Utah writer Shannon Hale returns to 'Princess Academy'
South Jordan • Don't ask Shannon Hale why she doesn't write more books about boys.
The author of best-selling young-adult novels such as The Goose Girl and Princess Academy suggests another question: Why aren't boys reading books about girls?
Conventional wisdom long has held that boys need to be tricked into reading a book by a Susan Hinton or a Joanne Rowling. Hale is convinced that most boys don't come by that attitude naturally.
"As adults, we make that true," she said. "We assume [boys] won't read about girls."
Hale said many teachers have told her of male students grumbling when the teacher began reading Princess Academy aloud in class, only to end up being bigger fans of the book than their female classmates.
More troubling to Hale is learning that some teachers have left the boys back in the classroom when she speaks at school assemblies.
"I wonder, when a boy author goes to those schools with their books with boys on the covers, are the girls left behind?" she wrote last month on her Tumblr blog. "By not inviting [boys], we're reinforcing the wrong and often-damaging notion that there's girls-only stuff and you aren't allowed to like it."
Girls who are encouraged to read anything and everything "grow up to be flexible and to have empathy for both boys and girls," Hale said. When adults, however well-meaning, steer boys toward boy-centric literature, that lesson is missed.
Yes, many of Hale's novels including the Newbery Honor-winning Princess Academy and its sequel, Palace of Stone, which hits bookstores Tuesday feature female protagonists. But booksellers and Hale's literary peers agree that the label "girl power" hardly begins to explain their appeal.
"If a book is just about girl power, it will not be successful," said Rick Walton, one of Utah's more prolific and popular children's authors, who praised Hale's thoughtful treatment of universal themes and skill at creating memorable characters.
Christopher Crowe, an author and Brigham Young University professor specializing in young-adult literature, called Hale a national leader in the field. "Shannon is a writer's writer," Crowe said. "She can craft a fine sentence and has a good sense of the English language, in combination with being a fine storyteller."
Hale said she doesn't set out to teach lessons. "Stories work better than lectures," she said, quoting a character in Palace of Stone. "If readers find their own morals, it's much more powerful than anything I try to teach." She said it would be an equally big mistake to set out to write a best-seller. "You can never plan what people will like," she said. "I write for myself and hope the readers relate. Children's writers have a strong sense of their younger selves."
She's glad to see the genre being taken more seriously by adult readers. "Children's literature is a place for deep, soul-shattering kinds of questions," she said. "Childhood and adolescence is a time when you ask questions. The answers can be profound and life-changing."
Hale writes in her Daybreak home, where framed art by 8-year-old Max and 5-year-old Maggie shares wall space with the cover paintings from Hale best-sellers such as The Goose Girl and Rapunzel's Revenge, and a cardboard fort nestles comfortably amid the grown-up furniture.
She and her husband, Dean, whom she met as a West High freshman, also have twin daughters, Wren and Dinah, nearly 2. Longtime baby sitter Kindra Johnson helps wrangle the youngsters so that Hale can dedicate 15 hours a week to writing. "Moms don't have the luxury of picking the best time," she said. "It's guerrilla warfare."
Far from stifling Hale's writerly ambitions, the children are a constant source of inspiration. "Being around kids, who are seeing the world for the first time, helps me," she said. "I get book ideas probably every day. I jot them down, and the ones that stick, that generate more and more ideas, are pretty clear to me whichever ones are loudest in my mind."
One of those loud ideas became Palace of Stone. Hale writes on her website that she hadn't planned to revisit the world of Princess Academy. But one day, as she thought about the novel's heroine, "a word popped into my mind: revolution. Every time I thought about Miri and the unwritten sequel, that word would sparkle, tempting, inviting: revolution."
Hale concentrates on one book at a time, no matter how many ideas are swirling in her brain. Her current project is a superhero adventure in a contemporary setting. "My books are all kind of different," she said. "I have to go with the story that's the loudest and most intriguing. I have to write a book that I feel I can't write when I'm starting out, that I think I'm not smart enough to do. I have to really challenge myself."
Meet Shannon Hale
Shannon Hale will make several in-store appearances to promote her newest novel, Princess Academy: Palace of Stone, which hits bookstores Tuesday.
Tuesday, Aug. 21 • 7 p.m., The King's English Bookshop, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City.
Friday, Aug. 24 • 5:30 p.m., Deseret Book, 45 W. South Temple, Salt Lake City
Saturday, Aug. 25 • 10:30 a.m., Deseret Book, 135 N. 545 West, West Bountiful; 2 p.m., Deseret Book, 1110 Fort Union Blvd., Midvale; 5:30 p.m., Deseret Book, 1076 S. 750 East, Orem
Tuesday, Sept. 18 • 7 p.m., Barnes and Noble, 300 E. 1300 South, Orem
Not just kid stuff
In addition to children's and young-adult books and a pair of graphic novels for children, Shannon Hale has written a handful of novels aimed at adults. One of them, the romantic comedy Austenland, is being adapted as a motion picture starring Keri Russell ("Waitress," "Felicity"). Hale co-wrote the script with the film's director, Jerusha Hess ("Napoleon Dynamite"). No release date has been set.
Hale, who did improv comedy during undergrad studies at the University of Utah, described Austenland as her "dessert project." The notion that "in general, my 'adult' books are seen as fluffy and my children's books as complex and profound" amuses her.