Of Princess Books and PR Nightmares
How a popular author is taking a stand against sexual harassment and everyday discrimination.
I‘ve been a fan of author Shannon Hale for a long time. How long? Well, I began reading her book “Goose Girl” over a cup of Seattle’s Best (btw, it’s not) coffee in the old Borders on 21st (Does anyone else’s heart still hurt when they drive past? Oh, Borders, I miss you so!). So yeah, it’s been awhile. I haven’t come close to reading everything Hale has written, but what I have read, I’ve re-read, and contemplated naming future daughters after some of her characters, etc. So if you haven’t read anything by Shannon Hale, start with “Goose Girl” or “Princess Academy” and enjoy!
Recently, Shannon Hale’s name kept coming up in my Facebook newsfeed because she stepped up to respond via email to a controversy regarding FanX(R) (Salt Lake City Comic Con) and their response to sexual harassment claims against a popular male author who was expected to attend the event. (You can read Hale’s account of the exchange, including its move to Twitter–where FanX(R) included a screenshot of her private email address! So invasive–here, and an additional article explaining the FanX(R) fiasco here. To summarize, many local authors are upset with the way FanX has handled the sexual harassment claim and are boycotting or considering boycotting the upcoming event.)
The most telling part of the conversation is this paragraph from a FanX represnetative:
“Maybe it’s best if you sit this one out [i.e., the upcoming FanX] and then wait to hear how it went. I don’t think there is anything we can say to convince you to come and quite frankly I’m not willing to try. I know in my heart that we take this seriously and I don’t think you get it. I have four daughters and I’ve been sensitive to these issues for decades, long before it became trendy with #metoo.”
Blech, blech, blech.
Anyway, as I was following this story, which took me to Shannon Hale’s Tumblr, I noticed she had recently posted an article called “We’re Ready: a post for #kidlitwomen.” In it, she recounts the following story:
“Me: ‘So many teachers have told me the same thing. They say, “When I told my students we were reading a book called PRINCESS ACADEMY, the girls said—’”
I gesture to the kids and wait. They anticipate what I’m expecting, and in unison, the girls scream, ‘YAY!’
Me: ‘”And the boys said—”‘
I gesture and wait. The boys know just what to do. They always do, no matter their age or the state they live in.
In unison, the boys shout, ‘BOOOOO!’
Me: ‘And then the teachers tell me that after reading the book, the boys like it as much or sometimes even more than the girls do.’
Audible gasp. They weren’t expecting that.
Me: ‘So it’s not the story itself boys don’t like, it’s what?’
The kids shout, ‘The name! The title!’
Me: ‘And why don’t they like the title?’
As usual, kids call out, ‘Princess!’
But this time, a smallish 3rd grade boy on the first row, who I find out later is named Logan, shouts at me, ‘Because it’s GIRLY!’
The way Logan said ‘girly’…so much hatred from someone so small. So much distain. This is my 200-300th assembly, I’ve asked these same questions dozens of times with the same answers, but the way he says ‘girly’ literally makes me take a step back. I am briefly speechless, chilled by his hostility.”
Later in the piece, Hale writes, “I met little Logan at the same assembly where I noticed that all the 7th and 8th graders were girls. Later, a teacher told me that the administration only invited the middle school girls to my assembly. Because I’m a woman. I asked, and when they’d had a male author, all the kids were invited. Again reinforcing the falsehood that what men say is universally important but what women say only applies to girls.”
So angry right now. The article doesn’t end on a hopeless, note, however:
“Like the bookseller, when I do signings, I frequently ask each kid, ‘What kind of books do you like?’ I hear what you’d expect: funny books, adventure stories, fantasy, graphic novels. I’ve never, ever, EVER had a kid say, ‘I only like books about boys.’ Adults are the ones with the weird bias. We’re the ones with the hangups, because we were raised to believe thinking that way is normal. And we pass it along to the kids in sometimes overt (‘Put that back! That’s a girl book!’) but usually in subtle ways we barely notice ourselves.
But we are ready now. We’re ready to notice and to analyze. We’re ready to be thoughtful. We’re ready for change. The girls are ready, the boys are ready, the non-binary kids are ready. The parents, librarians, booksellers, authors, readers are ready. Time’s up. Let’s make a change.”
This whole piece caught my attention because there are currently three books sitting on my office desk that I want to write about in a future blog post: “Millions” and “Framed,” both by Cottrell Boyce, and “Okay for Now” by Gary Schmidt. Each of these books as a middle-school-aged male protagonist (and is excellent), so I’m proud that they’re part of my library for future-Joss, when he’s ready to start reading chapter books on his own–or even just sit through them while I read. I feel like a lot of the books I read do have strong female protagonists, whether they are Shannon Hale’s books, the incredible Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer, Scott Westerfield’s “Uglies” series, etc. But even the thought of writing a blog post about “books for boys” reminds me of a 2016 NPR segment about Marley Dias, the then-11 year old who started a campaign to discover, collect and distribute books about female girls of color. Dias had said something about how all the books she read in school were about white boys or dogs, or white boys with their dogs. So I know there’s no shortage of critically acclaimed (or otherwise) books with young male protagonists, but I still get excited when I discover a new author to love, especially one that I think Joss will enjoy someday.
But back to Shannon Hale: Reading her article makes me wonder if I’m discounting the possibility that Joss will also enjoy books that I already love, like “Princess Academy.” Will I fall into the trap of assuming he’ll prefer books with male protagonists over female–again possibly sending the message that girls’ experiences are less valuable or relatable?
I sure hope not, but I think it’d be an all-too-easy mistake to make. Either way, I am grateful for having read Shannon’s Hale’s perspective on this and for everything she is doing to empower women and to empower boys and men to stand up for women.