Villains and Monsters and Princesses, Oh My…

Every year one of our local elementary schools hosts an author/illustrator day. This was their ninth year — and the first year I was invited. There were at least fifteen other writers and illustrators there, and we were treated to a huge and fabulous lunch before going with our student escorts to classrooms to give presentations. I smartboardtalked about villains and monsters in my books to two fifth-grade classes. The teachers were helpful and eased me through my embarrassed ignorance of smartboards and Powerpoint. The students were attentive and asked great questions, and every single one had an opinion about which of my villains was the scariest.

 

Afterward, the authors and illustrators convened in the library, and parents came in with their kids to buy our books. I loved chatting with book-loving kids and parents, meeting new author-friends, and signing books for readers who were thrilled to be there.

 

The event was beautifully organized and a lot of fun. But something happened that disturbed me. There was a boy, eight or nine years old, who came running over to my table welcome106x160and announced, “I want a princess book!” I was really pleased — I’ve gotten enthusiastic emails and handwritten notes from a few boys who read my books, but not too many. But his parents were not pleased at all. They tried to steer him to other tables, claiming he wouldn’t like my books, that there were other books he’d enjoy more. The boy was quite insistent: “No, I want one of these princess books.”

 

Other parents joined in. One ventured the opinion that maybe it was the idea of knights in armor that interested the boy. Another pointed out that the books might have scenes with scary dragons that would be exciting and adventurous enough for him. The boy’s expression became more and more uncertain, but he kept repeating, “I want a princess book!”

 

At this point, I did something that I’m not proud of. I’d been listening to all this, unsure of what to do but pretty certain that I should maintain a low profile. Then I said — to the parents — “There are boy characters in each of the books who go with the princesses on their adventures.”

 

This wasn’t enough to convince them. The boy left without the books (though with a few princess bookmarks I managed to give to him). I was left with a bundle of reactions that I still haven’t completely sorted out.

 

There were so many things wrong with the scenario:

 

♦The boy wanted a princess book and wasn’t afraid to say so. But the adults, by trying to distract him, make excuses for his desire, and eventually refuse it, made him feel uncertain and ashamed. For wanting to read a book. A children’s book. A book about a princess.

 

♦I allowed myself to become part of the wrong. By pointing out that the books include boy characters, I showed tacit approval of the parents’ belief that the kid shouldn’t read princess books, or books that only have girls in them. I hate that I did that, because I don’t approve at all.

 

♦The parents judged my books by their covers. Because each cover features a princess, trueprincess106x160they automatically assumed that there would be nothing inside them that might — or should — appeal to a boy. Why should a book cover with a girl on it be only for female readers? Why shouldn’t a boy read a book about a princess?

 

I love my book covers. I think they’re absolutely beautiful. Yes, maybe the publisher intended them to appeal predominantly to girls. Maybe they could have instructed the cover artist to include the boy characters in each story on the cover. But should they have to?  Is there something wrong with books about princesses that show princesses on the covers?

 

There is an online movement called Let Books be Books, discussed here in the Guardian, that protests the idea of gendered marketing in children’s books. I wholeheartedly agree that no book should be labeled or marketed “For Girls” or “For Boys.” But this article, by the literary editor of The Independent on Sunday, takes the protest one step too far by stating that the editor will no longer review certain books.  She writes:

Any Girls’ Book of Boring Princesses that crosses my desk will go straight into the recycling pile along with every Great Big Book of Snot for Boys. If you are a publisher with enough faith in your new book that you think it will appeal to all children, we’ll be very happy to hear from you. But the next Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen will not come in glittery pink covers. So we’d thank you not to send us such books at all.

That’s a lazy, unthinking position. It lumps all books with glittery pink covers together. It  Princess in Pink pink assumes that only girls will like certain books, and only boys will like certain other books, creating exactly the kind of compartmentalizing that it claims to revile. And worst, it excuses the critic from the far more difficult and important task of censuring the social mindset that allows people to assume that books snot 2 snot 1with pink or sparkly covers with girls on them are for girls only (and books about snot are only for boys). It focuses on the symptom, not the disease. It marginalizes my books and other books like mine in exactly the same way that boy’s parents did.

 

The boy who wanted a princess book was being true to who he was.  The rest of us — parents, reviewers, me — are the ones who were false. We did the wrong thing, and for that boy, the repercussions may be far greater than we know.

Survivor: San Nicolas Island

Island of the Blue Dolphins. Blue_dolphins

 

This book had a huge effect on me as a kid. The idea of being lost, abandoned — it’s a theme that runs through a lot of children’s literature, especially fairy tales, and it reflects a very basic fear. Which of us didn’t get lost as a child? Who hasn’t let go of a parent’s hand in the mall or the park, looked around, seen only strangers’ faces? That feeling of dread and helplessness is familiar to most people.

 

But Island of the Blue Dolphins takes this primal terror one step farther. Not only is the main character, Karana, lost, she is abandoned by EVERYONE, completely alone on her island except for her brother and the wild dog she tames. As far as she knows, she will be alone forever. And yet…she survives. She figures out how to live. Even when the worst happens, she endures.

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Why am I writing about this? Because I visited the Mission Santa Barbara this week, and found out that the real person on whom Karana is based is buried there. There was a display about her — the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island.

 

The Lone Woman’s true story, as far as it’s known, differs somewhat from Scott O’Dell’s fictional version.  Her people, the Nicoleño, were killed in great numbers in clashes with fur trappers who came to the island in the early 1800s to hunt for otter. The Mission sent out a rescue boat to bring the remaining twenty or so back to the mainland (some versions suggest that the Mission wanted the Nicoleño to work their grounds, as they needed to replace workers who had died). Accounts state that the Lone Woman stayed behind or leaped off the ship because she had been separated from her child, but there’s no proof of this. She may simply have been forgotten. A storm blew up before she could be found and taken onboard, and the ship returned to California. People gradually forgot about her.

 

Eighteen years passed.

karana

 

When the Lone Woman was finally found in 1853, she had been living alone on the island in a cave. A trapper who had heard of her story located her and brought her back to the Mission. She was unable to understand or be understood by anyone on the mainland, though she enjoyed the company of people who flocked to see her. She was entranced by horses and clothing, and she ate as much fresh food as she could. But only weeks after her rescue, she contracted dysentery and died. After her death, she was baptized Juana Maria.

Hatchet my side

 

Scott O’Dell’s version is slightly more kid-friendly, making the Lone Woman several years younger than she probably was and giving her a brother and a dog as companions. But the basic story is the same. It enthralled me, the same way other tales of abandonment and survival did — My Side of the Mountain, Hatchet. Or even stories about kids isolated by their differences — Harriet the Spy, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, A Wrinkle in Time.  The idea that a young person can endure and even thrive in isolation helps, I think, to assuage the feeling of aloneness that all children feel at some point in their lives. And few characters in children’s literature are as utterly alone as Karana.

 

Juana Maria’s life is a testament to what humans can endure. Her story’s real, tragic ending was a blow to me when I read about it at the Mission — I didn’t remember having heard it before.  I’m glad I didn’t know it when I was ten. But I’m also glad that Scott O’Dell chose to immortalize the Lone Woman in a novel that kids still adore, even fifty-four years after it was first published.100_7211