Sunday, April 28, 2013

Girl Power - Chris Healy

The celebration of Girl Power in literature series continues! We heard from Maria SelkeKirby LarsonJenni HolmKristin LevineJ.E. Thompson, ViVi Barnes, and Colby Sharp about the presence of strong girl characters in literature. Today we are thrilled to welcome Christopher Healy, the author of The Hero's Guide to Storming the Castle, to Teach Mentor Texts to share his perspective on girl characters.  

   Why did I go out of my way to include strong female characters in the Hero’s Guide novels?
   The short answer: My daughter would have killed me if I didn’t.
   The long answer: Seriously, my daughter would have killed me if I didn’t.
     My daughter, Bryn, is the most avid reader I know (though her little brother, Dash, is gaining ground on her). At any given point in the day, you’d be hard pressed to find Bryn without a book in her hands. And she reads pretty much everything—fantasy, historical dramas, sci-fi, realistic fiction, you name it. Still, with all the reading she does, she gets shout-it-from-the-rooftops excited when she comes across powerful female characters. Even if they’re not the main protagonists. She’ll come running to me, joyously waving the book as if it were a winning lottery ticket: “Dad, you’ve got to read this! The girl in it is so cool!” If the novel in question happens to be an action-adventure story, she gets so wound up I start to fear she may implode.
     On the one hand, it’s wonderful to see a tween so enthusiastic about the books she reads. But at the same time, it’s bittersweet. Because I wish that finding awesome girl heroes was something she could take for granted, something that happened so frequently she wouldn’t feel the urge to declare a national holiday around it. Unfortunately, she’s come to expect the standard set-up of “boy hero/male best friend/girl along for the ride.” Especially if it’s an adventure story. And it’s not that she finds that general dynamic inherently disappointing—it’s that too often the boy hero is flawed-but-courageous, the best friend is lovably goofy, and the girl is—in Bryn’s words—“just a girl, like that’s a personality trait or something.”
    So when I started to write an action-fantasy novel that centered around—sigh—four men, I knew I’d really have to amp up the ladies in the story if I wanted to please Bryn. But I didn’t just do it for her. I mentioned my son Dash earlier. For the past year or so, he’s had the typical girls-are-icky mentality so common to first grade boys. And as a result, he wanted his books to be as girl-free as possible. Until he met Amelia Bedelia—whom he found so hilarious that he couldn’t wait to read every one of Peggy Parrish’s classics. And then he decided to visit Oz, even though his main guide on the journey would be a young girl name Dorothy. After that, he agreed to try Wonderland—despite knowing that Alice wouldn’t even have three male companions to help distract him from her femaleness.
    My own kids are heavily in mind when I write. I figure that, like Bryn, there are other girls out there who are constantly on the lookout for exciting female characters. And that, like Dash, there are other boys who—once they are introduced to fun girl protagonists—will figure out that reading about the opposite sex doesn’t give you cooties.
    But I can’t say I loaded the Hero’s Guide universe with strong women just for my daughter and son—or even for all the other sons and daughters out there who may read my books. I also did it for myself. Because I’ve always loved strong female characters. I started off like Dash, missing out on such fabulous stories as Harriet the Spy and the Ramona series because they were “girl books.” But then I developed a literary crush on Pippi Longstocking, rooted for Turtle Wexler to win the Westing Game, and found Eilonwy to be the true star of Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain chronicles. I wish I’d had more, though. Back then, I would have adored Coraline Jones, Lyra Silvertongue, and, of course, Hermione Granger.
    I’m grateful that my kids have it so much better than I did on the strong-female-character front. But that doesn’t mean I won’t continue to take the gender factor into account when I write. I’d like to make sure that I never put a future parent into a situation like the one I currently find myself in… I’m more than halfway through the process of reading the entire Lord of the Rings saga (Hobbit included) aloud to my daughter—after billing it as one of my favorite all-time stories and biggest influences on my work.  And while Bryn is very much into the plot and has grown attached to many characters (Pippin and Gimli in particular), she still asks me every single night, with growing fatigue in her voice, “Are there any girls in this chapter?”
    Thank you to Chris Healy for sharing this very honest insight into girls in books and particularly powerful perspectives from his own children. Chris Healy's book The Hero's Guide to Storming the Castle actually prompted our whole Girl Power series. Be sure to visit our other Girl Power posts and to check back this week when we review The Hero's Guide to Storming the Castle and highlight each of the Chris' fantastic girl characters!

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