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