Boys at School Visits, Men at Signings
(Or: I finally get angry enough to blog)
Last Saturday, I went to a really excellent book event. It required driving for 6 hours, and I would totally do it again.The bookstore was that great.
I had one truly nauseating encounter. I don’t want to dwell on it, because I don’t want it to overshadow an otherwise wonderful day, but at the same time, I am not willing to shrug it off.
This is how it went:
A man approached the table. “You wrote these books?” he said. “Tell me about them.” So I did. I launched into my pitch, and got about halfway through. Then he held up his hand. “I’m going to stop you there,” he said. “I don’t read books. I just like to talk to people who do, because I don’t understand how they work.”
I said something gracious like “Oh, well, not everyone is a reader”, instead of “Then what the heck are you doing in a book store?”, which is what I was thinking. I hoped he’d go away. He did not.
“I’m a scientist, you see,” he said. “Theoretical physicist. I am terrible at writing. When I do a report, they have to send it to the secretarial pool to translate it into English, so that other people can read it.”
At this point, I was desperately wishing Erin Bow, physicist-poet, was at the table. Sadly, she was around the corner getting a child to buy ELLA ENCHANTED.
Somehow, I ended up telling the guy that I am an archaeologist. “Why aren’t you out digging holes?” he asked. I don’t tell him that archaeologists don’t dig holes. I don’t tell him that it’s still too cold for real field work. I don’t tell him I’m not that kind of archaeologist. No, he’d made me angry, so I waved my education in his face, and told him that I have a masters in forensic archaeology and crime scene investigation.
“That’s kind of gross, eh?” he said. “Yes,” I said. Because sometimes it is.
“Well, I wouldn’t date you,” he said.
“I wouldn’t date you either,” I told him. I thought: you are super old and this is very inappropriate, but I didn’t say as much. Now I think about that secretarial pool, and I wish I’d added “Apparently you’re kind of a jerk.”
This man, who will approach three award-winning authors in a FREAKING BOOKSTORE and talk down to them, is a problem. He is not a problem that I can solve. If I have learned anything from the Vice article debacle and a career of watching superhero movies, it’s that apparently after a certain point, it becomes very difficult to teach a man something without hurting a woman in his general vicinity, and I am just not down with that.
But there is a problem we CAN solve. And it’s even easy. And I will tell you what it is:
Invite Shannon Hale to speak at your school*.
Shannon Hale is an author with a lot going for her. She’s got a tonne of experience. She’s funny. She’s articulate. She has written so many books, and all of them are excellent. And most importantly: her books are typically labeled “for girls”. Occasionally, she is not invited to schools because she is a woman. Occasionally she is invited, but then only the girls are allowed to listen to her speak. Because what could a successful woman who writes books about princesses possibly have to say to boys?
A lot, of course. How to write. How to plan your time. How to dream and set goals, and then WORK for them. How to put in years of effort, and then be totally overlooked, because you are a woman. Girls will learn that the hard way, but it’s important to tell boys early on, because it might prevent them from insulting random strangers in bookstores when they’re in their late 50’s.
Honestly, I think that’s a little beside the point. If Shannon Hale only had one book, and that book was The Princess Academy, you should still invite her to speak at your school. Because even if she had nothing to say to boys, it is important that they listen to her. It is important that they sit there and feel excluded. That they learn patience and empathy, and to be quiet when something outside their interest is going on in front of them. Girls pick that sort of graciousness up by necessity, but boys coast through, coddled against anything they might have trouble connecting with, so they never learn to try.
I’ve been lucky so far. I’ve had one bad experience at a signing, but every time I’ve been to a school visit, it’s the boys who jockey for a seat in the front row, and then tell me that they love what I’ve written. There’s a dragon on the front of my book (not to mention a boy!), but the fact that there is a girl main character only bothers adults. The last time I was at a school, I was a bit early and so all the kids were outside at recess when I arrived. “Oh, by the way,” the librarian said. “There’s going to be one grade five boy coming. I know you said you’d prefer grades six, seven, and eight, but apparently he begged his mother all weekend and she called this morning to ask for special permission. Is that okay?”
I like to think that those boys will grow up to be the sort of men who are polite to people, not because they can relate to them, but because they are people. It shouldn’t be that ridiculous a dream.
I usually don’t have an answer when people say “Why do you write YA?” I make things up about fun stories and compressed timelines, but I think I have a better answer now. I write YA because those kids want a big world, and I am happy to give it to them. I write YA because those kids are willing to try anything, unless a grown-up has told them that they can’t, and I am probably going to say yes. I write YA, it turns out, because grown-ups can be jerks, and I’d much rather my fans be genuine.
*Or any author who is not a white male. My rates, for example, are quite reasonable.