Empowering Girls, One Book at a Time

I’ve written about empowering young girls before on a previous blog, but I felt like it needed to be mentioned again. There’s a lot going on in the world right now, and very little of it is good. Still, I don’t want to give up hope that our generation can turn things around.

As a writer, I want to see the world get better instead of worse. For that reason, I’ve always tried to be socially conscious when writing. After all, books had a profound impact on me as a young teen. Every time I sit down at the keyboard, I try to create real characters. They’re people of different races, from different cultures and backgrounds. I’m of the view that minorities shouldn’t be tokens you get gold stars for (such as: “my main character has a black friend, so I did a good job”). They deserve to be main characters, and our increasingly diverse population of young people deserve to see themselves reflected as heroes in literature.

I try to fight against misconceptions that I had as a young child. Hijabs do not equal oppression, a boy crying does not make him weak, and having a mental disorder does not make someone violent or evil. These are some of the messages I try to send. Young female characters, in particular, hold a special place in my heart.

As a child, I read dozens and dozens of adventures with boys as the main character. Treasure Island, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Kidnapped, Oliver Twist, The Yearling and even Watership Down (which was about rabbits) all had male heroes. Modern day books such as Holes, Harry Potter, Airborn, Looking for Alaska, and Unwind also feature male heroes. Needless to say, there were a lot of heroic, adventurous boys on my schools’ required reading lists and not a lot of girls. Thankfully, things have started to change.

In the YA genre, female writers have been making great strides, and they’ve brought a lot of their girl power with them. Female-centered stories with strong leads began to emerge in rapid succession once a new generation of writers got their turn at the plate. Now, a huge section of the YA market is dedicated to female protagonists. Male writers have also started creating stronger female characters. Kenneth Oppel’s Kate de Vries and Scott Westerfield’s Deryn Sharp played hugely important and powerful roles throughout their respective trilogies. It was a change I was glad to see happen.

It always pleases me when I see girls being depicted as powerful, be it though traditional or nontraditional roles. IN addition, diverse female characters send the message that women can be masters of their own story. This should be true of every female, regardless of their race, if they are boyish or girly, fat or thin, weak or strong.

Girls hold up half the sky, and they deserve the same respect and rights as men – be it in literature or real life. This is a message I am always trying to send through my female characters. After all, it’s hard to be a girl. Every woman on television is thin, beautiful, rich, well-dressed, and overwhelmingly white. Our lives are determined by corporations and governments that are 80% to 97% male. Women are 51% of the population, but we are voiceless when it comes to determining the laws that govern us. This is one of many reasons why we need feminism to achieve equality. In literature, I feel like women are finally starting to gain ground.

When I was young, I wanted to write, but I also wanted to get into robotics and engineering. My science teachers never encouraged me. I was told by a teacher in grade school that girls had a harder time in math and science. When I grew up and learned why such statements were wrong, I promised to do better. I hope I’ve done just that.

Responsibility in Writing

Creative writing is hard – a lot harder than people think. There are dozens of elements to consider when typing out a new story. Characters, world building, syntax, flow, and even vocabulary become a balancing act. Get too wordy and your flow is lost. Too much world building? Your plot becomes an afterthought. Focusing too much or too little on your characters’ backstories can lead to dis-attachment and disaster. It’s easy to get lost and, as readers, it’s easy to spot when it’s happening to other people.

One of the things so few people realize about creative writing is how personal it can be. Certain scenes can be ripped from our very lives. Villains are old bullies, and heroes are terrific friends. When we criticize using harsh words, we may unintentionally criticize someone’s life. So, when an author shares their work with someone, its a very brave act. Bravery and personal feelings, however, cannot serve as an excuse for careless writing in the YA genre.

Stephanie Meyer’s infamous Twilight series is a common target when it comes to accusations of harm in the world of YA literature. It’s no secret that Meyers modeled Bella after herself. A great deal of the story parallels with her own life. While some call this un-creative, and others accuse her book of being a “Mary Sue,” I say it’s no different than what most writers do. We put a bit of ourselves into every character and setting we create. If an author says they’ve never done it, they’re lying.

Where Twilight falls short isn’t even in the abusive romance of the book. The relationship between Edward and Bella is, by all accounts, unhealthy. Meyers wrote at least a dozen arguments in the first book alone that prove as much. By no accounts is this a bad thing, either. Abuse is something people experience, teenagers especially. Meyers fell short when she failed to acknowledge the relationship for what it was and glorified it instead.

Being a teenager introduces you to all sorts of firsts, one of which is usually dating. Sometimes, teens look to pop culture for guidance when trying to navigate these new relationships. Many young men and women can find themselves in abusive relationships. How can they know anything is wrong when the books they read and the songs they hear tell them this is the way it should be?

If Meyers had addressed the story in a different way, I feel it would have been received in a positive light. After all, it was nice to see a different twist on the tired vampire tale. But if Bella had called Edward out on his abuse, if she had gotten out of the relationship, or even if Edward had realized where he was wrong and worked to change his hundred year-old ways, then the book would have gone from a status of ignorant to socially aware.

If you make YA your genre of choice, it should be, in part, because you care about your audience. Those amazing and terrible firsts were like a roller coaster when we were younger. We lived through extreme highs and lows. Sometimes we loved those years. Some of us hated them. Writing for the YA audience means going back and creating the kind of adventure or tale you wanted.

And sometimes, it means writing the one you needed.