WHAT ABOUT THE GIRLS? by Anne Ursu
The first thing I wrote for The Lost Girl, back in 2015, was a scene about an identical twin named Iris who, when she was little, had had nightmares about the Pied Piper. Her father told her the fable as a bedtime story, thinking of it, as everyone does, as a fable about people who cheated someone out of payment. But for Iris it was a monster story; her nights were haunted with images of kids following a man out of town and falling off the edge of the world. Finally, she told her sister Lark about her dreams, and Lark cuddled in next to her and rewove the Pied Piper story for her, saving the children. Iris’s nightmares stopped.
The Pied Piper nightmare was one of the ideas I’d been collecting for the book, as was a glimmer I’d had about a cat who could travel through clocks, a newspaper story about a girl who got presents from a crow, and an actual chalkboard sign I saw outside a local antique shop that read, simply, “Alice, where are you?” And there were Iris and Lark: two twin sisters–identical, but not the same–who had been separated in school for the first time because the very well-meaning adults around them thought they needed to be more independent.
The girls react in different ways: Lark with fear, and Iris with anger. And that’s where my book began to shift. As I wrote about what happened to Iris when she reacted angrily to these decisions being made without anyone talking to the girls, as they ignored Lark’s struggles and dismissed Iris’s thoughts and feelings, I realized that this wasn’t just something Iris was struggling with inside my story, but something I’d been watching many girls and women struggle with outside it as well, what all of them were up against—a lifetime of messaging about how girls are supposed to be.
I’d known for years that it doesn’t take much for girls in fiction for young readers to get called unlikable. In 2011, I’d written a book with a girl protagonist (Hazel in Breadcrumbs) and, in 2013, a book with a boy protagonist (Oscar in The Real Boy). These characters both were sensitive, self-doubting, uncomfortable around most people, and reacted to change with frustration. But only one was called “unlikable.” And it didn’t take much in the real world, either; women politicians had to carefully manage their emotions so they didn’t appear “strident” and were getting evaluated almost exclusively on their likability–a quality which, oddly enough, none of them really seemed to have.
And I couldn’t ignore the stories that get told in our business about books featuring girls. These books are treated as something niche, something boys could not possibly be interested in. But people don’t always stop there; sometimes people talk about books with girl protagonists as an existential threat to boy readers. Boys don’t read, we are told, because there are too many books for girls. You start talking about a book with a girl protagonist and someone pops up fretting “What about the boys?” like patriarchal whack-a-mole.
Now, all of this rests on rigid binary thinking about gender, which excludes a lot of kids. And, as we always say when this comes up, it’s both uninformed and harmful to boys. I am the mother of a son who thinks it’s weird that people think boys won’t read stories starring girls, and he’ll happily start telling you about his current favorite Raina Telgemeier book to prove it. And we are limiting boys’ opportunities for empathy when we exclude girls’ stories from them, not to mention conscribing boyhood in a toxic way. Not to mention that, as we’ve seen again and again in our country, we are complicit in all kinds of terrible things when we tell boys they should not be interested in girls’ stories.
But, also, what about the girls? What do they hear when we treat their stories as if they don’t matter, as if they take up too much space?
I know, because I heard it growing up, loud and clear, again and again. No one ever said it, but I heard it. I know I spent most of my life not knowing I could be angry, not even knowing how to be angry. I know I spent most of my life feeling like I wouldn’t be heard and so there was no real point in speaking up, that what I had to say didn’t really matter. And I know how much that hurts.
The Lost Girl is about Iris and Lark Maguire, eleven-year-old identical twins, who see each other in a way no one else can. There’s magic in the book. There are suspect crows. There’s a weird antique shop, and a mysterious cat. There are good, kind boys who like Greek myths, superheroes, and dioramas, and who would probably be really confused if they were told they weren’t allowed to like stories with girls in them.
And there are girls who struggle in a world where they don’t know how to make themselves heard, where they are supposed to sand off the edges of their emotions, where interdependence is viewed with suspicion. The Lost Girl is about the stories girls hear growing up and how those stories mash them into odd, uncomfortable shapes.
But it is also about friendship and loyalty, the magical bonds between girls, the strength that comes when you have people by your side. And it is about how, with the help of friends, you can look at all of the stories you’ve been told and name them for what they are. How, together, you can rewrite the story and save the world.
Anne Ursu is the author of Breadcrumbs, named one of the best books of 2011 by Publishers Weekly and the Chicago Public Library, and The Real Boy, which was longlisted for the National Book Award. She is also a member of the faculty at Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Anne lives in Minneapolis with her family and an ever-growing number of cats. You can visit her online at http://www.anneursu.com
THE LOST GIRL by Anne Ursu
Published on February 12, 2019 by Walden Pond Press an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers
ABOUT THE BOOK
Once upon a time, there were two sisters, alike in every way,
except for all the ways that they were different.
When you’re an identical twin, your story always starts with someone else. For Iris, that means her story starts with Lark. Iris has always been the grounded, capable, and rational one; Lark has been inventive, dreamy, and brilliant—and from their first moments in the world together, they’ve never left each other’s side. Everyone around them realized early on what the two sisters already knew: they had better outcomes when they were together.
When fifth grade arrives, however, it’s decided that Iris and Lark should be split into different classrooms, and something breaks in them both. Iris is no longer so confident; Lark retreats into herself as she deals with challenges at school. And at the same time, something strange is happening in the city around them: things both great and small going missing without a trace. As Iris begins to understand that anything can be lost in the blink of an eye, she decides it’s up to her to find a way to keep her sister safe.
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