Shannon Hale is the Newbery Honor–winning and NEW YORK TIMES bestselling author of PRINCESS ACADEMY, THE BOOKS OF BAYERN, BOOK OF A THOUSAND DAYS, and the graphic novels RAPUNZEL’S REVENGE and CALAMITY JACK—as well as three novels for adults. She and her husband, the author Dean Hale, have four children and live near Salt Lake City, Utah. Visit her online at www.shannonhale.com. Next Tuesday Bloomsbury will release PALACE OF STONE, the sequel to your Newbery Honor-winning book, PRINCESS ACADEMY. What were the special challenges of writing the follow-up to a novel that received such prestige?
It was intimidating! And not necessarily because of the prestige, but due to all the readers that the award attracted to the book. So many more people had read PRINCESS ACADEMY than anything else I had written, and they were telling themselves their own stories about what happens next. I was hesitant to interfere with my own version. It wasn’t until I had a story idea so intriguing, complicated, and alluring to me that I was able to ignore my fears and just had to write it. I’m so glad now that I did. Books with strong female protagonists, such as those in the Princess Academy series, are often labeled “girl books.” But you’ve said that it is equally important for boys to read books with dynamic female characters. Why?
Sometimes we say that boys won’t read books about girls, and then we make that true by only offering them books about boys. I hear from some teachers that they’re afraid the boys won’t like books about girls, so the ones they choose to read as a class are targeted for the boys. When I do school visits, the schools often take the girls out of class for my assembly but omit the boys. We’re telling them in many subtle ways that anything to do with girls is bad for boys. That girls can’t be interesting protagonists. That girls aren’t heroes. That girls aren’t worth reading about. I’m worried that in our well-intentioned ardor to help boys become confident readers, we’re reinforcing a culture of sexism.
Meanwhile, our girls will read most anything—they are more flexible readers and likely will grow into more flexible adults. I’m scared that in the long term our boys are going to get left behind. The irony is I hear from fourth to six grade teachers that when they read PRINCESS ACADEMY to their class, the boys are initially put off (understandably by the title and cover) but in the end are just as big of fans or even bigger fans than the girls.
Teachers are in a unique and powerful position to introduce diverse books and help form children’s love of reading as well as their views of the other gender. I try to be conscious about what books I offer my own son. He loves graphic novels and fantasy, and at age eight doesn’t care yet if he’s reading about boys or girls. He just wants a good story. I’m crossing my fingers that attitude endures! In high school, you were really into theater—something you say was helpful to your career as a novelist. How does participating in school dramas improve students’ writing?
Acting is a profound exercise in character creation. You really get inside her, feel what she feels. I use those same techniques when I write. I also did improv, which is an excellent tool for letting go of total control. You take what someone gives you and work with it. Sometimes a story takes a turn I didn’t expect, and I can play with that, see if the twist is interesting and leads to a good place. If it doesn’t, there’s always rewriting! You’ve said that a good writer only tells half the story and the reader creates the rest. Can you elaborate on that theory of writing?
I’m flattered that you’ve done so much research on me! Yes, this theory is extremely important to me as a writer and a reader. One of the advantages reading has over visual forms of storytelling, like movies, is how open the story is. A reader supplies the visuals, determines the voice, creates the mood, decides how quickly or slowly the story progresses. The reader has so much control.
When I write, I’m conscious of not trying to do all the work. Stiff, controlling overwriting doesn’t allow a reader to fully enter the story. The writer should provide enough but not too much. Never try to force the reader to feel or react a certain way or make absolutes of interpretation. A story will have more power when the reader does half the work, finds what he/she needs from the story, creates her own morals.
I’m afraid my answer is too cryptic. I could write a book just on this idea alone! In the “ridiculously long bio” on your website, you note that you were never considered “the best or the brightest” writer during your schooling, but now you’re a NEW YORK TIMES bestselling author and a Newbery honoree. How did that lack of academic recognition drive you to become a successful author?
I do think the “neener-neener factor” can be a powerful motivator! There’s a certain honor in having battle scars, as well. I like that I can have empathy for other writers or dreamers of any sort that haven’t had a smooth path. I’m glad now that I can encourage them from experience.
Besides being regarded as a generally lackluster talent, I also received many rejections. My first book, THE GOOSE GIRL, was soundly rejected by the who’s who of children’s publishing. And though I ached and sobbed at the time, those scars made me stronger. Now I can honestly tell kids that people will tell you that you’re not good enough, and they will be wrong.
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