Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Talking Gender at YALLWEST 2016

The Mrs. Wobbles writing team
This past weekend at YALLWEST in Santa Monica, writers and fans of middle grade and young adult fiction gathered to celebrate the imagination as lines of superfans waited to hear their favorite authors or get a preview copy of the latest offerings.  The Mrs. Wobbles writing team and I were on hand to see what we could learn, joining the throng of mostly teenage girls.  As a friend pointed out, when my son arrived, the number of boys in attendance doubled. So gender was on our mind as we hit our first stop a panel on writing strong female characters.

At the panel entitled Strong Female Characters (Ugh!), Cecil Castellucci, Susane Colasanti, Michelle Gagnon, Ellen Oh, Mary Pearson, Sarah Raasch discussed their strategies for creating empowering girl and boy characters, while groaning that they still needed to have that conversation.  At issue, how does one create a strong character when narrative conflict arises out of confronting weakness.

Discussing their favorite strong female characters, the authors offered a litany of classic favorites, including Pippi Longstocking, Nancy Drew, Anne (of Green Gables), Hermione, and Felicity, the American Girl.  Castelucci mentioned Princess Leia, as she has published a novel about her.  Actually, there was some debate over Nancy Drew, who Gagnon noted is always introduced (in the original texts) with a mention of her hair, clothes, and waist size.  Did we ever learn the waist size of the Hardy Boys?   Equally telling were the favorite male characters with two authors choosing Pony from The Outsiders as a classic sensitive male.  But was there necessarily something empowering about presenting sensitive male characters?  Ellen Oh also noted that more than strong characters of gender, YA lit lacked strong protagonists of color in a world where the default assumption is that characters are white.  Maybe question that best summed up the conundrum of this panel was how come we don't have to have panels on writing strong male characters?

When I think of strong women characters in e-lit, I think of the works of Emily Short, whose works from Galatea to Bee feature strong and complex female characters of a variety of ages, but also of the Twine revolution, which brings works that extend beyond gender binaries.  I also think of Felicity Banks and her compelling Scarlet Sails as well as Birdland (YA) by BP Hennessy.  As I mentioned in my talk at The Inadequate Human, certainly interactive fiction seems more open to more possibilities of gender -- both in the customization of avatar characters (Choice of Games) and in the types of characters that are presented.

When writing Mrs. Wobbles, we think a lot about gender and stories, specifically in Switcheroo, in which Derik goes to bed as a boy who can't walk and wakes up as a girl who can.  In the tale, Derik tries to behave the way a girl would, to guess at "girl knowledge," and to figure out to what extent s/he is his gender. As some have pointed out, this isn't really a story about being transgendered but instead a meditation on our cultural constructions around being a boy or a girl and more importantly the weird concepts boys have about what it must be like to be a girl.

The current generation (in the first-world West?) is growing up with more open conversations about being transgendered and gender fluidity.  Gagnon, writing as M.G. Hennesseey, has a forthcoming book The Other Boy, which features a transgendered protagonist, and this is hopefully just one of many forthcoming novels that treat the intricacies of gender in the lives of contemporary teens.   No doubt many of our children have more open minds to what it means to be a boy or a girl.  My suspicion, and the suspicion of the panel, is that adults are the ones that close this innate openness about gender in children, by purchasing color-coded clothing, by (over)reacting to behaviors, or not letting boys peruse "girl" books.

The kids and I look forward to next year's YALLWEST and hope that these strong girl readers will drag their brothers along, too!

And as long as we have the question, who are your favorite strong girl characters in print or e-lit?


  1. My favorite strong girl characters would probably be Lyra from the Golden Compass (So sad about the film, see http://www.denofgeek.com/us/movies/the-golden-compass/245625/the-golden-compass-what-went-wrong for some perspectives on that). After her, I would say Leslie Burke from Bridge to Terabithia. I actually do really like Katniss Everdeen, whose punches were not pulled in the movies unlike Golden Compass.

  2. Thanks for these nominations of strong female characters! One question that came up in the panel is what makes a strong girl character? Does she have to be strong? How are weaknesses used in the strongest (most memorable or best touchstone) characters? Strength can be seen in how powerfully they can live in one's imagination as we form our identities and views of gender.