Writing Mysteries for Girls by Sheela Chari
This post is part of celebrating Women’s History month with 31 days of posts focused on improving the climate for social and gender equality in the children’s and teens’ literature community. Join in the conversation on Twitter #kidlitwomen or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/kidlitwomen.
When I wrote Vanished, my first children’s mystery novel, I wasn’t trying to write specifically for girls or boys. I was writing for my nine-year old niece, who was the main character of my story. But by the time I began Finding Mighty, new questions cropped up: do I write about a girl or boy? And who is my audience: girls, boys, or both? Eventually I created two protagonists, which is how Myla and Peter were born.
I had fun writing about them and finding ways they were similar to me, and not (I’m scared of heights like Myla, but I will never climb out of the second story window of my house). Even so, one problem I wrestled with was this pressure to make Myla a “strong” girl. To me, strong meant “kick ass,” or a girl who could scale bridges or wield weapons at breakneck speed. These were the kind of strong girls I’d seen in literature – Katniss Everdeen from Hunger Games comes to mind. But there was one problem. I wasn’t this kind of strong girl. And neither were my characters. And I started to wonder if I gave into this pressure, I was doing a disservice to my readers, especially girls, who are not kick-ass, but problem-solvers who approach solutions in other ways – quiet ways, and not by brandishing a stick.
But where does this pressure come from? Some of it is shaped by the bestseller lists. Some of it is shaped by what’s already popular – books often written by men that feature these same strong girls who are beautiful and brave and equals to boys in all aspects of spying, wizarding, and acts of war. And some comes from conventional wisdom that tells us girls will read books about boys, but boys won’t read books about girls. Unless, perhaps, the girls act and think like boys in every way imaginable.
In the HBO documentary, “East of Main Street,” South Asian actor, Aasif Mandvi, explains that rather than writing a white character and “slotting in a brown guy without changing any of the vernacular…any of the specifics of that character,” it’s important for there to be roles written specifically for people of color that takes into account their culture, their ethnicity, and histories. Likewise, it’s important not to “slot in” girls for boys either. It means writing mysteries that not only feature girl protagonists, but which center around their identities, their friendships and relationships to others, and the experiences that shape them as girls. In other words, it’s okay to have a kick-ass girl in your book if it’s true to her character and her range of experience. But it shouldn’t be a requirement just to draw boy readers in.
So what does that mean for children’s books? For publishers, it could mean putting girls on more covers of mysteries. Better yet, put them there by themselves, even if the book also has boys in it. Let us get used to see girls without their boy counterparts. It’s good to work in teams, but it’s also good to let girls shine by themselves, too. Finding Mighty has a great cover with both a boy and a girl on it – but it might have been even better if Myla had been on the front instead of the back. Maybe today I would have pushed for that change instead of leaving it a purely “sales” decision.
For gatekeepers, it could mean finding other ways to introduce books instead of “This is a mystery about a boy/girl who…” Some readers will find the mystery less important than the fact that it features Indian-Americans. For others, it’s important to say it’s a graffiti mystery with parkour in it. And for yet another kind of reader (like the child I was), it might be enough to say, this is about someone who feels overlooked until she makes a new friend.
Lastly, for writers, it’s important that when we write mysteries with girls in them, we think about the totality of their lives, histories, and friendships with others. One of my favorite books, Zora and Me, by Victoria Simon and T.R. Bond, centers on an alligator-ghost terrorizing a community, as told by the young Zora Neale Hurston and her friend, Carrie. But the mystery is less about the alligator, and more about the art of storytelling, an integral part of the two girls’ characters.
If a girl knows how to wrestle an alligator, that’s fine. But we should also celebrate a range of experience, by considering quiet girls, smart girls, and girls who get things done with their wits alone. The flip side is that we should see boys inhabit these spaces, too – boys like Peter, who are motivated by strong ties to family and friends, who think carefully before acting, and do so with a quiet sense of morality. Because boys don’t have to be kick-ass either. In the end, mysteries should elevate the thinkers and dreamers, too, who successfully navigate the world through their strengths and fears. In books, it’s crucial to see both girls and boys in these roles.
Sheela Chari is the author of FINDING MIGHTY, a CBC Children’s Choice Award finalist, and VANISHED, which was an APALA Children’s Literature Honor book and a nominee for the Edgar Award. She also teaches creative writing at Mercy College in New York. Find her online at www.sheelachari.com.