Shannon Hale interview: Girl (and boy) power

Shannon Hale creates fun plots and strong characters for all ages and genders. Yet her books are often labeled as “for girls only” – and she’s fighting hard to change that.
By Eliana Osborn | Published: January 31, 2018


Shannon Hale-credit-jenn-florence

Shannon Hale. Credit: Jenn Florence

 

Shannon Hale’s first book arrived in 2003, with more than 20 additional titles following in a dozen years. Hale is active on Twitter, keeps an updated blog on Tumblr, and is branching out into graphic novels. She’s got a full plate (including four children and a husband/sometimes co-author). But that doesn’t stand in the way of Hale actively speaking out on issues she feels passionate about.

In February 2015, Hale started a conversation about how schools can sometimes perpetuate gender stereotypes when she wrote about a recent school visit. Only the middle school girls were given permission to leave class and come hear her speak. From her blog: “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.”

Here Hale discusses the many genres she writes in, as well as the pressing issues about access and equality in publishing today.

 

When do kids start choosing “girl books” or “boy books?”

It starts from the day they’re born. Everything is gender-coded for babies, from pacifiers to socks. Small children generally won’t consider stories about the opposite gender or off-gender toys (cars, play kitchens, etc.) as off-limits unless told so. And they are told so: by parents, teachers, siblings, and friends, constantly and in many ways. I meet homeschooled teenage boys who have never considered that they should be ashamed of reading about girls, so I know school is a big part of the conditioning. I’ve noticed that the year that a lot of boys tend to double-down on “nothing girlie for me!” is third grade.

There is no one kind of book that boys will like. Boys are diverse; they have different interests, different needs at different stages. Our job in publishing is to keep creating many different kinds of books and then getting out of the way so that readers can pick their own. I’ve met hundreds of boys who have loved my books, though many are ashamed to admit it because we’ve done such a good job of shaming them for being interested in any story that happens to star a girl.

 

Why are so many books marketed in gender-specific ways? Pink covers, for example?

In the 1980s, deregulation opened up markets for merchandisers. Suddenly, everything was pink and blue, from baby clothes to toys. It was a way to get parents to buy everything twice. Already have a tricycle your daughter outgrew? Too bad, you gotta buy a new one anyway for your new son ‘cause the old one is pink! Gendered toys and books often sell really well. It’s an easy gift purchase. But as more parents become aware of the damage gendered books cause, more publishers are changing the way they jacket and market books.

Marketing and covers have had a lot to do with creating genders for books. If the book is by a woman, the cover tends to have certain elements that make it look like “THIS IS FOR GIRLS, KEEP AWAY BOYS.” Author Maureen Johnson has talked about this, and her cover flip challenge was eye-opening for a lot of people.

It’s interesting that as a society we perceive anything that looks “feminine” as being fluff, shallow, less important than anything that looks “masculine.” I think it’s worth questioning that instinct in ourselves. Why does a cover featuring a girl’s face, or a sundress, or a flower seem less literary, of less value and for a narrower audience than a boy’s face or no image at all, instead just focusing on large title font?

 

How do parents/librarians/teachers subtly or overtly keep reading gendered?

So many ways. I’ve heard these particular phrases many times:

“I would buy your books for my kids/grandkids, but I only have boys.”

“Hey, [insert boy’s name here], choose something else. That book is for girls.”

“My son read your book – and he actually liked it!”

“I bet you’ll like this book even though it’s about a girl.”

“Girls, you’re in for a real treat. You’re going to love Shannon Hale’s books and hearing her speak! Boys, I expect you to behave anyway.”

“Why don’t you write about boys so you can sell more books?”

If you’re offering three books to a boy, for example, let one of them be about a girl, written by a woman, with no caveats. That will let him know you don’t think there’s anything shameful in empathizing with a female character. If, for example, you’ve ever assumed that books about black teens are only for other black teens and not your mostly white student body, I’d ask you to question that. I’d ask you to think about books as both mirrors and doors, and allow all kids access to both. Celebrate stories of all kinds.

 

What are the biggest problems with only reading books with protagonists like ourselves?

Reading a book with a main character who reflects you is such an amazing experience, especially for a kid who never felt represented in a book before. Books should be mirrors! But they should also be doors. Reading is one of the most profound ways to gain real empathy for people who are different from us. If we’re only giving kids stories about people like them, we’re missing a huge opportunity to help them gain empathy, to understand and care about others. If boys don’t grow up learning empathy for 50 percent of the human race, how successful can we expect them to be in life?

 

 
S.E. Hinton was my childhood first example of an author using initials to hide her gender and get more readers. Do tween boys really care about who writes their books?

I honestly don’t know if tween boys care about the gender of the author. I know a lot of adults do, and they are the gatekeepers: the parents and grandparents who buy for the boys, the teachers, librarians, and booksellers who recommend the books. It’s still very common for women authors to disguise their gender with initials. I can tell you that the people who show up to my book signings and the signings of women writers I know are overwhelmingly female, while my men author friends get as many male as female readers.

This is the great divide. It’s not that only male readers can read male authors. It’s that men’s stories are “universal” and anyone can read them, where women’s stories are niche and supposedly only of interest or worth to female readers. This is changing, but in my 15 years’ experience in this industry, the change is still microscopic.

 

 
I’ve read a number of books written by women with a male narrator. That seems much more common than the opposite. Can men write realistically from a female perspective?

The most recent data I’ve seen is from 2010. Among children’s writers, men write 80% male protagonists, 20% female, which is the same as they did in 1950. Women write 60% female protagonists, 40% male, which is a huge change from the 80% male protagonists they wrote in 1950. So while we’re now close to 50:50 male to female protagonists in children’s literature, it is overwhelmingly women writers to write the girls.

Girls and women in our society grow up learning to see from both the male and female POVs. We can’t help it. Most of the literature we study in school is written by men about men. Most of the TV and movies we watch are written by men about men. We learn to understand both perspectives, and so it’s easier for women to write from both perspectives.

Men, on the other hand, have to make an effort to understand the female perspective. I know men writers who in real life are close to many interesting, diverse girls and women, and yet their female characters are all based on flat stereotypes. In order to be better writers of female characters, men need to read widely and diversely. This is true of race as well. People of color grow up having to understand the white perspective as well as their own. They are going to have an easier time writing characters from both experiences. White writers have to work harder and read more broadly in order to accurately portray characters of color.

 

 

For adults who worry about girls being interested in princesses, what would you say? Is there a place for fantasy even when you want to build strong young women?

Shannon Hale - The Princess in BlackFantasy is the most basic and longest-lived genre. Shakespeare wrote fantasy. Gilgamesh was fantasy. The stories so important that they were passed down from mothers to daughters for millennia without being written down were fantasy. The advantage of fantasy is that a reader can insert themselves and their own issues into the story.

I wrote a book about a girl who can control fire. I’ve had so many letters from people telling me how it helped them with their own problems since the fire was clearly a metaphor for drug addiction. Or divorce. Or sin. Or depression. Or mental illness. Or adoption, etc. If I’d written a book directly about drug addiction, that’s the only thing that book would be about.

I worry that the rush to dismiss anything to do with princesses is tied a bit too closely to dismissing girls in general. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a princess. Historically, princesses are fascinating people with a great deal of consequence. There is a subset of stories about princesses which has them as helpless people waiting a lot and sleeping a lot and powerless to do anything without a man to help. That’s the kind of story we wanted to subvert with The Princess In Black.

 

How has the response been to The Princess In Black?

Phenomenal! As a parent, I observed a gaping hole between early readers (Go Dog Go!) and chapter books (Magic Tree House). We need more transitional chapter books with tons of illustrations, large font, engaging stories, not too long.Five-to-eight-year-olds crave them. So we were thrilled to find a publisher who caught our vision for this series and ran with it. It’s a story about a monster-fighting ninja hero, and I never met a boy who didn’t love it, but because of the word “princess,” so many still only give the books to girls.

 

What trends are you excited about in MG and YA publishing?

Graphic novels! These books reach readers no other books can. They’re opening the doors of verbal literacy for visual learners and helping strong verbal readers become visually literate. I LOVE them.

While I don’t think it’s just a trend, it’s very exciting to see writers of color, writers with disabilities, writers from many different marginalized groups get published and marketed and find an audience. There are so many worthwhile stories yet to be told.

 

How can writers be a positive force for understanding those outside our own experience?

It’s in any writer’s best interest (if not moral duty) to not only develop our craft so that we can find the best words to tell a story, but to educate ourselves and try to see outside our own little tunnel. Reading writers who are different from us isn’t an option. It’s a necessity. We writers are often introverts, but getting to know real people outside our own little sphere is also huge. And then when we write, we try to tell the truth of the world. How we see and understand the world will always bleed through the words.

The most important thing we can do is listen. Educate ourselves. Live in the world. And support authors from marginalized groups. A white man writing from the POV of a black woman, for example, tends to get publicity for a wide audience and accolades for being “brave.” But a black woman writer writing about black characters is considered niche, only of interest to black readers. We should check our bookshelves. Are we reading books not just about but by people of color? By people with disabilities? People with experiences different from our own?

 

Eliana Osborn is a busy freelance writer focusing on education and family issues for national publications. She is hoping meditation really is going to solve everything.

 

 

For more interviews with MG/YA authors, check out our writing for young people archives.

 

 

 

 

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