On Gender Expectations, Mark Twain, and Wishes by Jessica Lawson
When I was a girl, I loved reading about characters who didn’t shy away from adventures and who sometimes got in trouble: “Soup,” “The Great Brain,” and Tom Sawyer, as well as Caddie Woodlawn, Katie John, Anne Shirley, and Jo March. As a kid, I realized that the female characters were marked by not fitting into the gender roles of their time period, but I didn’t truly process that their tendencies and strengths were being labeled as “boyish.” And I certainly didn’t contemplate what that might imply about my own generation’s view of me, a girl who loved climbing trees and wore scabs like badges of honor. All I knew was that in those characters, I found friends.
So why did I connect so heartily with The Adventures to Tom Sawyer, a book that is, in part, a love letter specifically to boyhood? A book whose main girl character, Becky Thatcher, is a prettily-dressed, well-mannered (minus a few fits of pride and jealousy) symbol toTom of all things good and pure? I connected because I was a girl who clung fiercely to my childhood even as I learned what it meant to grow up, which happens to be a key theme of Twain’s book.
Even at a young age, even before I decided to give writing a shot, Mark Twain had begun to influence my views on storytelling. Twain used memorable characters and humor to make serious commentary about society as a whole, to speak painful truths about our culture, and to address things that needed to be acknowledged and talked about (Tom Sawyer addresses racism, religion, and abuse of power by those in authority). As a writer, I now find myself striving to do the same thing with my storytelling: using humor and lively characters to entertain readers while allowing them to access deeper truths.
I love The Adventures of Tom Sawyer exactly as written. The perspective, however, was one that I thought might be played with. An omniscient 3rd person POV peeking into Tom’s world in the original became a 1st person narrative from Becky’s perspective in my version. I didn’t alter Twain’s Becky Thatcher because I didn’t like her character. She’s a beloved part of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and I’m certain that there are many girls who relate to the original Becky just as much as I related to Tom and Huck. There’s plenty of room for both of these t-shirts in my house:
That said, I will admit that when reading Tom Sawyer’s tale as a girl, there was a subconscious feeling that leaving Becky Thatcher out of the fun was a big wad of unfair. So I tweaked the story.
I have a wish for my young daughters as they enter childhood. I wish that playing pirates, playing house, picking noses, picking flowers, catching beetles, catching butterflies, building robots, building layer cakes, long muddy hikes, and long cuddled conversations with a grandparent will just be parts of being a kid. That an extreme love for skipping stones or skipping rope can just be without being assigned to a gender box.
Gender expectations for boys and girls have evolved since 1860, the year The Actual Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher takes place, but I still see things that leave me frustrated for my children. Even the occasional trip to the McDonald’s drive-thru line can enforce gender stereotypes. “Do you want a boy toy or a girl toy with that Happy Meal?” In response to that question, my five-year-old always asks me, “Why don’t they just tell us what toys they have so I can pick?”
It’s important to give our children choices, in literature as well as life. It’s important to show them alternatives to how things are, to show them how things could be. One of my childhood wishes was that the world of Tom Sawyer had been a place where girls got to be mischief-makers, troublemakers, and adventurers, too. By writing The Actual & Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher, I was able to make that small wish come true.
Jessica Lawson’s debut middle grade novel, The Actual & Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher, is published by Simon & Schuster and hits bookstores tomorrow. You can visit her at http://jessicalawsonbooks.com