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Shannon Hale's blog, author of "Princess Academy" (Newbery honor last year), and "Goose Girl".
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1. YALLWEST or bust

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

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2. Storified tweets about gendered books

 

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3. No Boys Allowed: School visits as a woman writer

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.

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4. Here's what's up

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.

  1. Sitting my butt down and writing every day
  2. Ignoring the internet
  3. Not letting myself get discouraged
  4. Getting enough sleep at night
  5. Eating healthy food
  6. Ignoring the internet
  7. Choosing which ideas to work on first
  8. Staying with one book till it's finished and not getting distracted by all the other shiny ideas
  9. Sitting my butt down and writing every day
  10. 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.

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5. Awards, posters, new covers! As you were, Monday.

Big day for literature! The ALA Youth Media Awards. Especially excited for my pals:

Dan Santat wins the Caldecott for BEEKLE

Cece Bell's EL DEAFO and Jacqueline Woodson's BROWN GIRL DREAMING win Newbery Honors

Candace Fleming's THE FAMILY ROMANOV wins a Sibert Honor

Jason Reynold honored with the Coretta Scott King John Steptoe Award for New Talent for WHEN I WAS THE GREATEST

I always love what I think of as the Newbery morning. Reminds me of the call that woke me up nine years ago. Still such a powerful memory that when I retell the story I tear up. Congrats to all the winners. Though awards aren't everything, honoring books is a great way to remind us of the power of literature.

This year PRINCESS ACADEMY celebrates it's tenth anniversary. The final book in that trilogy, THE FORGOTTEN SISTERS, publishes in just three weeks. Preorder a copy, either ebook or hardcover, from anywhere and get this free poster. See here for more details.

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Also announcing the paperback of DANGEROUS, coming in May with a brand new cover. What do you think?

Dangerpb

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6. On writing, privilege, and being a working mom

A Salon article sparked some conversations yesterday on twitter and rightly so. I thought the article writer made some excellent points (as well as missed some others), but it all feeds into the conversation we've been having the last couple of weeks about writers and money and how we use our time. I think it's vital to acknowledge privilege wherever we have it--yes I've worked hard, I've sacrificed a lot to be able to write books, but I've also had help. It was a huge help that for the first 8 months of my marriage we lived on my husband's income while I finished The Goose Girl. When my student loan payments kicked in, I put aside fulltime writing to get a job, and my writing became slower and more sporadic.

We had some rocky years with job losses and recession, but then there were 2 1/2 cushy years when he had a job that paid our bills and I was able to stay home with our first child, who did not have special needs and was a good napper. (I did have two books published at this point, but that income was pocket change.) I was able to write Princess Academy, River Secrets, and Austenland during that time. I've written while having a fulltime job, I've written with small children and no babysitting help, I've put in the hardcore years. But I've been much more productive when I didn't have to work full time, when I did have a babysitter, etc.  Circumstance has as much to do with the ability to create art as talent and passion.

Privilege also meant I was born in a house with books in it. Both my parents were college graduates. I didn't have to worry about where I was getting my next meal. I wasn't mocked for spending a Saturday reading. I was encouraged and able to attend college. I was encouraged and supported in my decision to get an MFA. At every point in my life, I've been surrounded by people literate in things like how to apply for college or a student loan or a checking account, all the nitty gritty stuff that helps lead to success that I had the privilege of taking for granted.

One part of the article stood out to me. The writer tells about a bookstore event she attended for a breakout, successful author.

"When...an audience member, clearly an undergrad, rose to ask this glamorous writer to what she attributed her success, the woman paused, then said that she had worked very, very hard and she’d had some good training, but she thought in looking back it was her decision never to have children that had allowed her to become a true artist. If you have kids, she explained to the group of desperate nubile writers, you have to choose between them and your writing. Keep it pure. Don’t let yourself be distracted by a baby’s cry."

When I was young and hopeful of becoming a writer, I believed that was true too. I'd heard other women writers say the same. I thought I'd have to choose between being a writer or being a mother. It was a great motivator for me, actually, to finish The Goose Girl because I thought that would be it. I needed to get one book out before having a kid because then it would be all over.

Twenty books and four children later, it's not all over.

I've written at length about living in the crossroads of art and mothering. It's challenging for sure. And I have a feeling that the books I write (genre, for children), that glamorous, childless writer wouldn't consider real books anyway. But it's simply not true that children prevent deep thought, the creation of art, the passion for something as involved and longterm as writing a novel. There are many writers who have proved otherwise, over and over again. And for me, the more years I spend with my kids, the more stories I'm eager to tell, both for them and for me.

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7. I answer your burning questions about authors and filthy lucre

Thanks for all your great comments from the last post. I did another post in 2010 about the economics of being a writer if you're interested. To answer a few of the questions from the comments:

 

Daniel wrote: "The only caveat I would suggest is that it might (emphasis) take the writer of the 700 page sci-fi tome a bit longer to write his book than the children's author's book, which I suspect is substantially shorter (not to diminish it's value, at all, based on size...just that it's not apples to apples in value returned to the author for their time at the book signing)."

In response, Sage Blackwood wrote: "The shorter the book, the longer it takes to write."

This is often very true. THE PRINCESS IN BLACK is 2500 words. If a writer of a 300k book took as much time working on every 2500 words as we did in PIB, it would take 23 years to complete a book, and not the 6 months-a year that many such writers take. I have often written 300k word books and whittled them down to 90k words. You can't judge by a book's length how long the author spent on it. Besides, it's irrelevant, as we're not paid by the hour.

Alysa also responds: "Re: Daniel "might take longer to write...the 700-page book" -- it might or might not, but I don't think that should enter into the equation.

"Time spent writing could well be figured in to other places (book price, advance amount, etc) but the time spent on the signing itself is equal for both parties. It is a speaking event, they are hired to speak and to sign for a certain length of time.

"They are not being hired to write during this time, so how long it takes them to write the book doesn't really factor in, the way I see it. I think it's a case of children's authors making smaller commissions per sale than adult authors for no reason other than precedent."

Allison writes: "As a amateur writer, I'm curious: would you say new authors get less royalties than well-established authors like yourself? Is the difference significant(such as 5% vs. 20%), or do most authors get an average of about 10% or 15% but established authors make more simply because they have a bigger fan base (aka more sales)?"

If you have an agent (a legit agent who knows her stuff) and you sign on with a legit professional publisher, you're going to get about the same as everyone else. There might be slight differences. Maybe a freshman writer would get 6% on a paperback, and a sophomore author get 6% to 25k copies sold at which point it escalates to 7.5%, for eg. Really, really big authors maybe work out super sweet deals, but I wouldn't know.

Kathy asks, "I'm finally a stay home mom just this month, and I'm also an unpublished author. I want to publish traditionally, but I'm worried about how it'll affect my family when it happens (one day!). What's been your experience as you raise young kids and work in the published world? Are you away from them a lot?"

This is a big question. I love being a mom and I love being a writer, so I wouldn't trade in either. But I'll warn you that it's very, very hard to balance. After you're published, guarding your writing time gets increasingly difficult. My advice: don't do it if you're looking for a hobby or a simple way to make part time dollars. Do it only if you can't live with yourself if you don't. I've written at length on writing and mothering here.

See also Nichole Giles and Jacqueline Garlick's comments on indie publishing, as their experience has been different than the example I gave.

PJ writes: "If children's author's make around 10% and adult authors around 15%, where does YA fit in? It is the fastest growing market in publishing isn't it? They should make more than adult authors I would think. Why do children's author's make a smaller percentage anyway? That seems especially unfair since there books usually cost less anyway."

YA is considered part of the children's field. As far as I've seen, the numbers are the same in YA as in picture books and middle grade. People just don't want to pay the same for kids' books than adult books. Everything kid is expected to be less: admission, food, clothing. It doesn't matter if it takes as much work, skill and time to create a kids' book as an adult book, the market just won't support it. I wish it were different. Maybe it could change, but would you spend $35 on a YA novel? $25 on a picture book? In general, anything to do with children is valued less than anything to do with adults (think of kindergarten teacher vs college professor. Has a children's movie ever won Best Picture? etc.) Publishers and agents would have better insight into this discrepancy than I do.

Jessie asks, "I have an author money question I've been curious about, I read a lot of eBooks, and have been wondering about the Kindle Unlimited program. Since I get to read those books, practically for free, I was wondering how authors get paid for them. Do you get a small percentage? Is it worth it at all?"

I know next to nothing about this program. It's sort of like Spotify is for music. I don't think my books are a part of it? But I'm highly suspicious that it would be at all profitable for the majority of authors.

Petunia Krupnik asks, "Just a question, are you going to Salt Lake Comicon again this year?" I'm planning on attending the September one.

Emily asks, "How can I convince my friend to read a different genre?" I have a random idea. Introduce her to a good graphic novel or two in her favorite genre. After she reads those, introduce her to a couple of other graphic novels in other genres. People are more likely to read GNs outside their genre comfort zone. It's a great way to discover new genres they didn't think they liked. They are then more likely to go on and read other prose novels in different genres. Any other suggestions?

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8. The nitty gritty on authors, signings, and filthy lucre

I am fortunate to receive many invitations to visit book groups, schools, book fairs and the like. When I turn down the majority of invites I get (or simply fail to see the invitation in my disaster of an inbox, on twitter, facebook, etc) I sometimes get the response, "You seem ungrateful," or, "Don't you want to sell books?"

I've realized that most people don't understand the ins and outs of being a writer for a living, so I'm going to talk really frankly here. Many are offended when writers talk about money. Art and commerce shouldn't mix! Authors are artists and shouldn't make decisions based on dirty filthy lucre! For those people I say, Look away! Don't read this! Go on believing that artists survive on art alone and need no home but the earth to whom we compose odes and eat nothing but delicious, nutritious words and are sated.

For the rest of you, let's talk some practical numbers.

Often people assume authors are like widget makers. You see people at Costco doing demonstrations of blenders. They'll sell more blenders if they're there in person. An author sells more books if they're there in person too. But authors make much less per item than a blender maker. And traditionally published children's authors make the least of all.

Case study. A children's author and an adult SF author go to a book signing. They spend two hours there and sell the same number of books.

The adult SF author has a 700-page tome that sells in hardcover for $35. Writers get higher percentages for adult books, usually at least 15%, so each hc sold earns the author about $5. Sell 50 and he's got $250. Paperback prices vary (mass market much less than trade) but let's say it's about $15 for a paperback. He makes about 10% on that, sells 50, earns $75. For two hours plus travel, that's decent. He'll also get to meet many fans, which is another bonus of doing events.

Now the children's book author. The hardcover sells for $18. Children's writers make about 10% on a hardcover, so if she sells 50 that's $90. For a paperback, $8 with a 7% royalty is common. For 50 books that'd be $28.

Adult author total: $325.

Children's author total: $118

Plus agents take 15% off the top, and then authors are self-employed and so pay higher taxes.

Now these are big numbers. Selling 50 hardcovers and 50 paperbacks at a signing is a great signing for most authors, so this is just an example. I've done signings where I've sold zero. All authors have. And even though a 100 book signing is tremendous, I have to sells tens of thousands of books to make a living at it, so even having a few great signings several times/month wouldn't enable me to write for my job.

There are vast variations on this. If it's an illustrated book, author/illustrator spit the royalty, so a picture book author who didn't do the illustrations might make 5% on a hardcover and 3.5% on a paperback. Board books are even less. Scholastic bookfair books might earn an author 5 cents each, or less.

Given that children's authors make so much less on books than adult authors, they usually charge to make appearances, do school assemblies, etc. Many can afford to be a writer because of extra income they make from appearances. When you ask a children' author to come to your event for free, it's like asking any other professional to work for free. I can't count how many times I've been invited to speak at a function for free even though the attendees paid to be there. Children's authors (and especially women) are often expected to give of our time for the cause and be grateful for the opportunity. And actually, I am always grateful that anyone thought of me, but I simply can't afford to give away so much of my time.

A self-published author would have an entirely different experience at that book signing. Let's say she has a novel she sells for $15 and half of that is the cost of the book, so she makes $7.5 per book. That's a great number. Signings are much more worth her time. The downside is that her books are less likely to be in bookstores, so in order to sell books she needs to be present. This is one reason why ebooks are usually a better option financially for indie authors.

Usually when I do a signing, the majority of books I sign are ones the readers bring from home, which is perfectly fine. If I sign 200 books at an event, perhaps 40 of those were purchased that day because of my appearance. I do around 50 book events/year, and for most of them I make less on the royalties from books sold than I pay my sitter to watch my kids while I'm gone. And while I'm gone, I'm also not writing, not creating that next book.

For reasons of publicity, all exposure is good exposure. But as a writer who needs lots of time to produce the next book and as a parent who doesn't want to raise neglected kids, I have to be very selective about where I put my time.

This year I started to do school assemblies one day a month in my home state. Halfway through the year I'm beginning to think I can't afford to do it again next year, even though I'm getting paid for my presentation. I get about 18 work days/month, after you take out weekends, holidays, and the inevitable child-related interruptions. To give up 1/18 of my work time is significant. I'm not sure I can afford to do it anymore. Even though I love to meet the kids and it feels great to be there, and it is great publicity to personally meet all those kids who may want to read my books in the future, ultimately I'm a writer and I can't afford to lose my writing time.

So, that's the nitty gritty. It's not fun, is it? Much more fun to talk about story crafting and character development and writing sentences that sing. Money and art may not be a happy couple, but until art can be created by robots, artists will always have to think about it. And note that even though authors don't make much per book, they make even less if you pirate them. Please, please don't be a book thief. Read The Book Thief but don't be one.

Even though there is a lot of stress that comes with this unpredictable, unstable profession, I love it so much and am so grateful for those who read my books, who buy them from bookstores or check them out of libraries. I wish I could meet you all in person. But I promise that I'm not that interesting. My wild, fearless hope is that the stories themselves are enough.

Please feel free to ask me any followup questions in the comments.

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9. This princess still wears black

PIB-smWow, THE PRINCESS IN BLACK is still on the Times bestseller list. It's incredibly rewarding that this book is finding an audience.

PIB trivia!

Princess Magnolia wasn't her original name. I hesitated to name her after our daughter but eventually gave in. She was game for it, and since she doesn't go by Magnolia hopefully the character's name won't haunt her into adulthood.

Frimplepants was Frimplepants from the first draft. I don't know where the name came from, but I'm so glad that it came.

Duchess Wigtower had many different names that didn't work. Then Dean wrote up a list of 20+ possible names and Wigtower won.

Duff the Goatboy I named after Duff Rich, who introduced me to Jerusha Hess, leading to the AUSTENLAND movie.

Book 2 (out this fall) introduces Princess Sneezewort. Prepare yourselves for a new literary superstar. I adore Princess Sneezewort to my toenails. LeUyen Pham* based her look on her own younger self. Adorable and hysterical.

It's only 2500 words long, but we spent many many hours on those 2500 words. Shorter text requires more precision.

One thing that was essential was re-reading the book aloud to our kids over and over again, fine-tuning. After dozens of readings, I found a sentence that just didn't work. I would have missed that if I hadn't read it aloud so often. I'm so relieved I got a chance to fix it.

*in case you're not sure, her name is pronounced "Lay-Win Fam"

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10. Advice to a new novelist: be hardcore

Good morning! I got an email from a friend asking for advice on behalf of his niece, who has written a novel but can't find an agent. As I get these sorts of questions a lot I thought I'd answer here and get my Monday post done! Two birds! One stone!

The niece has sent her ms to various agents and heard the same reply: they admire the writing but the market is saturated with dystopian literature so they pass.

First, niece my friend, this happens ALL THE TIME. Perhaps that's a comfort to you? To hear that you're not alone? Example: Harry Potter came out, was a huge success, all the publishers were like, wait a minute, we need more middle grade fantasy series! They published a bunch of them. Most of them weren't hits. Publishers lost money.

Meanwhile, lots of people read Harry Potter and the subsequent fantasy series that were coming out and were inspired to write their own. Only they'd missed the swell. Publishers just weren't looking for them anymore. My own book THE GOOSE GIRL missed the swell. I'd been working on it for years, had no idea about any market and such, but by the time it was done and we were submitting it, the publishers were weary of all the fantasy series they were getting and all the major publishers rejected it.

This happened again with TWILIGHT. It hit big. Publishers began to gobble up vampire stories and then just all paranormal romance. Agents who happened to have YA paranormal romance at the time found it easy to sell them. An entire section of Barnes & Noble was renamed Paranormal Romance. Nathan Hale joked B&N was renaming themselves "Paranormal Romance 'N Things." And then, the inevitable happened. Readers grew weary of paranormal romance. Publishers lost money. They were no longer looking for it. All those writers who had been reading paranormal romance and were inspired to write it found they couldn't sell their manuscripts.

And then, again. HUNGER GAMES. DIVERGENT. MAZE RUNNER. etc. There's a bubble, the bubble pops.

When that bubble pops, it's not the end of the world. I've heard from agents and editors that they will take up any book that really, really sings to them, even if in the current marketplace it's far from a sure thing. THE GOOSE GIRL eventually found a home, for example. The key, the challenge, is finding just the right person who falls in love with your writing, even if dystopian is past its prime.

A few things you can do to help that happen:

1. make sure your book is amazing. No problem there, right? Easy peasy.

2. keep submitting until you find that one agent who just can't resist your voice, your characters, your style, what you've done to make sure your book is unique among all the others. Which means not giving up, querying everybody, attending conferences where you can meet an agent in person and hope that you click somehow with this one. To just keep trying.

3. write a new book

Because chances are, your first book will never sell. Even if it isn't dystopian. Most first books don't sell. Ask most published writers and you'll hear war stories of all the books we wrote that will never see the light of day.

Your goal as a writer isn't to get a book published. It's to make yourself a writer. Sometimes writers must write a lot of books as practice before our brains are good enough to write something new, original, exciting, interesting, unputtdownable. Sometimes you have to chalk this one up to a rehearsal and get moving on the next thing.

THIS IS NOT AN EASY BUSINESS. THERE IS NO SHORTCUT. TO WRITE NOVELS FOR A LIVING YOU MUST BE HARDCORE.

The second question the niece had was, should I just self-publish it?

My answer: maybe. I don't know. I've never self-published anything so I'm far from an expert. Indie publishing is a great resource for books that don't find a home in traditional publishing. I guess it depends on what your goal is here. To share your work? To make a living? I'd recommend seeking out blogs and sites about self-publishing for more answers. Note that self-publishing is not as simple as uploading your manuscript to Amazon. In order to have success, you'll have to educate yourself on the business, put in time and money. I've read that most first novels that are self-published never get into the black--at least the ones who hire professional editors, cover designers, etc., in order to do it all professionally. In other words, in order to self-publish, you must be hardcore. So it really depends on your skill set, personality, and desire. Do you want to learn about this business? Invest your resources in it? Put in the time?

So, niece, what kind of hardcore are you?

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11. The myth of the innocent victim

There's an old story I've heard retold many times. The Christmas oranges. Does everyone know it? An orphanage, Christmas, unjust mistress. Every Christmas the poor orphans get one precious orange. It's what they look forward to most, and spend all Christmas day smelling it, holding it, savoring and anticipating sometimes for days before peeling and at last eating it. One Christmas, an orphan is denied his orange as punishment for a mild infraction (in some tellings, he sneaks out of bed at night to peek at the Christmas tree). Christmas morning, since he didn't get an orange, the other orphans peel their orange early instead of savoring it and each give him one slice of their orange. It's a sweet story of mercy, kindness, and empathy.

Only it often falls a little flat for me because of the mild infraction part. What if the orphan had done something bolder? Worse? The story would be even more powerful for me if the other children still had empathy. Mercy.

If even in stories we don't allow characters to really mess up and yet love them anyway, are we capable in life?

I've always rankled at the term "Innocent victim." What does it actually mean? As if the only victims that count are those who are innocent of any wrong doing. Which would include babies and just about no one else, I think. I've heard this term a lot lately. And what I hear disturbs me.

When a police officer shot Michael Brown, focus was put on his shoplifting. The New York Times wrote that he was "no angel." When Eric Garner was choked to death, focus was put on his previous crime of selling untaxed cigarettes. When Tamir Rice was shot (a 12 year old boy, alone at a park with a toy gun, no one in immediate danger if the gun had been real, the police shooting and killing him within 2 seconds of arriving), the local media seemed to flail a bit. Aren't all children innocent? So instead they reported on the past crimes of his parents, as if that had anything to do with why police shot him that day in the park.

Rape victims still are blamed for what they wore, if they'd been drinking, if they'd gone with someone they didn't know well, if they'd gone with someone they did know and so should have known better, if they were in the "wrong" side of town, if they were sex workers, if they lied about any part of it to the police, if they were overly flirtatious, examining their decisions, finding fault, finding reasons to prove that they aren't "innocent" victims.

If the law only protects those who are innocent, we are all doomed.

We want to believe that when horrible things happen to people, that they somehow deserved it. They weren't completely innocent, so it's okay in a way. That makes us feel safer. We can believe that we are innocent, so those things can't happen to us.

But there are no innocent victims. We all of us make mistakes. And in this country, we don't believe in death as punishment for selling loose cigarettes. We don't believe in rape as punishment for getting drunk.

I know there is so much to debate in the things I'm bringing up. I do not want to get into here the vast problems in our legal system. And this is not a general condemnation of our police force. Remember who ran into the burning buildings on 9/11. The purpose of this post is to focus on this one simple idea. There are no innocent victims. I hope we stop trying to make anyone live up to that impossible standard. I hope we value all human life, even those who have made mistakes.

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12. Boys and the Princess in Black

Pib1-smTwinkle Twinkle Little SMASH! The Princess in Black is off to an amazing start. It's currently on the New York Times best seller list and was named a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year (see me and Dean in a short video interview) and an Amazon Best Book. We've been overwhelmed by parents reporting that it's become a favorite book at their house, with some precious children sleeping with it hugged to their chest. Yes, that sound you hear is me choking up.

I recently signed about 60 copies of the book for people in my neighborhood, which was a lovely experience. However, I noticed that the parents all asked me to sign the book for their daughters. I know these families so I knew that almost all of them also had sons in the book's age range. It reminded me again that adults are the ones who tell kids what they should and shouldn't be reading. I've met loads of 3-4 year old boys who don't think twice about wanting to read The Princess in Black. By age 5-7, however, they've been shamed for liking something about a girl, often subtly. If we don't give our boys books about girls (princesses even!) then we're quietly saying, these books aren't for you.

I have seen several times, right in front of me, dads shoo their sons away from my books.

"Are you sure you want to read something called Princess Academy?"

"Those are for girls."

Moms aren't usually so obvious. It's more subtle, like getting a book about a girl signed for "The Anderson girls" or "Mama's princesses" while a son lingers nearby.

About three years ago I got a bookcase for my son's room, and as I went through all our middle grade books, I found myself picking out the ones about boys for his shelves and setting aside the ones about girls for my daughter's, until finally I was like, wait, what am I doing?? It's so easy to fall into this trap. Parents are all trying our best. I know we don't mean any harm. But I hope that if I keep talking about this, we'll all become more aware. I believe reading books is one of the best ways to gain real empathy for people different from ourselves, and helping boys develop empathy for girls is a cause worth fighting for.

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13. Do authors put in symbols and stuff?

Mette Ivie Harrison's tumblr post:

My teenage niece asked me about her high school English teacher who had been teaching her students to find symbols in novels and poetry. Since I am an author, she wanted to know if I really put that stuff in there on purpose or if her teacher (as she suspected) was making it up. It seemed hard to believe that it was real.

I told her that

1. It doesn’t matter if the author puts that stuff in on purpose. It can still be there. The work of the author is often to let the unconscious speak, and the author does not always control how the unconscious forms thoughts. Therefore, the author is often speaking for the culture rather than for one person.

2. Don’t ask the author what the book means. The author doesn’t know what the book means. That’s not the job of the author. The job of the author is to create. If an author says that a book means this or means that, do we take that as guaranteed? Of course not. If the author of a book insisted that there was no racism in it, but there is clearly racism in it, does the intention erase it? No.

3. The job of the critic is just as creative as the job of the author, and it is to find meaning where no one had seen it before. I talked a bit about Dadaism and how the point there was that anyone can be an artist, using ordinary kinds of text and image, and that the creativity was in bringing the same kind of vision to ordinary life as to that deemed “high art.”

4. Be kind to teachers of literature and writing. It’s a hard job and it’s an important one. I believe that art of every kind is important. As important as food. As important as shelter. I know not everyone agrees with me, but the ability to make life make sense matters a lot. Also, the way that we can change the world by first imagining the change in art is the way humans work. Why do you think that we landed on the moon after we imagined we did?

----------------------------

I agree with all that Mette says here. I will also add that like many writers, I am very thoughtful about the words I use and how I tell the story. I’ve had quoted to me ad nauseam the (apocryphal?) Robert Frost story about the woman who praised his poetry and told him all the deep meanings, allusions, and metaphors she found there, and he said that he didn’t put any of those things in on purpose. Many tell me this with the assumption that Frost just put down words and readers accidentally found meaning. But of course Frost was a thoughtful, careful poet. The fact that someone might make connections in his poetry that he didn’t intend doesn’t negate all the other thoughts he explored with purpose.

Readers can and should find their own meanings and truth in art, irrelevant to what authors intended. But that’s more likely to occur when authors take care, time, hones their skills, and reads widely.

1. Like Mette says, I don’t think that for readers, it should matter what the author’s intent was. Read and find what you need there. Study and learn what you can there.

2. For authors, I’d say write carefully, rewrite constantly, read and craft and learn and think and discover layer upon layer that you didn’t know would be there when you started out.

3. And thank you, English teachers! Careful analysis of texts taught me how to think, question, and find my own voice.

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14. Four white women talk about race

About thirteen years ago, I was on a work trip with several colleagues when we heard the news of police shooting an unarmed Black man (one of many such incidents in this country's history). The four of us (all white women) talked about this. Three of us felt sick by it and confused too, which I think is a sign of our privilege. Feeling confused and surprised by evidence of racism is the luxury of those who don't have to deal with it every day. The fourth woman, who I liked and admired generally, said something I haven't been able to forget: "Well, maybe the police had learned through experience that men who look like him usually have guns."

We all stopped walking and looked at her. She couldn't be saying what we thought she was saying, could she?

She went to clarify. She didn't hold the police officers at fault. After all, if in their experience Black men carried guns, then naturally they would assume this one had a gun, and so shooting him was in self defense.

"But he didn't have a gun," I said, in case she'd missed that part somehow. "He was afraid and running away from police, afraid they would shoot him, which they did. Even though he didn't have a gun."

"But he might have," she insisted. "They didn't know. Plus he shouldn't have been running. He should have just surrendered."

By her own logic, I wanted to add, perhaps then he had reason to be afraid the police would shoot an unarmed Black man, even if he surrendered. Perhaps his experience had taught him that that was likely.

We tried to point out to her that this is what the problem is with stereotypes. Even in the extremely unlikely scenario that every single Black man these white police officers had ever met had been carrying a gun and intended to use it to kill cops, this one wasn't. He should have been treated as an individual, as a human being, not by what others who looked like him had done in the past. He was killed for the color of his skin, not for his actions. That is the danger of stereotypes. That's what racism is.

She could not understand. She couldn't grasp what we were trying to explain. She could only see the situation from a single point-of-view. I don't want to paint the other three of us as heroes. I'm sure we are all spectacularly ignorant about a great number of things. But in this one instance, for whatever reason, we could see something that this other woman simply could not.

I wonder about this woman. I wonder if she only ever had friends who looked like her. I wonder if she'd ever read a book with a Black protagonist and learned to identify with him or her. I wonder if learning to recognize the pervasive racism in this country would have so upset the way she understood the world that she just couldn't manage it. If it was scary for her. If ignorance was a security blanket that she, as a white person, could afford to cling to.

I'm reminded of her a lot this week. People are reacting to the news from Ferguson in vastly different ways. One of those ways is, "It's not about race. Why do people have to make everything about race?" If someone were to say, "It's obvious that racism is a real and huge issue, but in this case, carefully examining the evidence, I don't think it applies here," I could respect that. I'd disagree with you, but I'd respect that. But to claim "there is no racism" is alarmingly blind and willfully ignorant.

Until we all choose to see and try to understand the racism around us and in us, nothing is going to change. And we so desperately need change. So desperately the need aches. It stings. And for some, it kills.

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15. Reviews to cry for

I've talked before about how reviews aren't for writers but for readers, and I mostly don't read them, but when a new book comes out, I allow myself to break my own rules and read some reviews. A book has been cooking for years often and hearing what people think is just too tempting! This morning I tiptoed to amazon and read this review by SallyBWT. When I read it to my husband, I started crying and then just sobbing. It does mean so much when your book finds a home.

 
 
 
 
We borrowed this from the library for my Kindergartner. She loved it so much we read it straight through, then read it again, and then that night when I went in to check on her one last time I found her holding it close in her sleep. I should also note that we are just now entering the super-hero stage in our family with my 3 year old son, so my little girl has gone from watching Disney movies over and over (Rapunzel is the favorite) to Spider-Man and Captain America. "Why are there no girl Super-Heroes?" she asked. I introduced her to Wonder Woman, White Tiger, Batgirl, Supergirl, etc., and she shrugged. She can't really connect to those super-sexy, all-grown-up, major-attitude types.

I recalled reading about Shannon Hale's new book for younger readers. I liked what she'd done with Princess Academy, so I thought I would give it a go for my girl. I did not anticipate the amount of love this book would receive - she cried when she had to give it back to the library (the request list is still long here). She decorated her pumpkin for a school contest to look just like the Princess in Black.

I surprised my daughter with her own copy this last week, and her eyes just lit up. The book currently lives under her pink pillow. My girl LOVES pink, and princesses, and superheroes. This book is NOT about rejecting princesses, or even rejecting the pinkness of girls. This book is about being a hero and saving the day.

This is Zorro for little girls. Princess Magnolia - pink clad perfection in her castle - The Princess in Black when danger lurks in the kingdom!

Give it a chance. My three year old boy loves this book and we look forward to another, especially if it features the Goat Avenger. :-) And more monsters to fight! My two year old daughter has been running around saying the Princess in Black's signature move: Twinkle, Twinkle, Little* SMASH! It's a book our whole family loves.
 
*I (Shannon) added the "little." The reviewer forgot it. It's my favorite line in the book (Dean wrote it) and I just had to have it right.

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16. When my kids read my teenage journal

I dug out my childhood journal this week to read for research. I showed my 10yo and 7yo entries from when I was their age. And then I left it out while I went to put my younger kids to bed.

When I came back, my older kids had read on and found a post from when I was 14, depressed, and talking about killing myself. My initial reaction was shame and regret. I didn't want my kids to see in me that weakness. I was afraid of the mere topic of suicide. But I took a breath and said a prayer and we sat down to talk.

It turned out to be an amazing conversation. They wanted to know why I'd felt that way. THey were concerned about me. My first job was to assure them I was fine. We talked about my younger years, why I felt that way, and why sometimes there's no reason other than just plain sadness. We talked about how at the time for various reasons I didn't feel like I had anyone to talk to about it, and how my job as their mom was to always be someone they could talk to. And about suicide in general--what it is, and how if anyone ever tells them they want to hurt or kill themselves, they should tell me. That is a secret we never keep.

I think sometimes our instinct as parents is to hide our vulnerabilities. But it can be powerful for kids to understand that we went through hard stuff and came out okay. That can be a sturdy hope to cling to when they go through their own stuff. If we try to put up a veneer of perfection out of a misguided attempt to seem trustworthy and stable, we miss the opportunity to show empathy. My kids maybe now are more likely to admit to me their own worries and weaknesses because they know I'll understand.

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17. Good Monday to you

I don't have time to blog today but really want to stick with my goal of blogging every Monday. Doing some research for a presentation on graphic novels Dean and I are giving to teachers this week and I found this old bit Nathan Hale did from our launch of Calamity Jack nearly 5 years ago. Go see his cover reveal for his new Hazardous Tale graphic novel!

10jackLAUNCH

Also on tour last week, Nate, Dean and I were in the basement of the Texas state capitol, standing in the hallway talking for 5 minutes. The entire time Mike Farrell (BJ from MASH) was standing three feet away from us and neither of them noticed. I played it so cool. But BJ! From MASH! (I've seen every episode. Nate was too young, Dean too occupied with science ficiton)

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18. Has #WeNeedDiverseBooks changed you?

#WeNeedDiverseBooks is raising funds now on IndieGoGo to keep this movement going. Please consider donating.

I would love to know if this movement has already affected you in some way. Please comment below and feel free to do so anonymously if you like.

Writers, have you included diverse (POC, LGBTQ, disabled, religious, etc.) characters in your works-in-progress when you hadn't originally considered it?

Agents, editors, have you specifically looked for diverse writers because of raised awareness following this campaign? Have you suggested or supported writers to include diverse characters in a book when in the past you might not have addressed it?

Librarians and booksellers, have you been more aware of diverse books--recommending them to patrons/clients, creating displays, turning them out, etc.--than you were before?

Readers, have you been more inclined to read, buy, check-out books by diverse writers or about diverse characters?

Bloggers/reviewers, have you been more likely to review diverse books? More likely to be vocal about them, recommend them than before?

People who identify as being disabled, LGBTQ, of color, religious, do you feel more welcome, more seen, in the book community than before?

Whether the campaign has affected you or not, I'd be curious to hear your experience.

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19. Let's talk about [bleep]

[trigger warning]

[for mature readers, please get your parent or guardian's approval to read if you're under 14]

Some recent events prompted me to look back on last year's discussions about rape culture and consent, and a followup post. Several people commented anonymously about a related matter that I think is really important. I'm going to repost some of those comments here. Some cultures and religions advocate for celilbacy before marriage. I completely respect and support those who make that choice, but there is the misconseption that celibacy=silence, that the decision to not have sex outside of marriage means one cannot even talk about sex outside of marriage. And often the taboo of communicating about sex extends into a marriage. This silence leads to misinformation, misunderstanding, and a sometimes crippling separation between spouses.

I personally want to advocate for parents having long, varied, open conversations with their children, both sons and daughters, about sex, consent, what it's about, how to communicate, how to listen to your partner, how sex is about the pleasure of your partner and when your partner is enjoying it, your own pleasure increases. And I'd also like to advocate for couples who are having problems to please open up that line of communication. Please go see a counselor together. It's not too late. There should be no stigma about seeing a marriage counselor. Marriage is weird! How on earth can two people maintain that close of a relationship over years and years when both are changing? We all need some outside, non-judgemental help sometimes.

Someone's Wife:

I want to respond to Lizzie's comment that there are women who wouldn't want to have sex EVER if they had to give their consent enthusiastically before they did it.

My big question is, why don't those women want to have sex? Is it because women innately don't like sex and men innately do like it? I don't think so, because in other cultures, trends are different. In some cultures, and I'm especially thinking of some things I learned about from the Renaissance, women are seen as the sexual predators and men as the sex that has to protect themselves from the other sex's advances.

Here's my story. When I first got married, I gave my consent willingly AND enthusiastically in the beginning. But over time, my husband started to pressure me to do it when I didn't want to, to the point that I actually felt like I was being raped at times, but I told myself I was being crazy or too sensitive because I never really told him NO, so it couldn't be rape, right?

But over time, as that happened more and more, my enthusiasm for the whole thing really waned. Now, I only do it when I'm feeling really guilty because it's been a long time, but I'm never enthusiastic about it.

I can't say for sure what would have happened if my husband had accepted that I didn't want to do it /all the time/ and not pressured me back in the beginning, but I suspect that we never would have gotten to this point if he had done what the boy in Mary's story did - if he had cared as much about my feelings as he did his own and not pressured me.

I think he was afraid that if he didn't pressure me, I'd never want to do it. But that couldn't be further from the truth. I wanted to do it, I just wanted to feel like I mattered when we were doing it.

But the culture we're in right now shaped the way my husband and I related to each other from the beginning. It says that if you don't have sex whenever your husband wants it, he's going to find it somewhere else. A counselor even told my husband that if I didn't have sex with him whenever he wanted it, or at least twice a week, he would be a lot more susceptible to having an affair or looking at pornography. What kind of counselor does that? One who thinks that men have to have sex a certain number of times a week or else they just won't be able to help acting out those desires with someone else.

How much of that is true biology, and how much is shaped by our culture? I certainly don't know the conclusive answer to that, but I think a lot more of it is culture than we generally think it is.

Someone's Spouse:

The reality is that there are many reasons for differences in drive, and hopeful asking by one partner is pressure to the partner who struggles with sex for one reason or another. I am approve of the contents of these posts, but my advice is different. If you have problems with sexual differences, get professional help as soon as possible! We all get embarrassed talking to doctors and counselors about something so intimate as sex between two committed individuals, but the alternatives are worse. If you experience pain during sex and repeatedly engage in unenthusiastic sex, if you don't discuss it with your partner and seek professional aid, you will years down the road be "someone's spouse," and to your horror both people are scared and scarred. Resentment will build. Neither will understand why others have sex at least a few times a month, but they struggle with managing it once every six months, and when they do it is not fulfilling. So, you avoid the whole issue and are just great roommates who love each other, but somewhere deep in your hearts have some mistrust, hatred, and wounds. It all comes to a head when one person feels that they have foregone romantic love long enough (they never cheated) and decides that leaving wouldn't be that bad. It's unfair to both to be unable to have romantic love. And she does love him, she asks him to stay. The wounds are so deep, and they begin seeing a counselor. They can get to romantic love again, but they still feel deeply confused at times. They occasionally still avoid it, but they do so because it really isn't that important anymore. If it happens, great. If not, that's okay too because their focus has changed. Each is forgetting themselves and simply loving the other.

People, please go to counselors and doctors at the first signs of trouble. If it's a doctor issue and the doctor doesn't understand our help, change doctors. Don't live with it. Brushing it under the rug has far reaching consequences. Same with the counselors.

Another Wife:

Someone's Wife, that is unfortunately my story too. I was about to type it up after reading Shannon's post, but you have done it for me. Thank you Shannon, for opening my eyes to something that on one hand I have been someone naive about (what goes on in the world, and how important it is that I must work to educate my children about it), and on the other hand something that I have dealt with for over a decade, and not really understood just how to express my feelings about.

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20. The problem with the neutral love interest

 

"I don't get the love interest. I mean, am I supposed to like him?"

This is a response I hear often from readers. And it's started me thinking. Are writers supposed to write a love interest that every reader will fall in love with? For example, in a story where the main character is a female who falls in love with a guy, then this should be a guy that the reader can fall in love with too. But as years pass, I completely question that thought. It just doesn't make sense.

This is a story, not a blind date. A book is an opportunity to experience someone else's story. We certainly wouldn't all be attracted to the same people in real life either. Rather than asking if we can fall in love with the love interest, a more honest question would be, Can we believe that the main character would fall in love with him/her?

The problem of the "universal" or "neutral" or "default" love interest: someone so non-specific that a hetero female reader can imagine into him the kind of guy she would want to date. (Think of the Disney princes: Phillip, Charming, Eric--very little personality there, which makes it easy to fall for them and write onto them our own ideas of perfection.) But by writing these neutral love interests, we run into the same problem as we do with those neutral main characters. We lose so much of what makes books amazing and powerful.

I'm a heterosexual female but I didn't fall in love with Harry Potter, and yet I still enjoyed the books. But then again, since he was the main character, was my job as a reader to identify with him, not fall in love with him?

What are we as readers supposed to do? Feel? Experience? Take away from a story?

When a book successfully writes a love interest who is "universal" enough that millions of readers can fall in love with him, that book has the potential to be a huge hit. But is that the only kind of book worth publishing? Is it the only kind of book worth reading? Can we enjoy and find worth in a book that doesn't give us a main character who easily reflects us back to ourselves and a love interest who we wouldn't fall for in real life?

One suggestion: toss out the term "am I supposed to" when talking about books. What that implies is you're trying to figure out what the writer intended you to think/feel and if they succeeded or failed. 90% of the time when I read what someone claims I was intending to do as an author, they're wrong. Trying to guess author's intent is a pointless exercise. This is no longer my book. This is your book now. You are the reader. You are the director of this movie in your head, of which I just wrote the script. You are in control. What do you want to get out of it? What do you learn about yourself by reading it? Are you seeing something a little differently than before? Are you experiencing a story you couldn't have come up with on your own? Are you entertained, interested, feeling and/or thinking something worthwhile? Are you different now than before?

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21. Cover reveal: the Princess Academy series

In honor of the 10th anniversary of Princess Academy and the upcoming publication of the third book in the trilogy, Bloomsbury has redesigned the jackets in this series, with artwork by Jason Chan. I'm excited to reveal them here at last!

PrincessAcademyPB_final

PalaceOfStonePB_003

PrincessAcad_ForgottenSisters_cata2

The Forgotten Sisters pubs in hardcover March 3, 2015, with the rejacketed paperbacks of the first two at the same time. The first review is in, a starred review from Booklist!

"On the day that Miri is to return to her beloved Mount Eskel, she is summoned by King Bjorn of Danland, requesting her to travel to outer-territorial Lesser Alva where she is to tutor three royal sisters. If the King of Stora chooses one to marry, war will be prevented, and it’s up to Miri to succeed. Unhappy but dutybound, Miri accepts the task, only to meet three wild girls who spend their days wrestling on the floor and hunting and fishing in the swamp. ...Action packed and wellpaced, the story’s depth incorporates artful negotiation, the importance of education, and citizens’ equality and rights. This final installment of The Princess Academy trilogy certainly leaves room for more books if Hale were so inclined. Won't she reconsider?"

What do you think of the covers?

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22. The rage of age ranges

Recently someone in publishing told me, "You're not really a YA author."

It bugged me, but I wasn't sure why, because middle grade rocks. If the only readers I ever reached were ages 8-12 I'd be a happy author. I love kids those ages as much as I love teenagers. So it shouldn't bother me. But I think I've finally figured it why it does.

As an older teenager, I would have loved my books. The Goose Girl, Book of a Thousand Days, Dangerous, as well as my books that are considered younger like Princess Academy and Ever After High. And I have a lot of teen readers. I get emails from them. I meet them at signings, alongside those valiant 8-12 year olds. So I bristle when anyone suggests that my books aren't actually for them. I don't like labels that might get between a reader and the book that's right for them.

So how do I label what I write?

Some say "upper middle grade," some say, "lower young adult," but I have plenty of readers who don't fit into either camp. And I realize that I'm just tired of exclusivity. Exclusive clubs always give me hives. Those who try to make something like feminism an exclusive club, for example: "You're not a real feminist if you're a stay at home mom"; "Well you're not a real feminist if you exclude stay at home moms," etc. The narrower the definition of who can be a member of something, the less I want to be a part of it, whatever it is. (btw I do consider myself a feminist, in all its inexact nebulous importance)

What do you think? How would you define young adult? Some say books written for ages 14-17. But that's weird too, because can we really be sure of author intent? Authors have written plenty of books without a specific audience in mind that ended up being great for older teenagers. So is it just the age of the protagonist? We know that's faulty. All of my middle grade books have older protags, and there are plenty of other examples where that rule doesn't work. Tone and story style and substance are way more important in finding a reader than the age of the protag. Is it by who likes to read the books? That's tough too. I regularly get fanmail from readers ages 6-to-grandparent. Some suggest that the YA label is just for books with more graphic content (sex, swearing, mature themes). I bristle at that too. I agree that books with mature content belong more in upper YA than MG, but I also think it's an erroneous assumption that teens are uninterested in and incapable of appreciating any story that doesn't have sex, swearing, mature themes. There are all kinds of teenagers. There should be all kinds of stories.

Age ranges are tough. Teachers know, just because all the kids in the class are the same age doesn't mean they're at the same level in reading, math, maturity, comprehension, etc. Parents know that what one child was ready for at a certain age, another wasn't even close.

I wish we didn't have labels. I wish we didn't have age ranges. I wish we could all just be matched to books we might like regardless of our age or what age range the publisher has to declare the book for.

But at the same time I'm conflicted about this because I love that there's such a strong YA community, a community that calls BS on those who try to marginalize or demean teenagers, who values them as humans and believes passionately that they deserve their own stories. And the same for children and toddlers and babies and women and men and everyone. We all need champions. And the label of "Young Adult" has helped develop a community of champions for teens. I love it. I want it to remain strong and grow and grow. I just don't want it to limit itself in exclusivity.

What do you think? Am I wrong? Is the YA and MG distinction clearer than I think? Have age labels shamed you for reading something apparently not in your age range? How do they affect you? How do we employ the helpfulness of age ranges in books without limiting who the books might be best for?

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23. This princess wears black

Good morning, superheroes!

Just a week away from the release of The Princess in Black! I am so excited for this book, it may as well be my first. Instead of my nineteenth. Can that be true? (*counts*) Nope.

PIB-sm

This book is my 18th.

Eah4-sm

This book is my 19th. It comes out Oct 21, a week after The Princess in Black. Did I tell you about this? A collection of Ever After High short stories. Some were previously published as free ebooks. Five are new, plus fun extras. I'm excited to see this one!

PrincessAcad_ForgottenSisters_cata2

This book will be my 20th, out March 3, 2015.

For my Princess in Black tour, I'll be in the DC and Chicago areas as well as the Texas Book Festival in Austin and of course my home state of Utah. See my events page for details.

Today Mr. Schu's blog features a short video interview Candlewick (the PIB publisher) did with me.  I hope I'll get to see many of you when I'm out on the road!

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24. Like every superhero, every book has an origin story...

Pib1-smShe wears glass slippers.
She sleeps in a tower.
She sings to birds.
She is the perfect princess.
And for a monster-fighting heroine, that is the perfect disguise.
Princess Magnolia is...

The Princess in Black

When she was four years old, my daughter Maggie (aka Magnolia) was examining her favorite article of clothing: a multicolored, butterfly-covered skort, the kind of thing that makes her feel pretty and princessy while still allowing her tumble about with ease.

She pointed to each of the butterfly colors.

“Pink is a girl color,” she said. “And purple, and yellow. But not black.”

“Girls can wear black,” I said. "I wear black all the time."

She looked at me as if to say, you're not a girl, you're a mama.

“Well, what about Batgirl?” I said, sure I'd won the argument.

Maggie said, “Mama, princesses don’t wear black.”

It was like being struck by lightning.

All day I couldn't stop thinking about a princess who did wear black. I took inspiration from The Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She'd be a seemingly typical princess with a secret. She'd secretly be a superhero, working hard to keep her kingdom free of monsters. And like Superman needs Clark Kent, the Princess in Black would maintain a secret identity. To all the world, she is Princess Magnolia. But when trouble calls, she sheds her fluffy dresses and glass slippers, dons a black mask, leaps onto her valiant pony, and rides off to save the day!

I pulled my husband Dean into writing it with me, because he's awesome. And funny. And clever. And I like working with him. And there would be monsters, so he'd have insight to offer, being of their own kind. LeUyen Pham agreed to lend her bedazzling illustration sorcery to the project, Candlewick published it with aplomb, and the result is something I love dearly. Here are things that are important to me about this book.

1. The kind of book you can read to a four-year-old, because even though it's a longer chapter book (15 chapters, 80+ pages, over 2000 words), there are full-color illustrations every page that will keep their interest.

2. The kind of book a 6-7 year old might be able to read to you, and feel so proud doing it! Because the font is larger, a young reader will be capable of reading a big, thick book in one sitting and feel a surge of self-confidence afterward.

3. The kind of a book a mom like me can read to all my kids at the same time--10yo, 7yo, and 4yo--because the slightly more complicated plot interests older readers and high-concept story and ubiquitous illustrations keep the younger readers interested.

4. A book unashamedly about a girl (a princess even!) that any boy can enjoy too. She's a ninja! She fights monsters! There's an awesome goat boy! It's very important to me that from a young age, boys realize they can read and enjoy books about girls. If they start young, they're more likely to keep reading about girls and more likely to develop empathy for that other gender.

5. This is a girl who enjoys wearing the fluffy pink dresses and glass slippers and having tea parties. And this is also a girl who enjoys wearing black combat boots and galloping on horses and waging battle against huge monsters. She's not an either/or, just like my daughters. Girls are more complicated than some characters make us out to be.

6. This is not a traditional early reader. While the sentences are short and manageable and most words are short and manageable, and there's lots of repitition to aid in learning new things, there are also lots of wonderful, fun, big and crunchy words for new readers to sharpen their teeth on, like: "minced," "pranced," and "swished." Like "handkerchiefs," "snuffling," and "hog-tying." Why, there's even "hornswaggle."

7. As a parent, it's hard for me to find those transitional books that can carry a my kids from picture books and early readers to chapter books. This is longer and more complex than Fly Guy, Go, Dog, Go!, etc., but shorter and simpler than Junie B. Jones, Magic Treehouse, etc. I think the best comparison is Kate DiCamillo's Mercy Watson books.

8. There's a unicorn named Frimplepants. (at least, he seems to be a unicorn...but is he reallly?)

9. The Princess in Black's signature battle move is "Twinkle Twinkle Little SMASH!"

10. This is the first of a series. I've seen LeUyen's sketches for book 2, and you are going to die when you meet Princess Sneezewort. Those who have read all of them often love book 3 the most (so funny, Dean worked some magic). And book 4 is going to make fans of book 1 very, very happy. I hope for years to come, Princess Magnolia/the Princess in Black and her pals will be your pals too.

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25. Trinity syndrome and failed parody in The Lego Movie

In June, Tasha Robinson wrote an interesting piece "We're Losing All Our Strong Female Characters to Trinity Syndrome." In it she points out something that has bothered many of us for years, how a movie will often introduce an amazing, interesting, capable female character (often the only one in the story) only to do nothing with her. After her amazing introduction, she becomes a prop, just to aid the guy along his protagonisty quest and/or be his reward at the end.

Examples she gives:

the eponymous Trinity (the Matrix)

Valka (How to Train Your Dragon 2) - ugh, this one DROVE ME CRAZY. The way the script treated her was appalling. Honestly I'm so surprised in the years it takes to produce an animated movie, no one spoke up and said, isn't this bothering anyone else?

WyldStyle (Lego Movie) - drove me nutso. She was so cool at first! And once again reduced to ineffectual character who exists solely to be a protagonist reward

Tauriel (The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug)

Other examples that have stood out to me include Thandie Newton's character in Mission Impossible 2 (a textbook example really), Zoe Saldana in the new Star Treks, Mako Mori in Pacific Rim, Fiona in Shrek, all the females in The Lion King...really there are a ton of examples, and you'd be hard pressed to find a single movie where the reverse was true with a male character.

(to contrast, the Thor and Captain America movies have been great with female characters. Though Pixar is quite bad with their female:male character rations and almost always fail the Bechdel test, Elasticgirl is an example of a female character who doesn't succumb to Trinity Syndrome.)

I bring this up now because I was listening to Script Notes, a podcast about screenwrting by John August and Craig Mazin. I adore these guys and this podcast. They are terrific. They did a segment a couple of months ago talking about this report, and while they agreed largely with Tasha Robinson, they took issue with her interpretation of Wyldstyle from The Lego Movie. I wish I had a transcript to quote from, but in essence, they said criticism of Wyldstyle falling into Trinity syndrome wasn't fair because that was the whole point of the story. The movie was parodying The Matrix. It was done with a wink and a nod and so was fair game.

The Matrix starts off with Trinity, whose action wowed audiences in a way we hadn't experienced for many a year. She blew our minds, she was so fabulous and deadly. And yet as the story progresses, we learn the real hero will be "The One," and amazing and talented and experienced as she is, Trinity, for some reason, isn't "The One." Instead it's this white guy nerd. Why? We don't know. That's just how this world (our world too) works.

Wyldstyle's character vocalizes her reaction to this. Why isn't she The Special? Why this nerdy average guy and not her, who has been preparing and training and working hard for years? We don't know. That's just how it goes. And eventually she just accepts it, stops doing amazing things, and goes along with the story. (note: I otherwise enjoyed The Lego Movie, but disappointment in Wyldstyle's character kept me from fully loving it)

Tigress in Kung Fu Panda is essentially the same character as Wyldstyle (though serious instead of comedic): the most capable, most prepared, most talented, but for some reason not "chosen" and instead is present to support the seemingly infantile, ridiculous, unprepared but wide-eyed optimistic guy achieve his greatness.

What I wish August and Mazin had pointed out, though, was: isn't that a shame? Isn't it a shame that this awesome female character didn't get a chance to be the hero or even be significant to the second half of the movie? The filmmakers chose to parody a movie that surely none of the young audience would get instead of just letting Wyldstyle be her awesome self. They had a chance to make a character be different, to let a female character in an action movie be significant, powerful, as well as funny, and instead parroted the same kind of thing we've been seeing for decades. For me, the parody fell flat. I would rather have seen and rather my kids had seen Wyldstyle be to the Special what The Winter Soldier's Black Widow was to Captain America. I'd rather she had the chance to fully be her awesome self than fall back on a parody the target audience won't get anyway.

And by extension, I'd rather all girls got to be their awesome selves than be told by movies, again and again and again and again, that they should hold back, be lesser, tone down, hide their skills, step out of the spotlight, don't intimidate the guy, let him be the hero.

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