The ranks of strong girls in middle grade fiction is growing. (Thank goodness for that!) These girls come in all forms: tough, spunky, wild—and occasionally soft and gentle but with a core of steel. They’re fantastic models for girls (and boys) to see diversity in how girls are represented. And often, these days, they have male sidekicks who play the time-honored role of helper. It’s a nice transposition of gender roles in books. And I applaud that.
But I applaud even more books where the boys who are helping out the girls and taking risks to do so. These books are models that the world needs to see: It’s important for boys and men to back up girls and women and hear their voices, especially when the easier choice would be to turn away and pretend they never saw or heard what’s happening.
If readers of this post have read The Mad Wolf’s Daughter, my debut novel, you may have noticed that Emerick and Tig (my two primary male characters) listen to, support, and rely on Drest (my female protagonist). Her brothers and father also believe in her unquestioningly; hers is a world where she knows her voice matters. And Emerick and Tig risk much to follow her, in the end their very lives.
I was delighted when I read Laura Shovan’s newest book Takedown to find some of these themes as well. The risks Lev takes to support Mikayla’s wrestling show how hard it can be in today’s world for a boy to support a girl, and indeed, he doesn’t at first. But the way he does, and his final acts of support, are magnificent. Part of this book is about finding yourself and having the courage to be yourself, but also the courage to stand up for someone else.
And here’s Laura Shovan to tell you more about that! Laura, I’d love to know how you began thinking about writing these kinds of themes.
Laura: Diane, so much of what you’re saying here resonates with me. I grew up in a family that said strong women were valued, while making it clear that men came first. As a kid, writing was a way to make my voice heard, a place where I could be strong without bucking the system or feeling unsafe. Using writing to speak about injustice became a major theme of my first novel, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary. Unlike Drest, Mickey’s experience is closer to my own. She is fighting against labels like “little sister” and “girl wrestler.” Her voice is all about getting others to see her as a whole person.
Early notes for Takedown were poetic sketches jotted down during my son’s wrestling practices. It was always going to be a book about a boy, Lev, and his nemesis on the mat. One day, I drafted a scene about Lev meeting a girl wrestler. Almost as soon as Mickey appeared, Takedown became a book told from two points of view, hers and Lev’s.
I think of wrestling as a type of setting in this story, a backdrop against which Lev and Mickey are struggling to figure out who they are in a traditionally male sport. Mickey is fiercely determined to keep her sense of “girlness” even though she’s a wrestler. She emulates her two older brothers, who are both in the sport, but she doesn’t want to become them. It’s important to her to keep her sense of self. Lev struggles with almost the opposite problem. He’s realizing that he’s lost an important part of himself in his desire to man-up and be a tough, competitive wrestler. In helping Mickey, he begins to rediscover a gentler part of his personality.
I see that aspect in The Mad Wolf’s Daughter, too. In forming a close friendship with Emerick and Tig, Drest begins to examine who she is. Not her role in her father’s war band, or how her brothers see her, but something deeper. How do Emerick and Tig draw this new, more mature view of herself out of Drest?
Diane: Tig has a clear perception of who Drest is: a hero, an extraordinary being, different from what he’s always heard warriors were like. When he tells her she’s a legend, he’s drawing her apart and above her brothers. Drest isn’t comfortable at first thinking of herself as “better” than the rest of the war-band; in her own mind, she’s nearly as great as they, and will be as great when she gets older. To be “better” than a man was not something any girl of the period was told (even Drest). Tig quite literally puts his life and safety in her hands, and proves that he means his compliments.
Emerick influences Drest’s understanding of herself in a slightly different way. At first, he despises her as an enemy. And to start, it’s both his disparagement of her but also his helplessness that give Drest a choice: to see him as an enemy and act accordingly, or to follow her instinct toward mercy. Once she does the latter, she continues. Emerick is deeply affected by her generous moral character, but also by her fearless nobility. He’s grown up with the expectation of chivalry, and here he finds the daughter of his worst enemy, of all people, exemplifying that tradition. He challenges her, encourages her, and gently teases her—just as her brothers might, except his ways have a gentleness that subtly place her in control. In many ways, that’s the most powerful technique both Emerick and Tig use to draw out Drest’s true character: to willingly put her in charge of their journey, a life-and-death situation for each of them. (While her family has always loved and trusted her, they’ve never trusted her that much.)
Emerick and Tig discover much about their own identities and strengths and weaknesses through their friendships with Drest. By giving her a voice, they find their own, and it’s not quite what they’ve always been told they must be. I notice that you’ve done this with Lev, as you describe above. And Mickey certainly redefines her wrestling ambition as something greater than being in line with her two brothers thanks to Lev’s friendship.
I love to see characters transcend gender stereotypes through this kind of mutual support, especially when the support is hard and characters risk giving up (or literally give up!) something for it. Lev takes some major risks (he feels), but also Mickey does too. What do you feel were the biggest risks they thought they were taking, versus the ones that they really saw?
Laura: The biggest risk that Lev takes in supporting Mickey is stepping out of the circle of men and boys. There’s a scene in Takedown where all of the boys on the team are trying on their new singlets — the one piece wrestling uniform. There’s not much modesty in a wrestling room and, as the only girl, Mickey opts to change in the bathroom. When Lev’s best friends on the team follow her to the bathroom, he realizes that they have crossed the line between ignoring Mickey and bullying her. He knows standing up for her might mean losing his friends or being bullied himself. It’s similar to what you said about Drest and Emerick, except Lev is the one who has to stop seeing Mickey as an enemy. That’s the major shift in Lev’s character, the moment when he puts his morals above the need to be one of the guys. What he doesn’t realize is that this decision, this risk, is the start of some serious self-examination for Lev. He begins to ask himself: What kind of man do I want to be? It’s important that his bar mitzvah ceremony is not too far off. In Lev’s religious tradition, he will be considered a man soon.
For Mickey, the biggest risk is continuing to wrestling after her best friend, Kenna, quits. She’s been rejected by her brothers’ youth coach, and finds herself on the Gladiators, a team where she knows no one and is the only girl. Her family’s support is lukewarm at this point in the story. They’re worried about her physical and emotional safety and are unsure of her commitment to the sport. Mickey doesn’t realize how lonely she will be until she steps into the Gladiators’ wrestling room for the first time. This is something I heard about in interviews with parents of female wrestlers and from women who compete in traditionally male sports like jiu jitsu. Until they earn the respect of the guys, it can be a very isolating experience. Mickey really needs Lev’s friendship. He’s the one who widens the circle to include her. And in being Mickey’s partner and friend, Lev grows enormously as a person.
We haven’t talked yet about how both our girl characters, Drest and Mickey, have grown up being socialized by boys and men. Mickey’s mom is in the picture, but she tends to support traditional gender roles and excuses her sons’ behavior as “boys will be boys.” How does the journey with Tig and Emerick help Drest to confront that kind of thinking in her family?
Diane: Drest grows up in total isolation with men! She doesn’t even meet a single woman until her journey. And yet even though her father and brothers are brutal warriors and believe that women need protection, they break the mold of medieval male stereotypes: Not one of them has ever doubted that Drest, the youngest and the only girl, can do what they do. Each of her brothers trains her, challenges her, and believes in her utterly. How often has any girl in our world grown up knowing that every man in her life respects her and thinks she’s capable of doing literally anything? The only time Drest’s family shows concern about her abilities is in the beginning, and it’s all tied to her youth, not her gender.
When Drest starts meeting other women and girls, she can’t quite believe that they’re not weak and feeble and need protection (one of her family’s moral codes is all about that). She notices ways in which they’re just like her—and in the companion book (which will be out on March 5, 2019), she adds her own line to that family moral code with a dose of gender empowerment. To Drest, a woman’s role is to be herself. And that’s something I want my readers to really feel: no matter what box anyone tries to stick them into as girls or boys, who they feel they are is who they are, and it may not link one bit to any predetermined gender role.
I loved your book, and I love books where girls are leading the action and boys are supporting them in powerful ways. One of my recent favorites is The Eye of the North by Irish author Sinéad O’Hart. In this fast-paced fantasy adventure, a timid girl named Emmeline finds her adventuresome scientist parents abruptly and mysteriously gone, and then is kidnapped by a villainous scientist who is planning to raise a creature from the deep to gain world domination. Emmeline may be timid, but she’s self-sufficient (especially with her satchel of inventions), and decides to take her safety into her own hands right before the kidnapping, when she’s traveling by steamship to her new guardian. She meets and befriends a young stowaway named Thing—and when she’s kidnapped, he spends his part of the novel doing all he can to help her escape. There are secret societies, steampunk contraptions, and a lot of heart in this book.
And there are some great subtle gender role twists. I loved how Thing understood Emmeline’s situation and went after her, at great risk to himself, for no other reason than to further her goal. He’s the classic sidekick, and takes actions pretty much only for Emmeline. There are also plenty of very powerful women (including the villainous scientist’s nemesis) supported by a whole cast of men, which brilliantly shows readers that women and girls can certainly take the lead in adventures. What’s one of your favorite books that challenges gender roles like this?
Laura: I just finished reading the ARC of Padma Venkatraman’s The Bridge Home, which comes out in February. The narrator is an Indian girl named Viji. Because of domestic violence at home, Viji is determined that she and her older, developmentally disabled sister Rukku must run away. Life as a homeless child in the city of Chennai is difficult and dangerous, but the sisters find stalwart supporters in two boys, Arul and Muthu. Instead of competing for resources, the boys teach Viji how to survive. The four children form a makeshift family. Through Arul and Muthu, Viji even realizes that she’d had some limiting views about Rukku’s capabilities. When Viji blames herself for a terrible turn of events, it’s the boys who help her see the good in herself.
Viji is a strong, and sometimes headstrong, character. When she and Rukku leave home, it is Viji who steps into the role of leader. When she meets Arul and Muthu, she has to learn how to negotiate and share the leadership of their small group. I loved how the two boys accepted and encouraged Viji and Rukku. When Viji doubts herself most, they are the ones who remind her what a strong, caring person she is.
Diane: That’s a wonderful example of what middle grade fiction is doing these days: expanding the notion of who’s allowed to lead the action.
Most of the books I grew up with had girls who needed to be rescued or were the noble love interest or were simply lesser and more feeble than their male companions. While I loved many of those books, it was hard to repeatedly read about submissive, helpless girls, especially since such gender biases were present in my real life too. Having a voice and being believed in obviously changes the way a person will think of themselves, and it’s something that most boys have always had in both the imagined and real worlds. It’s a relief to find so many girls in today’s middle grade fictional landscape with that voice, with boys taking great risks to listen to them. And the real world is starting to follow.
Diane Magras is author of the NYT Editors’ Choice The Mad Wolf’s Daughter, which came just before The Hunt for the Mad Wolf’s Daughter. All things medieval fascinate Diane: castles, abbeys, swords, manuscripts, and the daily life of medieval people, especially those who weren’t royalty. Diane lives in Maine with her husband and son and thinks often of Scotland, where her books are set.
Laura Shovan’s debut middle grade novel, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, was an NCTE 2017 Notable Verse Novel, a Bank Street College of Education Best Children’s Book of the year, and won a Cybils Award for poetry. It was named the Arnold Adoff Poetry Award for New Voices honor book in 2018. Laura’s second children’s novel, Takedown, is about the first girl to join an all-boys wrestling team. Laura lives with her family in Maryland, where she is a longtime poet-in-the-schools for the Maryland State Arts Council.