Shannon Hale: Princesses For Boys
Views on gender roles are constantly evolving, yet some traditions feel hardwired. Young adult author Shannon Hale believes children should have access to stories of all kinds.
Shannon Hale is a bestselling author who has written in a variety of genres: fantasy, science fiction, and romantic comedy, among others. She won a Newbery Honor in 2006 for her young adult fantasy novel Princess Academy.
Hale was born in 1974 in Salt Lake City, and began writing as a child. She spent 18 months in Paraguay as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, before earning degrees in English and creative writing at the University of Utah and the University of Montana.
In 2003, she published her first novel, The Goose Girl, a young adult book based on a fairy tale by the Grimm brothers. She has since written over two dozen young adult and graphic novels, many of them collaborations with her husband Dean Hale, whom she met in high school. Among these, they cowrote two graphic novels for Marvel comics about superhero Squirrel Girl.
Hale adapted her first adult novel, Austenland (2007) into a 2014 film starring Keri Russell.
Since bursting onto the children’s book scene in 2003 with her award-winning novel, The Goose Girl, Shannon Hale has given life to a total of 26 books and four children. Thirteen of these accomplishments were co-efforts with her husband, Dean.
Shannon Hale: I’ve written fantasy, realism, autobiography, science fiction, romance, comedy, superhero, murder mystery, early chapter books, middle grade, young adult, adult. I’ve written novels, I’ve written illustrated books, I’ve written graphic novels, I’ve written screenplays. For me, if a book isn’t a challenge, then I’m not interested in it. I get bored easily.
Shannon Hale spent her teenage years here in Salt Lake City, where her parents raised her and her four siblings in the Mormon faith. As the middle child, she became adept at taking on a variety of perspectives.
Hale: I think middle children have to both grow up fast and remember what it’s like to be young because you’re navigating both sides of the family.
AJC: And you’re a mentee and a mentor.
Hale: Yes. And also, my two oldest siblings were close in age, and my two younger siblings were close in age, and there was a gap between both and me. And so, in order to not be totally alone, I had to learn how to play like them, or play like them, and move back and forth. So you have to understand different kinds of people and you have to sort of be the balancer—
AJC: Yeah, and be the interpreter, sometimes, between those groups, I imagine.
Hale: Right. And I think that helped me. I mean, it certainly has helped me just generally in relationships in my life, but as a storyteller I think it—you have to understand those different points of view.
For many storytellers, one of the toughest challenges is the surrender of their work to Hollywood. Not so for Shannon Hale, who welcomed the alchemy of the adaptation of her book, Austenland.
Hale: It’s so fun. One of my favorite experiences in my life was being on set. I was on set for the seven week-shoot in England and, seeing how the production designer designed the room, I never imagined it that way. Wow, he brought something to it I never would have imagined. The way one of the actors delivered a line, I didn’t hear it that way but they brought something new to it. There’s a wonderful synergy when you’ve got group-storytelling that you don’t get alone.
AJC: Which is contrary to the received wisdom, and it’s the reason that Hollywood doesn’t allow the writers on set.
Hale: They should let me on set. I’m delightful on set. Because that’s the point, isn’t it? That’s why you’re making a movie. It’s not to force one vision. But the truth is, that’s more like what a reading experience is than I think most people might assume. I control every word in the book, but I don’t control the images that a reader sees in their head. They’re bringing their personal experiences—what they know of the world, what they understand—as well as the mood at the moment into what they read. Everybody who reads my book receives a different story. I do half the work, and then they actually are the director and the actors and set designers and they create the story themselves. So seeing that happen on a movie set was like, “Oh, this is what it’s like in someone’s head.”
(clip from Austenland):
Colonel Andrews: I say, I would die in rapture to hear you play, Miss Erstwhile.
Miss Erstwhile: No, not tonight, not tonight.
Mrs. Wattlesbrook: Miss Erstwhile, I insist.
Miss Erstwhile: Okay.
Colonel Andrews: Allow me.
Miss Erstwhile: Thank you. I only really know one song.
Colonel Andrews: Play that one, then.
Miss Erstwhile: So I’ll just play that.
It’s getting hot in here
So take off all your clothes
I am getting so hot
I’m gonna take my clothes off
Austenland isn’t Hale’s only adaptation. In 2017 she and husband Dean published the first of what would become a series about The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, a minor character from the Marvel Universe who Hale says shouldn’t be underestimated.
Hale: Here’s a squirrel fact for you—#squirrelfacts! Humans can bite, our jaw strength, we can bite with 250 psi. Squirrels, 7000 psi. They’re incredibly powerful so, you know, proportion that up to a superhero and actually, she’s an incredibly powerful hero.
AJC: Of course not losing a finger, but go on.
Hale: Yes! No, I mean if squirrels wanted to murder us in our sleep, they could. So we’re happy they’re fuzzy and cute.
AJC: So what do you explore in the first book and how is it progressed then into the second?
Hale: In the first book, she’s been hiding that she’s Squirrel Girl. She has a five-foot squirrel tail that she has to hide in the seat of her pants when she goes to middle school. We wanted her to be in middle school because where is there a worse place to have to hide a squirrel tail in the seat of your pants than middle school?
AJC: There’s none of them going to be good, but you’re right.
Hale: But in the first book she embraces herself, [her] persona as Squirrel Girl, and becomes a hero, and the second book it’s really realizing that being her normal 14-year-old self is actually more hard than being a superhero.
But when it came to writing a deaf character for the The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Hale understood the limitations of her own understanding and hired hearing-impaired test readers. She says they found things she could never have imagined.
Hale: There’s a moment when Squirrel Girl is talking to her friend and, Ana Sofia, the girl who is deaf, doesn’t quite catch it. And she says, “What was that?” And asks her to repeat it. And Squirrel Girl says, “Oh, never mind.” And both of my deaf beta readers went, “Whoa!” That was a huge deal. And one of them said, “It wasn’t until I was an adult that I understood that hearing people say ‘Never mind’ all the time. And it’s just what it means is, ‘Now that I have to repeat it, I realize what I said wasn’t that important.’ But to someone who is deaf, it’s saying, ‘You are not worth the time to repeat it. How difficult it is to try to communicate with you is no longer worth my time.'” It’s a huge, they both said, it was a huge insult. It’s a small thing for me. I never would have noticed and hearing readers wouldn’t have noticed. But I have a responsibility as a writer to think also about, “What about the deaf kid or teen who is reading a book about someone who’s deaf like them for the first time, and I have that moment in there, and I’m not aware of it—”
AJC: And they get punched in the guts.
But Shannon Hale does lay down some hard-hitting arguments, particularly when it comes to princesses. Eight of her books have the word “princess” in their title, something she says does scare off a lot of boys, but it shouldn’t.
Hale: When I go into a signing, the majority of people who are there are girls with their mothers, and quite often there will be one boy, a teenage boy, and he’ll have a stack of my books—books titled Princess Academy, books titled The Goose Girl—and he’s not ashamed. And when I talk to him to try to figure out, “What’s different about you?”, I find out that he’s homeschooled. This is something that happens in our schools, at the school age in the school system, when boys are pushed into these schools and they’re trying to figure out what it means to be a boy. And what they’re told is, “What it means to be a boy is to be not a girl.” Boys are being raised to be a negative instead of a positive. Girls are raised being girls. Boys are raised being “not girls.” They’re taught to dislike girls. They’re taught to hate everything that girls like.
AJC: Is this not some sort of a latent homophobia or something that men—
AJC: Men are so attached to the idea that you’re not macho, you can’t effeminate and be a real man.
Hale: Yes, that’s exactly what it is. It is rooted in homophobia. However, homophobia is rooted is sexism. I feel for boys. I do, because they’re being told that they can’t have the full range of human emotions. They’re told that they can only be angry. That’s the only emotion they can feel, is anger. And that leads to violence and self-hatred, and it’s terrible what we do to them. The stories we consider to be feminine aren’t only stories that involve a princess or stories about a girl, but stories that have human relationships, stories that deal with emotion, and we’re protecting boys from that as though it’s bad for them, as though it’ll make them gay or turn them into a girl. And we need to be conscious of it, and just kind of tear that away and not be ashamed.
Hale: Now if I were to write books that weren’t about princesses, what’s the point? My point is made so much larger when it’s got a girl on the cover, and the “princess” in the title, and boys like it anyway. No one can talk that away now. No one can make excuses for why he liked that. That’s why stories are so important because you can’t get into every home and change every kid, but if you’ve got a school library full of all kinds of books, and they can pick out any book they want, and they read a lot, they read diversely, they read a lot of different kinds, they read books about boys like them to help them understand themselves, they read books about girls to help them understand girls, they read books about people who are from different ethnic groups, or different religions, or from different parts of the world, and they read all different kinds, and then they’ve got all of those choices. They’ve got all of those possibilities and stories, and that’s going to help them tremendously if their home environment, or just generally the cultural environment, is trying to limit them.
The influence of children’s and young adult writers like Shannon Hale shouldn’t be underestimated. Kids do still read, and what they read can have important, long-term consequences.