Rewriting the Stories that Shape Us

I was a girl raised by books. My father was away at sea for much of my young girlhood. He had command of a submarine in the midst of the Cold War, so he wasn’t just away, he was absent. For long months we weren’t allowed to know his location or to communicate with him in any direct way.  My mother, a hilarious and capable person, had, nevertheless, to care for four children almost alone, and there just wasn’t enough of her to go around sometimes. I often felt lonely, and unmoored.  To compound these feelings, we moved often, and as a shy, introverted child, I struggled to make friends in each new place.

Into the gap stepped books.  They became my parents, my friends, my constant companions.  They molded and shaped me, gave me my moral education, my sense of who I wanted to be in the world. Their stories are woven very deeply into the fabric of who I am.

I read then with an intensity and passion that made last pages a painful parting. I could never risk being without a book, so carried a spare wherever I went so if I finished one I could immediately start the next. I remember feeling real physical grief when I turned the final page of the final book in The Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle.  I knew by then that C.S. Lewis had died before I was born and there would be no more adventures in Narnia.  I was disconsolate for much of that day and found the only possible solution, I started the Chronicles all over again.  I’ve read them dozens of times since.

And over all those years and rereadings, C.S. Lewis became a sort of honorary godfather to me. I spent my junior year at Oxford in large part because he had lived and taught there.

And if C.S. Lewis was my godfather then Ellen Raskin was my godmother.  The Westing Game gave me a role model even more relatable than pure-hearted Lucy Pevensie.  Turtle Wexler was also overlooked in her family, and pretty pissed off about it.  I was known for my temper, too.  I once hit my younger brother with a hammer (I know!). Turtle’s vicious kick in response to slights, actual or perceived, made her thrillingly real…and admirably effective at seizing the attention she longed for!

Turtle is physically bold—she enters the haunted Westing mansion on a dare—and intellectually bold.  She wins the game, after all, and becomes tricky Sam Westing’s protégé. I wanted to be a bold girl like her. I wanted to win the game.

I adored these books for putting girls—younger sisters like me!—at the center of the action.  Making them the ones whose wits, bravery, and goodness save the day.  These books gave me hope for myself when I couldn’t always find it in the world around me. And of course there are kids out there, right now, just like me. Kids for whom books are functioning as so much more than entertainment or instruction, but as surrogate parents/grandparents/friends.  This is all to say that books can play an incalculably large role in creating adult human beings, and that this is a wonderful thing but also an enormous responsibility. My beloved books filled a real need for me, but they failed me too.

My devotion to Narnia and The Westing Game is so great that it pains me, even here, to find fault with them.  They–and their authors–seem truly like benevolent old relatives whom I can’t accept as anything less than perfect. And I think many of us feel this way about the books that filled the gaps, unable to see them clearly through the haze of affection and gratefulness for the need they filled.

But lately it has seemed important to step back and look at these beloved books more critically, to think harder about the stories they tell and the messages those stories imprinted on me.

But first let me talk about the present, and the moment we are in right now and how it relates to my thoughts about story.  When the news about Harvey Weinstein broke I was struck particularly strongly by one element of it: control of the story.  Here was a man who literally controlled the narrative.  He had The National Enquirer in his pocket and he could make them report discrediting stories about women he feared were exposing his crimes. This made me think hard about the many times I have accepted the male view of a situation as the only one.  For instance, for most of my almost thirty years in publishing, I have accepted the notion that harassing behavior is just the cost of doing business.  That men who are bringing in the big bucks are going to get a free pass.  That women who report bad behavior are disrupting the machine of business. That that is just the way it is. This is blatantly a male narrative,  but I accepted it. And I also accepted that it was a man’s business: their story, their rules.

I recently read That’s What She Said: What Men Need to Know (And Women Need to Tell Them) About Working Together by Joanne Lipman, a terrific, even-handed book about creating gender equality in the workplace.  Lipman writes of a study that showed that both men and women prefer male bosses, and would take a significantly lower salary to work for a man instead of a woman.  This was stunning to me, but explained the odd statistic that though 80% of publishing is female, more than 50% of the management jobs are held by men.  But in wondering why we women might prefer male bosses, I thought of the stories that shaped me–that have shaped so many of us–and I got it.

Lucy and Turtle were my particular role models, but I know many of you look to characters like them: Laura and Jo and Hermione and Katniss.  Smart, strong girls who save the day and win the game.  But whose game is it?  Stepping back from Narnia and The Westing Game, it’s clear to me now that Lucy and Turtle are throwing themselves at solving problems set for them by male characters.  Aslan and Sam Westing—and Pa and Mr. March and Dumbledore and Professor Snow—these are the string pullers, the ones who set the rules…and the outcomes.  And it made me think of the many stories we have of strong female characters who are actually quite limited in the scope of their endeavors because they operate entirely within a world constructed by men.

If we are all shaped by story, whether in book form or no (and I think we all are), and if most of our stories, even the ones in which girls seem to have power, are really about a male game, a male world, it makes sense to me that we would have internalized this, and would continue, even now, to think of men as the rightful leaders, the setters of the rules, the owners of the narrative.

I believe real change can come when we change the narrative! Overwhelmingly, we women make the books.  As mentioned above, 80% of publishing is female!  Let’s challenge ourselves to make books in which the world belongs equally to us. Yes, books should reflect the real world, and the real world is patriarchal.  But books are also meant to challenge the status quo.  They have the freedom to describe a world as we want it to be and as it already is, if looked at through a different lens.

I challenge us all—women and men—to be more critical of the books we make.  To think harder about the children being shaped by our work right now.

I recently got to work with Mariko Tamaki on a middle grade series inspired by the Lumberjanes comics created by Shannon Watters, Grace Ellis, Brooklyn A. Allen, and Noelle Stevenson, about a scout camp full of amazingly smart, brave, daring, funny, active, thoughtful girls and genderqueer characters, lead by a woman so capable and powerful, she whittles her own furniture and rides a moose.  Not a whiff of patriarchy to be found–I hope! I want to help make more such books.

I am sure you are thinking of other books that answer this need.  I’d love to create a list of them so please add in the comments. And thank you for reading.

And just to clarify, I still love Narnia and The Westing Game, and I still feel infinitely grateful to them.  I can appreciate their timeless strengths while also recognizing their deep flaws.  That’s what love is, right?

#kidlitwomen

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