Bad Girls in the New Age of Wonder Woman

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The little girl was mean. She enjoyed being mean. She cussed. She picked fights. She bossed adults around. She was everything a girl is not supposed to be. Girls are supposed to be sugar and spice and everything nice, but this child? Zero grams sugar. Absolutely nothing nice. Spice factor? 100% cayenne pepper.

I’m talking about none other than The Great Gilly Hopkins, eponymous protagonist of Katherine Paterson’s 1978 novel. Gilly, or Galadriel, is the meanest foster kid around. Nobody messes with her because her sassy armor is impenetrable…that is, until she arrives in Thompson Park. When Gilly realizes the kind townsfolk are disintegrating her defenses, she hatches a plan that inadvertently sabotages her chance for happiness.

The film adaptation premiered in 2015, with a cast including Kathy Bates and Glenn Close.

For those who don’t know, Katherine Paterson writes award-winning, heartfelt books with the same ease required to open a can of tuna. Newberry’s, National Book Awards, and plenty of others gild her accolades. Paterson has been on my reading shelf ever since I was old enough to read a chapter book all by myself. Her ability to capture the sincerity of adolescence without any saccharine dazzled me then and now. I still marvel at her finesse rendering the real world and everyday life. I envy this skill the same way I greened at the math nerds at school who whipped through the quadratic equation.

But in Gilly, Paterson accomplishes something far greater and much more complex than verisimilitude. She crafts a sympathetic, compelling, and very likable female protagonist who is also mean; who misbehaves and shoves back; and who revels in her own wickedness.

I can’t count the times I have seen these characters get bashed around in critique groups. Trying to be helpful, writers advise the author to…keep the girl’s spunk, but go easy on her cruelty. Or…I’d like her more if she wasn’t so mean. Or…have you considered making your main character a boy?

Make her a boy? What — are girls not allowed to be mean or aggressive or spiteful?

“Little Girl” by William Adolphe Bouguereau. Image CC.

Actually, they’re not. At least according to lots of reporting on social science research:

For Women Leaders, Likability and Success Hardly Go Hand-in-Hand
The Social Science Behind “Bossiness”
The Price Women Leaders Pay for Assertiveness–and How to Minimize It
What Does Social Science Say About How a Woman President Might Lead?

Time and again, the research shows that men are rewarded for being bossy, assertive, aggressive, etc. even to the point of being jerkbags. But women who exhibit similar behavior are relegated to the bitch-bin.

And at the risk of enraging just about every woman on the planet who spent $10 or more to see Wonder Woman — 2017 blockbuster film starring mostly women and directed by a woman — Diana, Princess of Themyscira, Daughter of Hippolyta, AKA Diana Prince, fully perpetuates the good girl stereotype.

Yes, she has amazing physical strength and can seriously kick some Axis Power butt. But she is also completely, entirely, holistically good. In every interview and behind-the-scenes profile I have seen, both Gal Gadot (who plays Diana) and director Patty Jenkins rave about the character’s quintessential goodness. This suggests the thematic intent to portray a good woman with mighty powers. But I take this a step further and attest that the only reason Diana can be so powerful is because she is also so good. The two traits are diametrically and proportionately linked. In other words, were she less like Captain America and more like Deadpool, moviegoers would not like her even half as much.

Contemporary society does not punish Diana for her powers. They do not relegate her to the Island of Ms-Fit Bossypantsuits because she is a good girl.

Which wraps back to Gilly, who is entirely likable despite spending most of the book being entirely rotten. A real brat. She blows bubble-gum bombs in adult’s faces. She savors violent fantasies. She bullies other children. She hate crimes her teacher. She steals. She lies.

So the real question is how in the hell (to quote Gilly) does Paterson achieve this? How does she trick our societal radar? And is her technique one that other writers can master for their own works?

I absolutely believe the technique is transferable! (Alas, the same cannot be said for the rest of Paterson’s prowess.) Essentially, give the bad protagonist (AKA anti-hero) a vulnerability. A weakness. A gap in the armor. Director Tim Miller puts this to brilliant use in the opening sequences of Deadpool.

First the camera pulls back from an assortment of crayons and a little tape deck blasting music. Our anti-hero perches on the railing of an interstate overpass. He is drawing his own stick-figure comic doodles (of himself lopping the head of his arch nemesis) while his ankles pendulum. To top it all off, Deadpool is singing along to the tunes — specifically Salt n’ Pepa’s 1993 hip-hop hit “Shoop.”

Following a brief monologue (the kind usually reserved for villains), Deadpool goes on to commit some pretty heinous atrocities. Over the course of the entire movie, he proves to be something like a leotard-clad Gilly Hopkins: foul-mouthed, sadistic, sarcastic, even a tad soul-less on his revenge quest. But it doesn’t matter to viewers. They’ve already seen him be just a bit vulnerable with those crayons and outdated pop music. They’ve already seen his soft spot and said: Awwww!

Paterson introduces Gilly with a similar hint of vulnerability. When readers meet Gilly, she sits in the back of the social worker’s car, chewing a wad of pink bubble-gum. As the social worker lectures her, Gilly blows a gigantic bubble, which pops and sticks to her hair. The novel could have just as easily opened with Gilly in the car turning her tooth brush into a shank knife — an action that fully shows and supports Gilly’s bad girl nature — however, such a start would not have exposed her weakness. Like that gum, Gilly turns out to be full of hot air. Like that gum, she softens. And just like Deadpool, Gilly goes on to commit some pretty unforgivable acts, but readers are already on her side.

And to get them there, she did not have to be good. Only vulnerable. Only a bit soft. Neither are the same as “good.” Instead, Paterson enabled a female character to be simultaneously “bad” and sympathetic. She enabled readers to encounter a true human being, and in doing so, she gave them a taste of true humanity.

So what say you, writers? Shall we get to work? Shall we labor with love on our anti-hero protagonists, making them authentically flawed, not artificially good flavored? Let’s a make a world where writers bring a Deadpool character to critique and leave with the feedback…have you considered making your bad protagonist a girl? Better still, let’s make a world where girls and boys, men, women, and everyone between or beyond those gender categories can simply be what they are and nonetheless loved.

Two First Amendment Books by Yours Truly

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At a time when our national attention sits securely, sometimes obsessively, on the goingson of Washington, D.C. and our national leaders — be they elected, electoral, or judicial — young viewers and readers deserve thoughtful texts exploring the roots of our rights.

For parents, teachers, and librarians seeking such books for the voracious omnivorous reader, might I suggest…

The Freedom of Speech and The Right to Petition by Jenny Mason

The texts introduce middle grade readers to the Bill of Rights, its historical origins, and its ongoing influences on our daily lives. From there, each book in the series zooms in on a particular clause in the First or Second Amendments. For instance, I looked at the right to petition and the freedom of speech. Whenever possible, the narrative pays close attention to landmark Supreme Court decisions that directly impact the freedoms of young individuals. (And all the books are loaded with strange or funny factoids. Mine are doubly loaded with bad puns and an overall humorous tone.)

When the editors invited me to author two books in the Our Basic Freedoms series, they challenged me to write about the First Amendment without the armor of my own political, personal, or professional biases. I was to approach the topic with an open and accepting mind. This was, in no way, an easy assignment. As I writer, I feel duty- and honor-bound to the philosophy of free speech. As if me and Free Speech pricked our fingers, mashed our blood beads together, then swore an oath and spat to make eternal. Same goes for the right to petition, which really boils down to the pen’s might over the sword in disputes.

However, the guideline proved invaluable to my research. Unarmored (and consequently unafraid of rust), I dove deep into the murky waters of Constitutional interpretation. I found credible, logical support for all sides. I discovered the tension, the constant tug-of-war for power, that makes our government function. Sure, it often resembles dysfunction, but the Framers and Founding Fathers knew that if they could keep power from ever coagulating in one corner, then all sides would have to bend (stretch their vulnerable, thirsty throats) in order to get even a taste of what they wanted.

What’s in store for the nation now that so many of the protocols intended to keep power bouncing and swinging, and swirling have been rescinded or altered or diluted? Well that is a future story being written as we speak; a narrative that young readers are due to inherit.

Where can you find these books?

Visit GarethStevens online, or shop on Amazon:

Freedom of Speech

Right to Petition

(PS–not sure why Amazon lists me as “Dr Jennifer,” unless they mean it musically. You know, like Jim Henson’s Dr. Teeth…or Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show.)

A Hungry Lion, Or A Dwindling Assortment of Animals by Lucy Ruth Cummins

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Look out, creative writers! Using a list format to tell a compelling story just fell into the capable hands of a children’s author. Cue sinister guffaw: MUHUHUHU-WHA-HAHAHA!

Cummins, Lucy Ruth. A Hungry Lion, Or A Dwindling Assortment of Animals. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2016. Print.

Genre: children’s picture book

Summary: An unassuming narrator attempts to relate the once upon a time tale of a large assortment of animals, only to be repeatedly interrupted by steady disappearances. Each time the narrator takes stock, the cast dwindles, until only the hungry lion remains…. But the tale does not end there.

Critique: Fans of the mischievous, misbehaving forms of children’s literature will no doubt root this book on their shelves alongside classic troublemakers crafted by the likes Mo Willems, Roald Dahl, E. Nesbit, and Mark Twain. Readers, after all, delight in subversion.

Writers, too, will delight in the way Cummins crafts a story around a continually revised list! Creative nonfiction writers have used this technique to great effect, but in children’s books lists tend to either accumulate or taper and the purpose is usually to assist with counting. The list in this text operates on a totally different schema. Much like Emily Gravett’s Wolves, A Hungry Lion hinges on subversion, but whereas the genius of Gravett’s work achieves its subversiveness by breaking the barriers of a complex mise-en-abyme, Cummins’s text utilizes closure.

In his seminal Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud describes closure as our natural ability to construct a whole from only the parts. Closure is how we fill in gaps in order to make sense of partial or disconnected bits of information. We rely on past experience to complete the incomplete. In other words, closure is our ability to make assumptions or leap to conclusions needing only a small diving board.

What happens to the disappearing animals? The book does not say, so the reader fills in that narrative gap. However, Cummins uses closure to brilliantly demonstrate how our assumptions can be (and often are) wrong. Truth is more slippery than soap. And injustice and justice can be easily and simultaneously swallowed whole.

The Pinball Plot

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Let’s play a game! A what-if guessing game. What if all your dreams came true in the New Year? What if, instead, your worst nightmares actually happened? What is something you’d never imagine befalling you and what if that very thing occurred?

meditation

“Meditation” by Kah Wai Sin.

I know. I know. The zen-ists find it terribly unfashionable to play such games. Disconnects you from the lush and fertile present moment — that exhilarating continuum of now-right-now. Fine. I exempt the zen-ists, but not the writers, from playing.

Writers must often play at these guessing games in order to construct the authentic arc of a character’s life through story. They must molecularlize the tissues that bridge plot to person, event to emotion. They must knit time with insight, experience with catharsis.

The methods a writer might enlist to accomplish this feat are as limitless as they are unique to the user. Some writers employ complex character maps which catalog the myriad details and events of a character’s life before or “outside” the story. Favorite colors, worst fears, most memorables, etc. From these webs, the writers hope to spider out the juiciest themes which will feed the growing story events. Other writers immerse themselves in a character’s hobbies, jobs, and distractions. Ideally, the various sounds, textures, and flavors of these activities will season the metaphors that, in turn, build the broth of story. After all, as George Eliot notes, “we all of us […] get our thoughts entangled in metaphors, and act […] on the strength of them.”*

tadpoles

“Tadpoles” by Mark Robinson.

And still other writers play at simple what-if guessing games. What if this or that happens? What if the character chooses this, but not that? Engage with the what-ifs and the possibilities begin to tadpole in the pond of your imagination. A potentially overwhelming situation for the writer eager to nail down a sturdy plot, but an invigorating fertilizer for the imagination hoping to find the unexpected yet inevitable mysteries!

If we were to back into the past and ask me to guess what if my life unfolded exactly as I envisioned it just then, I would have said (with rambunctious certainty) that I would wind up the wife and devoted partner of my most treasured and beloved best friend. I could see nothing else. I could not imagine any other outcomes. Or maybe, I was too afraid to play with what-ifs.

What if that was not the outcome? What if, instead, tragedy pounced on me and spent the next year and half gnashing the bones of my broken heart between its sharp teeth? What if the most unthinkable thing I could not imagine actually happened?

extraball

“Extra Ball” by Shawn Clover.

Only in looking back can I trace the ricochet rebound boomerang skip wiggle weave jounce journey of my life. Not just recently, but going all the way back. Only while looking back can I see the restrictions fear placed on my imagination.

Conjuring pinball scenarios lends much to a person’s resilience, if not to a writer’s ability to plot surprising and fulfilling stories. Remember that your characters’ lives are not javelins. Dare to be erratic in your outlining. Dare to imagine the unimaginable.

In the midst of my bounce and bang off the rubber band bumpers — reams of unpublished writing, unanswered queries, blanket rejections, and that unexpected heartache as deep as the Grand Canyon — the most unimaginable thing gradually happened: I got published…in my chosen field of children’s writing, no less! And then, I got published again. Aaaand again. By the close of 2016, I will have produced a children’s magazine article, a short story, two science picture books, two middle grade civics/history books, and three mixed discipline books for young readers!

So, you tell me, 2017: what if? What if.

cobblestone_article

“Striking a Balance,” in Cobblestone. Ed. Meg Chorlian. May/June 2016.

muse-magazine-february-2016

“Body of Knowledge” in Muse. Ed. Johanna Arnone. February 2016.

Freedom of Speech. Our Basic Freedoms Series. New York: Gareth Stevens, 2017 (forthcoming).

Freedom to Petition. Our Basic Freedoms Series. New York: Gareth Stevens, 2017 (forthcoming).

 The Space Race. Greatest Races Series. New York: Rosen Publishing, 2017 (forthcoming).

The Nuclear Arms Race. Greatest Races Series. New York: Rosen Publishing, 2017 (forthcoming).

Crazy Road Races. Greatest Races Series. New York: Rosen Publishing, 2017 (forthcoming).

 

 

*p 85. Eliot, George. Middlemarch. 1872. London: Penguin, 2003. Print.

Body of Knowledge by Yours Truly

muse-magazine-february-2016Today, I’m as happy as a maggot in pus because my short story, “Body of Knowledge” appears in the the February 2016 issue of Muse Magazine for Kids!

Based on true events in 19th century Dublin, the hair-raising tale follows four teens on a midnight errand to rob a grave! If I’ve done my job as a storyteller, then Robert Knox, Astley Cooper, and John Hunter are rolling in their graves (joyfully, of course)!

Warning: readers who do not like gore are sure to find this story just “offal.”

Artist Duncan Long provided a haunting set of illustrations to accompany the story!