This week, author Shannon Hale shared the heartbreaking story of a recent school visit which the middle school boys were not allowed to attend because Shannon's books were judged by the administrators to be "for girls." Younger boys did get to hear her presentation, and one boy lingered after her signing, clearly shy and even embarrassed, to ask if she had a copy of her wonderful The Princess in Black that he could have.
Reading her post, and reading the dialogue that followed, I was overcome with a swell of old emotions because, in a lot ways, I was that boy.
To give you a picture: You know that family movie trope about the father who has big dreams for his son that don't line up with the son's big dreams for himself? Well, in my experience, it's a trope for a reason. My dad liked football, but I wanted to take dance. When Billy Elliot came out, I thought, yes! I'm just like Billy, minus any innate talent!
I was never allowed to take dance--it was "for girls"--and I did play football for all of one season. I was terrible beyond terrible, in part because I never wanted to tackle anybody. I remember during one game, I was standing on the sidelines and staring at the other team's cheerleaders when one of our coaches smacked my helmet and asked if I wanted to join them. Well actually, coach...
Flashback to elementary school. I was already an avid reader, devouring Goosebumps and Redwall and many other "gender neutral" series that my life-shaping local bookseller pointed out to me (I put "gender neutral" in quotes because of course these books are by male authors). My sisters liked Angelina Ballerina and the Babysitters Club, which intrigued me, but were clearly not supposed to be for me. The Judy Blume books went in my older sister's room; the Hardy Boys books went into mine. I'm sure all of the adults in my life making this bifurcation happen meant well. I know now that my parents specifically made decisions because they didn't want me to get made fun of for liking "girly" things. That's the thing about the patriarchy--it subsists on fear.
I did manage to find books like the Hardy Boys-Nancy Drew crossovers, that had enough "boy" in the title to look like they were for me but that inside were all about which Hardy brother was cuter (the only mystery that had ever interested me in the original Hardy Boys series).
Flash forward to high school, when the girl in my grade who was known for reading everything (seriously--she read Anna Karenina at thirteen) was reading a book before class that immediately caught my eye. There was a girl on the cover, awash in red light. It was clear that this light was from some kind of magic. That was the second book in the Daughters of the Moon series, and I furtively asked my classmate if she owned the books and if I could borrow the first one. I was instantly hooked. Each day, I would slip my classmate the book I'd just finished, and she would slip me the next one. I remember one day defending the books to another classmate who saw this exchange happening. They're all about magical battles, I said. These girls are fighters! Violence! Something else boys like! I didn't mention how the books pushed lines of gender and sexuality. I didn't mention Stanton, the tortured but sexy villain.
Flash forward to now, one month after the release of my first book for young readers, The Spider Ring. I can see in it the influence of both Goosebumps and Daughters of the Moon, along with all the other millions of influences that make up a person. I'll admit, when Scholastic first sent me the cover, I was nervous to see what felt like a very scary image for what in my head was a very sensitive book. I don't know what I'd been picturing--maybe something like a poster for Wicked or Frozen? I worried I was getting the cover I was getting because I was a guy author, which meant it needed to appeal to boy readers and hide the fact that inside the book, a girl was using magical jewelry to command spiders to make her dresses. I asked whether the cover could have more magical sparkles, at least. I have always loved anything with magical sparkles.
A few weeks ago, I had my first school visits, in New Jersey, and met with groups of sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, all of whom had read my book. I talked to them about Frozen and Wicked and the Lord of the Rings, and how I wanted to write a book about a girl who got the kind of power you'd associate with a villain--a girl who for many reasons felt like she was a villain.
I was so excited to see that boys and girls alike had read and (apparently!) enjoyed the book. Except for a few questions about why I'd dedicated the book to my sisters, no one asked why I was writing a book about a girl. I thought, I'm glad Scholastic gave this such a "gender neutral" cover (but of course, I put "gender neutral" in quotes because I am a male author, and my name is part of the cover).
My point is that when I read a story like Shannon Hale's, it reminds me how lucky I was to find the books I needed in my life. It reminds me of how panicked I truly felt to hand something like a Hardy Boys-Nancy Drew crossover to my mom to buy, knowing that if she started reading it, she would instantly know it was a romance book, not for boys. It reminds me that I probably wouldn't have been brave enough to stick around and ask Shannon Hale for a copy of The Princess in Black, knowing that even my teachers and coaches would have been judging that decision. It reminds me of how grateful I am to the classmate who sneaked me Daughters of the Moon without judgment.
It reminds me what a powerful thing it really is, handing a kid a book without judgment. It really will stay with him for the rest of his life.