, Margaret Millward, is a co-worker of mine, and she came back to work determined to do something about this issue. She began an experiment that took the form of a reading challenge in which she asked her students to read a book that they assumed to be for the opposite gender. She’s writing her own piece for #StoriesForAll, and I encourage you to check it out.
Now, I’m not claiming that boys and girls are the same. There are gender differences. But I think even more importantly, there are individual differences. So how much of this girl book versus boy book comes down to what boys and girls just like, and how much is the result of what their parents and their society have shaped them to like? Margaret’s experiment touched on this question.
Not every kid enjoyed the book he or she had chosen, but when Margaret asked them why, it wasn’t for reasons related to gender, but rather for the sorts of reasons any of us might not like a book. Didn’t like the plot. Didn’t like the setting. Didn’t like the writing. These are individual preferences, and perfectly fine. But the wonderful thing, the inspiring thing, that many of the kids said, in basically these words, was this: “I look at the library differently now,” as if a whole new world had opened up to them. Or more accurately, they had bravely opened up to it.
But here is the hard truth. A few of the boys brought their books back unread. Not because they didn’t like them. But because their fathers and mothers didn’t want them reading a girl book. Biases challenged, walls up, NO PRINCESSES ALLOWED. The boys weren’t the only ones who struggled, either. There were a pair of girls convinced that anything the boys liked was “stupid”. Though it must be said that no parents objected to their girls reading boy books, which speaks to the idea of a default male narrative.
So the experiment was not a universal success. But I believe it did a lot of good. It’s impossible to know just how much, yet. Those kids are still growing, and the books they’re reading now are still becoming a part of who they will eventually become.
We now understand, in a pretty hard-science way, that reading gives us a powerful empathetic experience. As we read, our minds create a mental simulation of what we are reading about, so on a neurological level, what happens in a book is real to us. TV and video games do not do this. Books and reading do this, and how extraordinary that is. I believe empathy is what makes us human. Perhaps not biologically or genetically, but emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. And books are empathy bombs with the gigatons necessary to blow apart our biases and defenses. They show us people, and places, and experiences that are not ours, but which become ours as we read about them. That’s why some frightened people believe they are dangerous. That’s why some people even want them banned, or at the very least, don’t want their boys reading books with the word princess on their covers.
When I talk about Icefall now, I don’t shy away from that word anymore. It is a story about a Viking princess who saves her family and her father’s kingdom. I write what I write, and I am who I am, in part because of the books I read as a young boy, especially those that expanded my view of the world. I was lucky enough to be raised in a home where I could read any book I wanted. Nothing was banned. Instead, we talked. I hope the current conversation going on in our community about gender and diversity in children’s literature will continue. I believe the notion of boy books and girl books sets up a false dichotomy. There are only books, and there are readers for those books, and we do a grave disservice to children if we make assumptions about what they will or won’t like based on their gender, or worse, shame them for their interest and enjoyment. I hope we can all follow Margaret Millford’s example and find ways to address this in our own ways. I hope as we engage with this subject, we will all have the courage to let down our defenses in spite of our fears, to question even our deepest assumptions, and to embrace the possibility of new ideas, so that perhaps one day, people will stop asking me why I wrote a book from the perspective of a girl.
Matthew J. Kirby is the critically acclaimed and award-winning author of the middle grade novels The Clockwork Three, Icefall, The Lost Kingdom, Infinity Ring Book 5: Cave of Wonders, and The Quantum League series. He was named a Publishers Weekly Flying Start; he has won the Edgar Award for Best Juvenile Mystery, the PEN Center USA award for Children’s Literature, and the Judy Lopez Memorial Award; and he has been named to the New York Public Library’s 100 Books for Reading and Sharing and the ALA Best Fiction for Young Adults lists. He is a school psychologist and lives in Utah with his wife and three step-kids.
It was fun to reimagine an iconic adult male character as a teenage girl. The best part is that not much had to change about the character to make it work. The Robin Hood legend and character have been reimagined numerous times over the years–why not reimagine him in this particular way? The archetype is a playful, good-hearted, yet mischievous character, who rights the wrongs of a society by robbing from the rich to give to the poor. Traditionally Robin is represented as a child of privilege turned marginal person who uses his power to help the working class and the poor, all those whose livelihood and survival is threatened by the whims and greed of the ruling class. But these economic struggles are ageless, and the individuals who fight for justice historically come from all corners of society, and inhabit all kinds of identities.
My Robyn Hoodlum is a twelve year old girl whose parents have disappeared, after which she finds herself on the run for her life. She takes cover in the struggling neighborhood of Sherwood, where she gathers a band of misfit teens and fellow outlaws to confront the dictator and bring equality back to her people. I especially love the idea of a girl Robyn Hood because, while boys are often rewarded for being strong, independent, rebellious, and leaders, girls are typically encouraged to fall in line and follow the rules. Flipping the script on those cultural norms and expectations is a great deal of fun!
Kekla Magoon is the author of Shadows of Sherwood, How It Went Down, Camo Girl, 37 Things I Love, Fire in the Streets, and The Rock and the River, for which she received the ALA Coretta Scott King New Talent Award and an NAACP Image Award nomination. Raised in a biracial family in the Midwest, Kekla now teaches writing in New York City, conducts school and library visits nationwide, and serves on the Writers’ Council for the National Writing Project. Kekla holds a B.A. in History from Northwestern University and an M.F.A. in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Miss Young, my kindergarten teacher, chose Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary as our story time book on the first day of school. Ramona Quimby hooked me on reading and on finding adventure in the ordinary. I could not wait to read the book on my own and I felt great delight when I discovered that there was an entire series about the kids on Klickitat Street. Beezus, Henry and Ribsy, Ellen and Otis, and Runaway Ralph became my world.
I was so obsessed that I barely noticed the sideways glances or even the overt teasing from my peers as I checked Ramona Quimby Age 8 for the second or third time. I eventually moved on to…drum roll…Nancy Drew.
Nancy Drew was amazing as she boldly went through out New England solving crime, driving her boyfriend around and hanging out with her quintessentially butch cousin George. As I walked around reading every book in sequential order with my favorite girl detective, the teasing from school mates and the lectures from librarians, teachers, and my friends' parents was so overt that I felt forced to read the Hardy Boys too, since I discovered they were originally written by the same person thus giving a rationalization as to why I would read a book with a girl on the cover.
However, nothing would stop me from getting to book 64, which was the latest book in her series. Seriously, nothing could stop the centrifugal force of me getting from book 60 to book 64, not even my first Deer Hunting trip with my Dad and his friends. Nancy Drew did stop my having to participate in the annual Deer Hunt after I was discovered reading Nancy Drew and the Swami’s Ring instead of being the lookout for the herds of deer walking past me. My gratitude for Nancy and the she shift she created in my life experience has never ebbed.
My reading was happily never curtailed by peers, grown ups or anyone that felt I should be reading something else or something more appropriate for boys. Today I still read across genres and look for strong characters—male, female, transgendered (read Real Man Adventures by T Cooper, a book that speaks of the trans experience from such an intimate, honest and humorous perspective.)
I am glad that I didn’t listen to “what I should be reading” as a boy, and I know I am a better man for having been able to read books that appealed to me, because they are well written with intriguing characters and not because of my gender.
Calvin Crosby has worked in the book industry for the past twenty years, both as a bookseller and as the sales and marketing director for McSweeney's. He is the new Executive Director of NCIBA. He lives in San Fransisco bay area.
Changing the Narrative
The video clip depicts two young men hiding, recently having escaped abduction by a rebel army. They have lost everything, their home, their parents, and their older brother. Their heads in their hands, they cry.
The victims’ suffering fills the classroom. I am careful to give my students time to process what they’ve seen before turning on the light and initiating a discussion.
“What did you see? How are you feeling about what you saw?”
The students move from their internal dialogues and begin publicly sharing their thoughts.
“It’s really sad. I feel bad for those boys,” one student begins.
“Something should be done, no one should have to live like that,” another student adds.
“I feel embarrassed,” one young man shares. An uncertain silence follows his statement.
“What do you mean, ‘embarrassed’,” I inquire.
“Well, they were crying. I mean, they were crying a lot. I think it was weird to see guys cry like that. It’s embarrassing.”
As a seasoned teacher, this is not the first time I have encountered students, male or female, who are uncomfortable with “guys” exhibiting human emotions that are often culturally ascribed to females.
In this case, a fellow young man interjects, “No. This crying is okay, because their parents and brother died. It’s not girly crying.”
Standing in front of this group of students I am struck by how limiting life will be for them if they persist in believing that the full range of human emotions should not be shared and expressed across genders. Even worse, by assigning crying as a “girly” quality, both the emotion and females are denigrated in a single shot.
This conversation reflects what I experience daily in my high school classroom. It demonstrates how fragile young men and women are in their relationship to gender. By the time teens reach my classroom there is often a very narrow and entrenched idea of what it means to be male and what it means to be female. If not addressed, these ideas can lead to a lifelong struggle with one’s identity.
Books are one of the greatest tools available to teachers in the fight against this type of constricted thinking. In my ten years working with teens, I have seen the transformative power of novels. Books provide a safe and distanced space for adolescents to engage with characters, settings, and events that challenge their confining views of maleness and femaleness.
Just this month my students have been discussing how power is negotiated and navigated in novels like Speak, Thirteen Reasons Why, Rapunzel’s Revenge, Goose Girl, The Power of One, American Born Chinese, and Maus (just to name a few). Students are given choice to select books that appeal to them, but during their reading the class pauses and discusses in small groups how the characters, settings, and events in the novels reflect existing gender norms and how they push against them. Further, through critical thinking we develop personal opinions about what that means in our lives.
Here are a few notes I have saved from student book discussions.
A freshmen male student wrote: “I’m stuck. In [Speak] the girl gets raped. But she was drunk. Before I read this book I would have said that if a girl is drinking and gets raped, it’s all her fault. But now I am not sure. I mean, she was stupid for drinking. But Andy shouldn’t have done that, no matter what.”
A junior female student wrote: “I am reading American Born Chinese. Ms. R asked me if being Asian changes the way Danny feels about fitting in with the other guys at school. I never thought about that. I guess it’s like if you are small, people think you aren’t strong or maybe you feel self-conscious for being weak. Maybe some people think this about Chinese people, but I don’t.”
These are just two examples from students who felt safe allowing me to share their work. What they demonstrate is the powerful capacity books possess to get students to think outside of the social bubbles they inhabit. In turn, readers begin to expand their understanding of self as it relates to the world around them.
A book provides a vast landscape of exploration. Copious studies demonstrate how one positive interaction with a perceived “other” can change racist, sexist, and dangerously closed thinking. A single novel provides individuals with hundreds of these types of interactions. Consequently, further research suggests that avid readers have greater empathy and a superior capacity to deal with nuanced thinking. In short, navigating stories in which characters both reflect and defy one’s world develops stronger thinking.
Studying to be a Language Arts teacher, I was required to take instructional reading courses. In more than one of the classes I was given a list of Boy’s Books and a list of Girl’s Books. The intention of the lists was to help teachers get reluctant readers into a book. The thinking: people will like reading about what they know and students will engage better with the familiar.
While there may be some initial truth to this thinking, the unfortunate reality is that in the long run, prescribed gender-reading limits, rather than expands, readers. Students stop reading once they have exhausted all the novels where they see themselves as the character. Worse, all that remarkable cognitive development gets lost.
I am tasked with developing students’ critical thinking skills, analysis skills, and their capacity to evaluate the world around them. This is not possible when students are allowed to persist in dogma that leads them to believe that a crying boy is embarrassing and crying girl is a reflection of her innate weakness. That’s why in my classroom we read across gender, across culture, and across genre. We read to understand the “other”, to build empathy, to appreciate nuance, and to actively participate in the greater world. There is no single book, for a single gender, that can do all that heavy lifting.
Rebecca Richardson teaches Language Arts in the English Department at East High School in Salt Lake City, Utah to both native and non-native English speakers. She has served as ESL Department Chair for four years, has created and runs several after-school college-readiness and community programs. She received a Masters in Education from Westminster College and was named the 2014 University of Utah Outstanding Public School Teacher. None of these details can remotely convey the passion she has for education, the love she has for her students, and the work she puts into helping her students have a voice and recognize their own greatness.
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Another Wonderful Story about My Awesome Dad
By Melissa de la Cruz
I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to write about in the topic “Stories for All” and advocating the end of gender-based book assignments. There are no “girl” books and no “boy” books, but I didn’t know what to say other than that, which seemed obvious.
So I decided to write about my dad. My friends always tell me that my stories about my dad, who passed away almost seven years ago, are my best stories, so I will tell one of those.
When I was growing up, I never thought of myself primarily as someone who was defined first by my gender. I mean, I knew I was a girl, I knew girls and boys were “different”, blah blah blah. But mostly, I grew up thinking of myself as a person first. Like, what did I like to do? What did I like to read? I wasn’t fond of sports and I ate whatever I wanted without feeling guilty or weird about it, I cracked jokes, I was clumsy, I was goofy, I read a lot of books, and my parents bought me any book I wanted to read.
I read Jack London and Hardy Boys and Kipling and Roald Dahl and I read Little Women and Nancy Drew and Anne of Green Gables. I did notice that while I read both Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys, some of my friends who were boys only read Hardy Boys. Even back then, at nine years old, I thought that was a shame.
Okay? So what is the Pop story? I’m getting to it. When my sister and I were both students at our fancy Ivy League colleges, I overhead my dad talking to a bunch of his friends during dinner. They were all Filipino men in their 50s and 60s, with children the same age as me and my sis. “How did you do it?” They asked my dad. “How did you raise such accomplished girls?”
My dad loved being famous for being a Great Dad. It was one of his proudest achievements and he loved giving people advice on how to raise their children. He told his friends, “I didn’t raise ‘girls’. I raised people. Accomplished people. There’s no difference. Why would I raise my girls any different from how I’m raising my son?” (In our family we would say the only difference is that our little brother was the most spoiled. Heh.)
Gender mattered very little to my parents, their opinions on the difference between men and women mostly rested around the iron clad belief that husbands should always take out the trash and fill up the family car. (I never saw my mom fill the tank once when my dad was alive.) They believed in manners and chivalry and equal pay for equal work, and that even if the wife was the breadwinner, it didn’t mean it was emasculating for the husband.
My dad would be insulted when provincial relatives would admire him for investing in our educations, that it was somehow special, and he would bristle at the notion that girls didn’t deserve the same expectations asked of boys, that girls “weren’t worth it” or somehow, subtly, lesser.
The practice of separating books by gender is part of this subtle communication to our girls that their stories don’t matter as much as boys’ stories do, and that boys should have no interest in learning about girls. So um, let’s stop doing that.
My dad knew his kids—his daughters and son weren’t perfect, and our family had our own issues. But looking back, I am amazed at how embarrassingly functional my family was. My parents were happily married and we children were loved and felt safe. We were allowed to be whoever we were, and our genders were the least important thing about us. And we were allowed to read whatever we wanted. No boy books. No girl books. Just books, and lots of them.
Melissa de la Cruz is the #1 New York Times best-selling author of many critically acclaimed and award-winning novels for teens and adults, including The Au Pairs series, the Blue Bloods series, the Witches of East End series, and the Descendants novel, Isle of the Lost. Melissa grew up in Manila and San Francisco and currently lives with her husband and daughter in Los Angeles and Palm Springs.
I’ll admit, I’m quite proud of the paperback design of my book. My publishers did a fantastic job. I believe the color scheme is really fun, the description is intriguing, and my name is in a funky font that I wish I could use all the time.
But my name is Maya.
And my book is pink.
And for these stupid, irrelevant reasons, boys get teased for carrying Popular around at school. They hide it under their desks or have their sisters check it out for them at the library. My own brother read it at night so his classmates wouldn’t see him with it. This seems to be a recurring theme.
When Popular came out in the UK, I traveled to London for a three-day publicity tour. I was asked to be on BBC Channel Four news. At the last minute they brought in a well-known journalist to discuss her take on my book after only skimming the synopsis. Her only complaint was that there should be a self-help book directed toward young boys and not just girls. I was fifteen at the time, and terrified to be on television, so I stammered some response about how I hoped my book had messages for everyone who wanted to read it.
It was only after the cameras stopped rolling that I really thought about what she’d said. And I wished I’d given a different response. I wished I would’ve asked her why.
Why does there have to be an entirely different book devoted to boys when a lot of the advice I gave was convertible if not universal for both genders? Why can’t a boy read a book written by and about a girl when all my childhood I read books written by and about boys? Oliver Twist and The Hobbit weren’t overflowing with female characters, but that didn’t mean I didn’t fall in love with the stories, learn from the male protagonists, enjoy the adventures. Why can’t boys feel confident picking up copies of Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret? by Judy Blume or Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson? If girls can learn things from these books surely boys could too, right? And vice versa! Why is it that there are whole articles devoted to listing “Best Boy Books” and “Best Girl Books” instead of just “Best Books”? Girls can love Lord of the Flies. Boys can be obsessed with Nancy Drew. Why is it such a big deal?
And maybe it’s good that I didn’t say all of this in the television segment, because unfortunately I don’t think there’s an easy answer to any of if, at least nothing that could be resolved in my allotted three minutes. The upsetting thing is that it’s a conundrum with an incredibly simple solution. Let people read what they want to read. That’s it.
But then again, I was blessed with great parents and open-minded librarians who never told me “That book is not for you” and handed me something “more appropriate for a girl.” So I never felt limited in my literary options. I could read stories about princesses or monsters or both! And I loved every second of it. But unfortunately that isn’t the case for every kid.
So for all the girls whose backpacks are full of sports novels and scouting adventures, for all the boys who read Popular and any book with pink on the cover, don’t let anyone convince you that what you want to read wasn’t written for you. Because as an author, I can tell you that we write for whoever pulls that book off the shelf. And young or old, girl or boy, we’ll always be happy you enjoyed it. Promise.
Maya Van Wagenen is seventeen years old. At age 15 she published Popular, her New York Times bestselling memoir of her 8th grade year. Maya was named one of Time Magazines most influential teenagers. She currently lives with her parents and two siblings in rural Georgia.
Suzanna Hermans, co-owner of Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck, NY, shares her thoughts on #StoriesForAll!
Customer: "Hi, I'm looking for a book for a 3rd grade girl."
Bookseller: "Sure! Has she read the Humphrey series by Betty Birney? It's about a classroom hamster who has lots of adventures and gets to go home with a different student every weekend."
Customer: "Um, no. That's a boy book."
Bookseller: "Well, the hamster is a boy, but the kids in the classroom are a mix of boys and girls."
Customer: "No, I want a girl book. How about this book about fairy unicorns?"
This happens ALL THE TIME in our bookstore. Last week, one of our booksellers had a customer turn down a board book about an owl because obviously owls are only in boy books.
As booksellers, we want our customers to go home with the perfect book for their child, but we also feel a responsibility to expand kids' minds and expose them to stories about a broad range of experiences. The books you read as a kid help shape who you will be as an adult. How can you become an empathetic, well-rounded person when you've only read about people just like you?
We make a concerted effort to stock books for all readers across the gender spectrum and strongly believe there is no such thing as a "boy" or "girl" book. Unfortunately, there are times when it's not that simple.
There is definitely more pushback when trying to sell a book with a girl protagonist to a parent of a boy than vice versa. Actually, many boys are happy to read books about girls, but their parents can be hesitant to buy these books for them. I try to find creative ways to handsell "girl books" to the parents of boys. Instead of describing the book as being about a "girl," I will say it's about a "kid." I'm sure my gender neutral word doesn't fool them once they've picked up the book, but it does seem to have some subliminal impact.
Handselling YA books is harder, because so often their covers look intensely feminine or masculine, which can really impact the appeal to certain readers. I do see this getting slightly better as I am buying publishers' 2016 lists - there seems to be a shift toward covers that are more about typeface and bold design choices and less about girls in big ballgowns.
Of course there are books that transcend the gender of their characters to become massively popular among kids of all stripes (thank you, Rick Riordan, Raina Telgemeier, & Marie Lu!) but these are the exceptions, not the rules. Luckily these books act as touchstones for parents, and can be used to persuade them to buy something outside their comfort zone. Oh, your son loves Percy Jackson? Has he read the Pegasus series?
Progress is slowly being made, and in the meantime I'll just keep selling El Deafo to every 11-year-old kid who walks through our doors, regardless of their gender. Just you try and stop me.
Suzanna Hermans is a second generation bookseller and co-owner of Oblong Books & Music in Millerton & Rhinebeck, NY. She was recently completed her term as President of the New England Independent Booksellers Association, and serves on the Advisory Council of American Booksellers for Free Expression. Follow her on Twitter: @oblongirl.
The Cult of Judy
By Varian Johnson
When I was a kid, I was a stereotypical nerd. I loved Star Trek, I was great at math, I had no athletic skills whatsoever, and I broke out into a cold sweat any time I tried to talk to a girl.
I got picked on a lot. Sometimes I was called a nerd or a geek, which wasn’t so bad. Sometimes I was called a sissy or accused of being girly, which I didn’t like at all. Other times, I was called things much, much, much worse.
I did what I could to blend in. I surrounded myself with a handful of close friends. I tried harder at sports (and failed). I laughed at whatever lame jokes the cool kids shared with the class. And I stopped bringing library books to school.
I loved to read. I loved books even more than Star Trek. Some of my favorite novels included The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar, and Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls.
But favorite author, by far, was Judy Blume.
I read every Judy Blume book I could get my hands on. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Deenie. Tiger Eyes. And of course, Forever.
Clearly, as an already ostracized kid, there was no way I was bringing a Judy Blume book to school. And I wasn’t just afraid of what the kids would say. I didn’t want my teachers to know what I was reading. I didn’t want them singling me out in class, telling me to put down my “girl” book for something else. Because if the kids were saying it and the adults were saying it, then maybe there really was something wrong with me…
So I stopped taking books to school.
But when I was at home, I could freely read whatever I wanted. My mother, bless her heart, never batted an eye at any of my book choices. She just wanted me to read good books. And novels by Judy Blume were some of the best.
Sometimes I wonder what type of author I would have become if I hadn’t read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret or Iggie’s House. I wonder what type of person I would have become if ten-year-old me hadn’t read about Margaret’s conversations with God, or Winnie’s interaction with the African-American family that moved into Iggie’s house. These books are not just for girls. These books are for readers, period. These are the books that shaped a generation, and I’m so glad to have experienced them when I needed them most.
I have my own family now. My girls aren’t even old enough for elementary school, but their shelves are filled with books. When they’re ready, I can’t wait for them to discover Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, The Princess in Black, When You Reach Me, One Crazy Summer, and Holes.
(And yes, even Forever.)
Because my girls deserve the right to read what they want to read without judgment or bias. They, like all readers, deserve stories for all.
Varian Johnson is the author of four novels, including award-winning and highly-acclaimed The Great Greene Heist and My Life as a Rhombus. Besides being a writer, he's a civil engineer, and with his wife, a parent to two young girls. Born in South Carolina, he lives outside Austin, Texas.
I am excited to be a guest blogger and share a fantastic experience we had in our library. After hearing Shannon speak at UELMA last spring about a mother gathering autographed books for her daughters and then asking her son if he wanted a “girl book” signed for him, the gears in my brain went to work. As a librarian, how could I change that perspective with my students? And so the Boy/Girl Book challenge was created.
To start my lesson, I talked about reading books and magazines that my kids, who are young adults now, read so I can find out more about what they like and then we can have great conversations about those topics and I get to know them better. I, in turn, share articles and books with them, and they get to know me better. It might be car magazines, outdoor adventures, travel books, cookbooks, or just some great fiction. It’s a great way to understand people better.
Then I told them I wanted to share two great books with them. I gave a short, but very descriptive, summary of “Island of the Blue Dolphin” by Scott O’Dell and “Ghost Hawk” by Susan Cooper, but I kept gender out of the description all together. I also wrapped the books to hide their covers. I chose these books because I felt they had several things in common. They are stories with history, Native American ties, struggle, and survival. They both have a beautiful sense of tragedy and heroism. I did point out that one was written by a woman and one by a man, but didn’t tell them which.
After my descriptions, I started asking questions to see if they had listened and which book sounded interesting to them. I asked what they noticed about the two books that was similar, and what was different. Then I asked, by raise of hands, which one would they read and maybe it would be both.
I then left that point of my lesson, and shared the experience that Shannon had shared with us that I mentioned earlier. Their reactions were wonderful and exactly what I was hoping for. They were dismayed, outraged, and had lots to say on the subject. I let them express their feelings for about a minute and then began the challenge.
I uncovered the books and reminded them about each story, but this time, letting them know which one was about a girl and which was about a boy. I pointed out that the author of Ghost Hawk was a woman and a man had written the other. I asked if they thought that authors wrote books for only boys to read or only for girls, or did they write books for people to read. By now some of the students began to catch on, and there were some groans and rolling of eyes, but we pressed on!
I then challenged the girls to check out what they would consider to be a “boy book” and the boys to check out a “girl book”. More moans and groans! Then I used their words of dismay, outrage, and other thoughts against them! They quickly surrendered because they knew their protests would be lost on me! Then I turned them loose on the library and watched amazing things unfold! Boys were recommending books to girls. Girls were recommending books to boys. In some cases I heard, “Well if I read this book, you have to read one I give you!” but, they were listening to descriptions from each other and taking their advice!! It was GREAT!
I did a follow up “Book Talk” two weeks later, so the kids could share what they were reading and what they had learned. In most cases, they had discovered that they could read anything they wanted to in the library and were learning about different perspectives. It was twenty marvelous minutes of students teaching students! I did give all of the students who participated a book mark to thank them, but I didn’t tell them at the start they would earn a reward for participation. That was a surprise.
Two interesting things I observed through this little experiment. One: this was certainly not mandatory, and a few of my cool boys resisted at first, but when they saw how many others were participating, they slowly began to get involved. They really got interested after they heard students sharing what they had read during Book Talk and asked if it was too late to be part of it.
Second: I had two boys whose parents told them to return their books because they didn’t want them reading girl books. One father was concerned that the pink book about dragons and princesses wasn’t something his son should read. The boys came to me, still wanting to participate, but couldn’t have the books they had checked out. I told them they could check them in or maybe there was something they could come up with to solve the problem. One boy went back home and explained everything again to the parents. His book still had to be turned in. The other kept his book at school and finished it.
I did this experience with my third through sixth graders and it got such great response that a couple of months later, I did something similar, but this time profiling our “ugly books”. They loved this one too!
The first week back in library this year, the first question that was asked in every class was, “Are we going to do the challenges again this year?” I am happy to report that it is now trendy to read “girl books” and “boy books” because the books in our library are for EVERYONE to enjoy!
Thanks for this opportunity, Shannon! I would love to share ideas and get feedback from all you fabulous librarians out there.
Margaret Millward firstname.lastname@example.org
Margaret Millward has been the librarian at West Bountiful Elementary for six years. She is the mother of three fabulous young adults and has two (almost three) adorable grandchildren. and a very patient husband. She is passionate about all things creative and educational and combines the two whenever possible to get kids thinking deeper and outside the box.
EDIT: Shannon Hale here. I adore Margaret’s experiment and I hope many more librarians and teachers feel inspired to try it in their classrooms and libraries. A note on the books cited here (Island of the Blue Dolphins and Ghost Hawk): noted Native scholar Debbie Reese writes in the comments below, “Both misrepresent Native peoples and cultures, and we need not do that, right?“
Her thoughts on Island of the Blue Dolphins:
And on GHOST HAWK:
Other librarians have suggested books like Louise Erdrich’s BIRCHBARK HOUSE and Tim Tingle’s HOW I BECAME A GHOST instead.
A school librarian introduces me before I give an assembly. "Girls, you're in for a real treat. You will love Shannon Hale's books. Boys, I expect you to behave anyway."
I'm being interviewed for a newspaper article/blog post/pod cast, etc. They ask, "I'm sure you've heard about the crisis in boys' reading. Boys just aren't reading as much as girls are. So why don't you write books for boys?"
Or, "Why do you write strong female characters?" (and never asked "Why do you write strong male characters?")
At book signings, a mother or grandmother says, "I would buy your books for my kids but I only have boys."
Or, "My son reads your books too—and he actually likes them!"
Or, a dad says, "No, James, let's get something else for you. Those are girl books."
A book festival committee member tells me, "I pitched your name for the keynote but the rest of the committee said 'what about the boys?' so we chose a male author instead."
A mom has me sign some of my books for each of her daughters. Her 10-year-old son lurks in the back. She has extra books that are unsigned so I ask the boy, “Would you like me to sign one to you?” The mom says, “Yeah, Isaac, do you want her to put your name in a girl book?” and the sisters all giggle. Unsurprisingly, Isaac says no.
These sorts of scenarios haven't happened just once. They have been my norm for the past twelve years. I've heard these and many more like them countless times in every state I've visited.
In our culture, there are widespread assumptions:
1. Boys aren't going to like a book that stars a girl. (And so definitely won't like a book that stars a girl + is written by a woman + is about a PRINCESS, the most girlie of girls).
2. Men's stories are universal; women's stories are only for girls.
But the truth is that none of that is truth. In my position, not only have I witnessed hundreds examples of adults teaching boys to be ashamed of and avoid girls' stories, I've also witnessed that boys can and do love stories about girls just as much as about boys, if we let them. For example, I've heard this same thing over and over again from teachers who taught Princess Academy: "When I told the class we were going to read PRINCESS ACADEMY the girls went 'Yay!' and the boys went 'Boo!' But after we'd read it the boys liked it as much or even more than the girls."
Most four-year-old boys will read THE PRINCESS IN BLACK without a worry in the world. Most fourth grade boys won't touch PRINCESS ACADEMY—at least if others are watching. There are exceptions, of course. I've noticed that boys who are homeschooled are generally immune. My public-school-attending 11-year-old son's favorite author is Lisa McMann. He's currently enjoying Kekla Magoon's female-led SHADOWS OF SHERWOOD as much as he enjoyed the last book he read: Louis Sachar's boy-heavy HOLES. But generally in the early elementary years, boys learn to be ashamed to show interest in anything to do with girls. We've made them ashamed.
I want to be clear; if there's a boy who only ever wants to read about other boys, I think that's fine. But I've learned that most kids are less interested in the gender of the main character and more interested in the kind of book—action, humor, fantasy, mystery, etc. In adults' well-meant and honest desire to help boys find books they'll love, we often only offer them books about boys. We don't give them a chance.
Whenever I speak up about this, I am accused of trolling for boy readers when they aren't my "due." So let me also be clear: I have a wonderful career. I have amazing readers. I am speaking up not because I'm disgruntled or demand that more boys read my books but because my particular career has put me in a position to observe the gender bias that so many of us have inherited from the previous generations and often unknowingly lug around. I've been witnessing and cataloging widespread gender bias and sexism for over a decade. How could I face my kids if I didn't speak up?
And here's what I've witnessed: "great books for boys" lists, books chosen for read alouds, and assigned reading in high schools and colleges, etc. are overwhelmingly about boys and written by men. Peers (and often adults) mock and shame boys who do read books about girls. Even informed adults tend to qualify recommendations that boys hear very clearly. "Even though this stars a girl, boys will like it too!"
This leads to generations of boys denied the opportunity of learning a profound empathy for girls that can come from reading novels. Leads to a culture where boys feel perfectly fine mocking and booing things many girls like and adults don't even correct them because "boys will be boys." Leads to boys and girls believing "girlie" is the gravest insult, that girls are less significant, not worth your time. Leads to girls believing they must work/learn/live "like a man" in order to be successful. Leads to boys growing into men who believe women are there to support their story, expect them to satisfy men's desires and have none of their own.
The more I talk about this topic, the more I'm amazed at how many people haven't really thought about it or considered the widespread effect gendered reading causes. I was overwhelmed by the response to a blog post I wrote earlier this year. To carry on this conversation, I'm working with Bloomsbury Children's Books to create #StoriesForAll. Each day this week we'll feature new essays on this topic from authors, parents, teachers, librarians, booksellers, and readers. On twitter, instagram, and tumblr, join us with the #StoriesForAll hashtag to share experiences, photos, book recommendations. Discuss: How deep is the assumption that there are boy books and girl books? Does it matter? What have you witnessed with regards to gendered reading? What damage does gendered reading cause to both girls and boys? What can each of us do to undo the damage and start making a change?
I yearn for that change. For our girls and for our boys.
Shannon Hale is the New York Times bestselling author of over 20 books, including the Ever After High trilogy and the Newbery Honor winner Princess Academy. She co-wrote The Princess in Black series and Rapunzel's Revenge with her husband, author Dean Hale. They have four children.
In 2004 I started writing a book that would become BOOK OF A THOUSAND DAYS. For some time I'd wanted to reimagine the Grimms Brothers fairy tale "Maid Maleen" but had every intention of creating a fantasy world like others I'd written before: inspired by a kind of old Northern Europe, like the lands of the fairy tales I adapted and that of my ancestors. I was afraid of cultural appropriation, careful not to march into someone else's culture and try to colonize it with my own stories. While I loved reading books that weren't all just white people, I felt that, as a white person, it wasn't my place to tell stories that took advantage of other cultures. I would stick to places and cultures to which I had a direct inheritance.
But when I was working on BOOK OF A THOUSAND DAYS, my parents moved to Mongolia for two years. As I researched the land and the history, the story I'd begun and the Mongolian landscape and history slid together so perfectly, I couldn't bear not to let the story be what it wanted to be. I got over my fear, tried to come from an open place of love and respect, and wrote the story.
The original cover was a photograph of a headless girl (as was all the rage in those years--Female Torsos 4EVAH) so you couldn't see from the jacket that the main character (and all the characters in the book) looked like Mongolians of our world. But the book is filled with illustrations. While this book never hit any best seller list, it did well and received some lovely recognition from awards, state lists, and reviews.
When it went to paperback, my publisher gave it a new jacket. My publisher was great about this. They sought out a Mongolian-American model for the shoot and did a really lovely job, I thought. I've always been more of a fan of paintings than photograph covers, but I was happy with this one.
Given the decent release the hardcover had had, everyone expected the paperback to make a big splash. It did pretty well, but nothing like the expectation. Looking over royalty statements years later, all of my paperbacks have outsold their hardcovers (usually doubled or more) except for this one. The only one with a person of color on the cover.
When I did book signings where the store would have stacks of books on the table before me, I'd notice that the photograph covers with white girls would significantly dip down or disappear, but this beautiful book's stack remained tall. When people shopped by cover, they passed this one over.
When I visited schools, school librarians who told me they had large Asian populations in their student body said they wanted the paperback specifically. They knew representation matters. That those students who were of Asian descent would be happy to see someone who looked somewhat like them on a cover, leading a story of her own.
But with that assumption also came the other side. That schools with large white populations in their student body wouldn't be interested in the book. That stories about someone who looks Asian isn't for everyone (i.e. white people). It's niche.
I was sorry for this. I feel that this book is my best work. I felt really honored that I got to tell Dashti's story. But at that time, I never considered that my experience was considerably different than it would have been if I'd been an Asian author. A Mongolian-inspired fantasy book written by a white woman is still much more likely to be accepted and read by white readers (who make up 75% of the US) than an Asian author writing the same.
This should have been a logical conclusion for me. I certainly had first hand knowledge with how we tend to honor the stories of men over women. That men's stories are universal and women's stories are niche. A man can write an important work of art that involves relationships. The same book by a woman would be condescendingly called "chick lit" and recommended only to other women. This is a reality that I've seen over and over and over again.
But I don't have first hand knowledge about the experiences of a person of color. While I was worried that it wasn't my place to write about another culture and I hesitated to offend or get it wrong in the writing, I didn't think about the after publication part. How as a white woman the path would be largely paved for me. I believe that white readers would have been more likely to purchase this book if instead of a Mongolian-American on the cover there had been a skinny white model in a ballgown. But those same white readers were more likely to purchase a book with a Mongolian-American model on the cover written by a white author than one written by an Asian author.
The same way adults are more likely to give a boy a book about a girl if it was written by a man than if it was written by a woman.
Books can and should be both mirrors and windows. Both are precious experiences. If we're only reading books written by those of our own experience, race, religion, gender, we're missing so much of the world.
I hope we're getting over this often-unconscious biases. But in the meantime, allow me to recommend some wonderful books by Asian-American authors in a by-no-means comprehensive list. And please add your own recommendations. I'm sure I'm forgetting so many of my favorites and there are so many I don't know yet!
For young readers:
Ling and Ting books by Grace Lin
Alvin Ho books by Lenore Look, illustrated by LeUyen Pham
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park
Stanford Wong Flunks Big Time by Lisa Yee
Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata
In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson by Bette Bao Lord
Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities by Mike Jung
Serpentine by Cindy Pon
Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han
Prophecy by Ellen Oh
Does My Head Look Big in This by by Randa Abdel-Fattah
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford (technically for adults but with a dual young/old narrator)
Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
Amulet series by Kazu Kibuishi
This One Summer by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki
I'm finding it difficult to keep up with blogging as well as writing and mothering. I'm pretty active on twitter. And I post semi-regularly on Facebook and tumblr. And I will continue post here as well, but not weekly.
My upcoming events!
Saturday Sept. 26 - Salt Lake Comic Con
Saturday Oct. 10, 10am - Girls Books, Boys Books, and Just Good Books: A Conversation on Gender and Young Adult Literature Featuring Valynne Maetani, Shannon Hale, Matthew Kirby and Ann Cannon. Viridian Event Center, West Jordan, Utah
Tuesday, Oct 13, 7pm - joining Margaret Stohl to launch her new book BLACK WIDOW: FOREVER RED at the Viridian Event Center, West Jordan, UT. This is also the release day for THE PRINCESS IN BLACK AND THE PERFECT PRINCESS PARTY (PIB #2) so I can sign those for you that night.
Thursday, Oct 15 - The launch party for THE PRINCESS IN BLACK AND THE PERFECT PRINCESS PARTY at The King's English, 1500 So. 1500 Ea. Salt Lake City, UT, with Dean Hale
Oct 18-20 - Events in San Francisco for the launch of the 2nd PRINCESS IN BLACK, with Dean Hale and LeUyen Pham
Nov 6-7 - AASL conference and a public bookstore event in Ohio, details TBA
I did about 25 assemblies at schools this past year. Add that to a previous 200-300 assemblies and you could say I've about seen it all. One visit I was picked up at the train station in a limo, treated to a lunch with a class of kids that had read my books and had an amazing discussion with them. One visit (many many visits) I've been thrown at the kids without their having any idea whatsoever who I was or why I was there and consequently not caring much either. [NOTE: You do NOT need to pick up the author in a limo! But the kids do notice if the author event is a big deal to the adult organizers. Any preparation and excitement lets them know this is important and amazing and they care about it more too.]
The visits and the travel have taken a significant toll on my writing and family time so I'm taking as much of a break as possible for the next two years. But I wanted to write down some things I've learned that may be helpful for school administrations, teachers, librarians, and parent organizations who organize author visits. For more info, here's a similar post I did a few years ago.
Tips for a great school visit:
Involve the librarian. If the visit is set up and hosted by the PTA, PTO, etc., it's still vital to involve the librarian. (and if the librarian organizes the event, involve the PTO!) Then the librarian involves the teachers. And all the school preps for this assembly. If the librarian is involved and the kids are prepped, the visit goes 100x better. Honestly, night and day.
If you don't have a librarian:
Seriously. First order of business: campaign for a full-time librarian at your school. Whatever it takes. Some school districts see librarians as book-checker-outers and make it part time or hire fantastic but untrained people to fill in in order to save money. But I've seen it hundreds of times and there's no replacing a professional, trained, MLS librarian in a school library. The librarian does SO MUCH MORE than check out books. They are the center of literacy for the school. This is very important. Do this first. And then prep for an author event.
Prepping ideas for the kids:
- Ideal: all the kids read one of the authors books
- during computer time, have the kids explore the authors' website
- do a read aloud of the first chapter(s) of a book in class
- students make banners, signs advertising the event
- make up games or competitions in anticipation
- challenge kids to read one of the author's books - all who do get to be part of a greeting committee or attend an after-assembly meet-and-greet or luncheon
- have kids write the intro for the author, submit it, and the winner introduces the author at the assembly
- find ways to involve the kids, make it a big deal, get the kids excited, caring, reading in preparation (and there will be 10x as much reading after!)
Why have an author school visit?:
Because sometimes an author speaking to the kids is the hook some kids need to get into reading, to fall in love with it, to discover they are a reader. Sometimes an author speaking to the kids is the hook some kids need to start writing. Reading and writing skills are the foundation of ongoing education and employment. Writing for fun leads to writing skills. Reading for fun leads to reading skills. And future success is heavily weighted on having those skills.
Recently a teacher told me after a writing workshop I did that in her decades of teaching she'd never seen the kids so engaged and excited to write and that the entire class's writing skills shot up in the months that followed.
A while back a couple of educators sent me their take on author visits:
"I had Frank Beddor visit the middle school where I was student teacher. He did 3 assemblies (one for each grade) and he discussed the writing process, his books, what it means to be an author, etc. He then sold his books outside as kids were picked up from school. He also spent lunch with my own students in an intimate gathering. They were riveted!
"The change in our school was palpable. We’ve always been a reading-oriented school, but after the assemblies kids were discussing books in the hallways, the library had LONG hold lists, and kids were sharing recommendations for future reads. Kids wanted to write their own books.
"I’ll repeat that last: KIDS WANTED TO WRITE.
"They talked about those assemblies for the rest of the year. Here’s a local newspaper article: http://www.theacorn.com/news/2010-04-08/Schools/AC_Stelle_teams_up_with_popular_author.html
"I teach completely online now (online high school English), but if I were in a brick-and-mortar I would try to host an author every semester. THAT’S how important I think those visits are. Those events can change lives." Ashley Benning
"I have been teaching for the past 13 years. The last two and a half have been in 5th grade. I was turned on to your books last year by a colleague and my students and I fell in love with them. I spent the summer reading the Bayern Series and the Princess Academy books. Last year, you were gracious enough to Skype with several classes from our school. The students saw you as a real person and realized they could write as well. Then reality set in when you told students it took you years to write a story.
"I am again teaching Goose Girl this year and because I "met" you on Skype I was able to share that with my students this year and they LOVE the book, so much so that I'm a little concerned as to how I'm going to top Goose Girl.
"Over my lifetime, I believe I've had 3 author's visits. Each time students and I were inspired to be better readers and writers." Jen Hess
In conclusion: Librarians! PTO! Teachers! Kids! Everyone gets involved, makes it fun, gets excited. Then sit back and watch what happens after.
The Forgotten Sisters, the final book in the Princess Academy series, hits shelves one week from today. Preorder the book from anywhere and get a free poster.
Here are details of my upcoming appearances in Utah, Chicago, North Carolina, Wyoming, and Santa Monica. I need to focus more on writing and family than on trips and book events, so I will be cutting back wherever possible this year. Catch me while you can!
What am I currently working on? Nine things. Short stories, screenplays, a graphic novel, an adult novel, some middle grade and young adult novels. I honestly don't know which one will be finished and out first. I often hear non-writers muse that coming up with ideas must be the hardest part of writing. There are many things harder than coming up with ideas.
- Sitting my butt down and writing every day
- Ignoring the internet
- Not letting myself get discouraged
- Getting enough sleep at night
- Eating healthy food
- Ignoring the internet
- Choosing which ideas to work on first
- Staying with one book till it's finished and not getting distracted by all the other shiny ideas
- Sitting my butt down and writing every day
- Balancing work time with business/publicity and family needs
Today I took my four-year-olds to their indoor soccer class, stood outside the door, and had a phone interview with Sally from Publisher's Weekly about Princess Academy's tenth anniversary. The class pit the girls against the boys. My daughters had a stunning plan for victory: stand directly in front of the PVC-pipe-and-net goal and twirl their hair in eerie unison. And then when a boy kicked the ball anywhere near them, they picked up the goal and turned it around. I watched and laughed and gave my interview. A janitor overheard me on the phone and interrupted the call to ask, "Are you a writer? Do you have any books out? What are they? I love to read."
So do I, my friend.
I've been doing school visits as part of my tour for PRINCESS ACADEMY: The Forgotten Sisters. All have been terrific--great kids, great librarians. But something happened at one I want to talk about. I'm not going to name the school or location because I don't think it's a problem with just one school; it's just one example of a much wider problem.
This was a small-ish school, and I spoke to the 3-8 grades. It wasn't until I was partway into my presentation that I realized that the back rows of the older grades were all girls.
Later a teacher told me, "The administration only gave permission to the middle school girls to leave class for your assembly. I have a boy student who is a huge fan of SPIRIT ANIMALS. I got special permission for him to come, but he was too embarrassed."
"Because the administration had already shown that they believed my presentation would only be for girls?"
"Yes," she said.
I tried not to explode in front of the children.
Let's be clear: I do not talk about "girl" stuff. I do not talk about body parts. I do not do a "Your Menstrual Cycle and You!" presentation. I talk about books and writing, reading, rejections and moving through them, how to come up with story ideas. But because I'm a woman, because some of my books have pictures of girls on the cover, because some of my books have "princess" in the title, I'm stamped as "for girls only." However, the male writers who have boys on their covers speak to the entire school.
This has happened a few times before. I don't believe it's ever happened in an elementary school--just middle school or high school.
I remember one middle school 2-3 years ago that I was going to visit while on tour. I heard in advance that they planned to pull the girls out of class for my assembly but not the boys. I'd dealt with that in the past and didn't want to be a part of perpetuating the myth that women only have things of interest to say to girls while men's voices are universally important. I told the publicist that this was something I wasn't comfortable with and to please ask them to invite the boys as well as girls. I thought it was taken care of. When I got there, the administration told me with shrugs that they'd heard I didn't want a segregated audience but that's just how it was going to be. Should I have refused? Embarrassed the bookstore, let down the girls who had been looking forward to my visit? I did the presentation. But I felt sick to my stomach. Later I asked what other authors had visited. They'd had a male writer. For his assembly, both boys and girls had been invited.
I think most people reading this will agree that leaving the boys behind is wrong. And yet--when giving books to boys, how often do we offer ones that have girls as protagonists? (Princesses even!) And if we do, do we qualify it: "Even though it's about a girl, I think you'll like it." Even though. We're telling them subtly, if not explicitly, that books about girls aren't for them. Even if a boy would never, ever like any book about any girl (highly unlikely) if we don't at least offer some, we're reinforcing the ideology.
I heard it a hundred times with Hunger Games: "Boys, even though this is about a girl, you'll like it!" Even though. I never heard a single time, "Girls, even though Harry Potter is about a boy, you'll like it!"
The belief that boys won't like books with female protagonists, that they will refuse to read them, the shaming that happens (from peers, parents, teachers, often right in front of me) when they do, the idea that girls should read about and understand boys but that boys don't have to read about girls, that boys aren't expected to understand and empathize with the female population of the world....this belief directly leads to rape culture. To a culture that tells boys and men, it doesn't matter how the girl feels, what she wants. You don't have to wonder. She is here to please you. She is here to do what you want. No one expects you to have to empathize with girls and women. As far as you need be concerned, they have no interior life.
At this recent school visit, near the end I left time for questions. Not one student had a question. In 12 years and 200-300 presentations, I've never had that happen. So I filled in the last 5 minutes reading them the first few chapters of The Princess in Black, showing them slides of the illustrations. BTW I've never met a boy who didn't like this book.
After the presentation, I signed books for the students who had pre-ordered my books (all girls), but one 3rd grade boy hung around.
"Did you want to ask her a question?" a teacher asked.
"Yes," he said nervously, "but not now. I'll wait till everyone is gone."
Once the other students were gone, three adults still remained. He was still clearly uncomfortable that we weren't alone but his question was also clearly important to him. So he leaned forward and whispered in my ear, "Do you have a copy of the black princess book?"
It broke my heart that he felt he had to whisper the question.
He wanted to read the rest of the book so badly and yet was so afraid what others would think of him. If he read a "girl" book. A book about a princess. Even a monster-fighting superhero ninja princess. He wasn't born ashamed. We made him ashamed. Ashamed to be interested in a book about a girl. About a princess--the most "girlie" of girls.
I wish I'd had a copy of The Princess in Black to give him right then. The bookstore told him they were going to donate a copy to his library. I hope he's brave enough to check it out. I hope he keeps reading. I hope he changes his own story. I hope all of us can change this story. I'm really rooting for a happy ending.
By: Shannon Hale,
Blog: squeetus blog
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I'm having issues pasting photos so here's the links to the tumblr posts I did on my weekend at YALLWEST. What a great time! I love the YA book community.
Part part 1
Post part 2
I don’t know how many school assemblies I’ve done over the past 12 years. 200-300 is my best guess. Something I’ve found is that boys feel okay booing and mocking things they see as “for girls” but that girls never mock the “boy” things. Here’s an example. This exact scenario has repeated at every elementary and middle school assembly I’ve done in the past year and a half - at least 30, maybe more, in over a dozen states.
Me: I went to Mattel headquarters. Mattel is the largest toy maker in the world. They make Thomas the Train, Justice League Figures, Matchbox Cars–
Me: I was going to write a book for their new toy line, but it was so secret, we had to put in a security code to go down a secret hallway, into a second locked door where on a table under a shroud they had the prototypes for the new toys. I lifted the shroud and this is what I saw: (switches to slide of Ever After High dolls)
Boys: BOOO!!! BOOOO!!!
Notice the girls did not boo Thomas or Justice League or cars. Many cheered those things too. But the boys booed Barbe and EAH in unison, loudly, as if it was only natural, expected.
I’ve put up with it for awhile. And all this booing is after I’ve even talked with the kids about how unfair it is that people claim there are boy books and girl books. How untrue. Why can girls read anything but boys are told that they can only read half the books? And we’ve talked frankly about this. Still, the loud, fearless, angry mocking of any mention of “girl” media.
I’ve stopped putting up with it. When they boo, I stop them now. I demand respect. “I don’t know who told you it was okay to boo anything that you think girls like, but it’s not okay with me. That will stop. Girls, you don’t have to put up with that. The things you like deserve respect. You deserve respect.” I don’t know if they listen. But I’m going to say it all the same.
I think that by being “polite” and pretending to ignore the boos, I was actually reinforcing their opinion that this was okay. Tolerating something out of civility sure looks like complicity if you’re a girl in the audience. I won’t be complicit anymore. Which is “kinder”: ignoring the boos or calling them on it?
Elizabeth Bird (librarian, author, blogger) asked me to contribute to her upcoming anthology FUNNY GIRL. For the announcement, she wanted me to write a sentence or two about being funny and being a girl and a writer or whatever, and yeah, I got carried away. Here’s the stuff I sent her that was obv too long for her announcement article.
While there are moments of humor in my first two books (Goose Girl & Enna Burning), no one would rightly call these comedies. When I was writing Princess Academy, I remember going to NYC for something and having a meeting with my editor and publicist. They'd read an early draft of Princess Academy. They both said, "We've been talking about how funny you are in person but how that doesn't come out in your books. Is there room for humor in this book? Is Miri funny?" And I thought, well, yeah, she is. She would totally use humor to defuse tension. So why hadn't I written that? The truth is I think I'd bought into the idea that "girls aren't funny." I heard that hundreds of times growing up. And again as adults, with regards to movies especially: "women aren't funny." I'd swallowed the party line without realizing it. But I was beginning to question it. Are we really not funny? Not as funny as the guys? Or do people assume we're not so don't notice when we are? The answer is clearly yes since I’m hysterical.
Ten of my twenty published books could be considered comedies, and yet I've never heard myself referred to as a comedic writer. TEN BOOKS. Never been invited on a humor book panel (those are for man writers). And the books that I co-write with my husband (Rapunzel's Revenge, Princess in Black) people always assume the funny parts are his. Hundreds of times people have pointed out parts that made them laugh and then asked, "Did Dean write that?" And most of the time, I had. Make no mistake, he is very funny and witty and clever. Too.
Here's a little story. Fifteen years ago when Dean and I were getting married, we made a wedding website. One night at a get together with our old group of friends:
Mike: "Dean, I loved your wedding website. It was really funny. I kept laughing out loud."
Me: "Well, you know, he built the site but I wrote the content."
Mike: nods "You typed it?"
Me: "I wrote it."
Mike: "You typed it up for him?"
Me: "No. I wrote it."
Mike: "You helped him write it?"
Me: "No, I came up with the words and put them together in sentences and wrote them down."
He was still so stumped. It took several more exchanges for him to get it. Later he returned.
Mike: "I guess I've just always thought of Dean as the writer."
Me: "I just received my MFA in Creative Writing."
He returned later yet again.
Mike: "I guess with couples, we're used to just thinking that one of them is the funny one."
Me: "You and I were in an improv comedy troupe together."
Mike is a wonderful human being and open-minded and a feminist and we're still very close. And believe me, he's been teased about this mercilessly by all of us for over a decade. But this is how deep the "girls aren't funny" idea runs. Even when presented with direct evidence, so many people can't see it! They keep seeing what they've been taught to believe.
So why does it matter? Why do kids need to see/hear/read women being funny? And hear adults acknowledging that they are funny? Because stereotypes shut down possibilities. The "class clown" is a boy. The actually truly funny girls in class are just "obnoxious" or "attention-seekers." Boys who are funny are encouraged, laughed, cheered. Girls who are funny are told to behave, shush, sit down. Comedy is a gift to humanity. How sad and pointless life would be without good laughs. We need to see girls being funny, encourage them to develop their sense of humor, reward them for the cleverness and intelligence it takes to make jokes. They'll be happier, more fulfilled human beings. And so will we. The more comedy the better!
By: Shannon Hale,
Blog: squeetus blog
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Yesterday (Mother's Day) my 4yo woke me up at 6:30 am. She busied herself with something for a few minutes, so I opened my computer and wrote this.
It's mother's day! And I am a mother. I am not a goddess. I am not a saint. I am not an angel. I am Wile E. Coyote and perfection is the Road Runner. There have been times in my life when I yearned to be a mother and couldn't. There have been times when I was a mother and would have offered up the title to Mephistopheles in exchange for a few hours of sleep. At times I have wept with transcendental joy at the profound miracle of these precious tiny individuals, and hummed and sang and nearly burned up with the honor of being the one who got to care for them. At times I have wept with the crushing burden of being that one and allowed my gaze to flick to the road and contemplate, even for a second, on the possibility of just running away.
Most days fall somewhere between transcendental and crushing.
Mothers are not more blessed and sacred and noble than any other person. To claim so is unloading shovelfuls of weight on us that frankly makes it harder to do what we have to do. Also what we love to do, yearn to do, loathe to do. Choose to do. I am a mother. And I am flawed and messy and stumbling around making all this up as I go along. I don't have the time or the balance to stand on a pedestal. I need to be down on my bare feet, down on my knees at times, in the muck of life. But by all means, give me some chocolate today and an extra hour to sleep in. And give me a day when I'm reminded to think about my own mother, mother-in-law, and leagues of women, with or without children, who don't have the time or balance for a pedestal but are just their badass selves, down here with me, making this all up as we go along.