A few years ago, I had sold my first novel, The Clockwork Three, and begun to work, very tentatively, on my second book. I had started writing it after reading a novel by a friend of mine, Rebecca Barnhouse. That book is called The Coming of the Dragon, and retells a part of the great epic Beowulf, and it is wonderful. So because of this book I had Vikings raiding the shores of my thoughts, and invading my dreams, and one night I dreamt of a girl named Solveig. She had a story to tell me. Many stories, in fact. And she quietly, but very firmly, demanded that I listen.
I did listen, and then I sat down to write Icefall. The first 10 pages of the novel remain almost exactly as I wrote them the first time through. Solveig was ready, but I worried that I was not. I worried that I wasn’t a good enough writer to do her justice. I worried about getting it wrong. Solveig was a Viking princess (a word I have been reluctant to use in the past—princess, that is, not Viking—but more on that later), and I am neither a Viking nor a princess.
But with the advice of my agent I wrote Icefall, anyway, and I nervously sent it to my editor fully expecting her to pass on it. But she didn’t, and to this day, it is usually the book of mine that readers speak with the most passion about. But there are some other people without whom I simply could never have written it, and that is not an exaggeration.
The first is Mary Lennox, about whose secret garden my mom read to me and my siblings, a little bit each night. Mary was followed by Sara Crewe, against whose miseries at the hands of Miss Minchin I raged. I next owe a thank you to Anne Shirley, a fellow writer, and a force of nature. Ramona Quimby, who I found hilarious, and who made me laugh out loud at a book. Kit Tyler transported me to another place and time, instilling in me a love of history. I thrilled with Aerin as she took up the Blue Sword and became the hero and queen of her people. I walked with Tenar as she literally and figuratively stepped out of the darkness of the Tombs of Atuan and into the light. All of these stories, I experienced as a young boy, but there are so many more I didn’t read until I was an adult. Charlotte Doyle. Lyra Silvertongue. Miri of the Princess Academy.
Richard Peck has said that we write by the light of every book we’ve ever read, and when I wrote Icefall, I was doing so by the combined, blinding wattage of all these amazing characters and so many others I can’t possibly name. You have probably noticed that the books I’ve just listed all have one thing in common. They feature female protagonists, and have even been labeled “girl books.”
There’s a question I am frequently asked about Icefall, and it never ceases to confound me. It takes several forms, but usually comes back to this: Why did you choose to write the story from the perspective of a girl?
To be honest, I don’t know how the hell to answer that question. It’s got a couple of major problems with it. The first is that it proceeds from a false premise. It presumes a choice when I never made one. It never for a moment occurred to me that Solveig would be anyone but herself. The second, larger problem with that question is that it implies a default male narrative, and that it would be a choice for me to deviate from that. To put it another way, I haven’t had a single person ask me why I wrote The Lost Kingdom from the perspective of a boy. Perhaps this happens because I’m a male writer, but I don’t think that’s the entirety of it. The reason goes back to that word I mentioned earlier.
For a long time, too long, I wouldn’t use that word if I was talking to a boy about Icefall. Instead, I’d talk about Vikings, and Thor, and the violence, and the body count. Even then, I kinda judged myself for it, but that didn’t stop me. I had on some level bought into the false dichotomy of boy books and girl books, almost without realizing it.
We each carry around a suitcase full of assumptions and biases that go unpacked, unchecked, and unchallenged. Things we take for granted as self-evident. (“Boys don’t like books about princesses.” or worse, “Boys shouldn’t like books about princesses.”) When we humans are faced with something that confronts our biases, we typically react in one of two ways. We sound the alarm, raise the defenses, and prepare for war. Or, we do the truly brave thing, open the gates of our minds, and let a strange new idea come in to sit at the dinner table. To get to know it better. We examine it. We interrogate it. Maybe we learn from it. Perhaps we even let it stay.
This recently happened to me when I learned of something that happened to Shannon Hale. Many of you are probably already aware of it, so I won’t go into great detail, but succinctly, she spoke at a school where half the students were not allowed to hear her. The boys simply weren’t allowed to go to her assembly, and this has actually happened to her before. I had never even stopped to consider that this kind of thing could happen. I’ve never once worried that when I go to speak at a school I’ll get up on stage and face an audience of only my gender, because that would likely never happen to me. I’m a male writer, and I’ve enjoyed a privilege of which I wasn’t aware. I’ve taken something for granted that I never earned. But with Shannon, it was assumed that boys would have no interest. That Shannon would have nothing of value to say to them. Because princesses.
I find this appalling. Shannon is brilliant, and those boys missed out on what she might have taught them.
Shannon recently told this story to a group of librarians. One of them, Margaret Millward, is a co-worker of mine, and she came back to work determined to do something about this issue. She began an experiment that took the form of a reading challenge in which she asked her students to read a book that they assumed to be for the opposite gender. She’s writing her own piece for #StoriesForAll, and I encourage you to check it out.
Now, I’m not claiming that boys and girls are the same. There are gender differences. But I think even more importantly, there are individual differences. So how much of this girl book versus boy book comes down to what boys and girls just like, and how much is the result of what their parents and their society have shaped them to like? Margaret’s experiment touched on this question.
Not every kid enjoyed the book he or she had chosen, but when Margaret asked them why, it wasn’t for reasons related to gender, but rather for the sorts of reasons any of us might not like a book. Didn’t like the plot. Didn’t like the setting. Didn’t like the writing. These are individual preferences, and perfectly fine. But the wonderful thing, the inspiring thing, that many of the kids said, in basically these words, was this: “I look at the library differently now,” as if a whole new world had opened up to them. Or more accurately, they had bravely opened up to it.
But here is the hard truth. A few of the boys brought their books back unread. Not because they didn’t like them. But because their fathers and mothers didn’t want them reading a girl book. Biases challenged, walls up, NO PRINCESSES ALLOWED. The boys weren’t the only ones who struggled, either. There were a pair of girls convinced that anything the boys liked was “stupid”. Though it must be said that no parents objected to their girls reading boy books, which speaks to the idea of a default male narrative.
So the experiment was not a universal success. But I believe it did a lot of good. It’s impossible to know just how much, yet. Those kids are still growing, and the books they’re reading now are still becoming a part of who they will eventually become.
We now understand, in a pretty hard-science way, that reading gives us a powerful empathetic experience. As we read, our minds create a mental simulation of what we are reading about, so on a neurological level, what happens in a book is real to us. TV and video games do not do this. Books and reading do this, and how extraordinary that is. I believe empathy is what makes us human. Perhaps not biologically or genetically, but emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. And books are empathy bombs with the gigatons necessary to blow apart our biases and defenses. They show us people, and places, and experiences that are not ours, but which become ours as we read about them. That’s why some frightened people believe they are dangerous. That’s why some people even want them banned, or at the very least, don’t want their boys reading books with the word princess on their covers.
When I talk about Icefall now, I don’t shy away from that word anymore. It is a story about a Viking princess who saves her family and her father’s kingdom. I write what I write, and I am who I am, in part because of the books I read as a young boy, especially those that expanded my view of the world. I was lucky enough to be raised in a home where I could read any book I wanted. Nothing was banned. Instead, we talked. I hope the current conversation going on in our community about gender and diversity in children’s literature will continue. I believe the notion of boy books and girl books sets up a false dichotomy. There are only books, and there are readers for those books, and we do a grave disservice to children if we make assumptions about what they will or won’t like based on their gender, or worse, shame them for their interest and enjoyment. I hope we can all follow Margaret Millford’s example and find ways to address this in our own ways. I hope as we engage with this subject, we will all have the courage to let down our defenses in spite of our fears, to question even our deepest assumptions, and to embrace the possibility of new ideas, so that perhaps one day, people will stop asking me why I wrote a book from the perspective of a girl.
Matthew J. Kirby is the critically acclaimed and award-winning author of the middle grade novels The Clockwork Three, Icefall, The Lost Kingdom, Infinity Ring Book 5: Cave of Wonders, and The Quantum League series. He was named a Publishers Weekly Flying Start; he has won the Edgar Award for Best Juvenile Mystery, the PEN Center USA award for Children’s Literature, and the Judy Lopez Memorial Award; and he has been named to the New York Public Library’s 100 Books for Reading and Sharing and the ALA Best Fiction for Young Adults lists. He is a school psychologist and lives in Utah with his wife and three step-kids.