Shannon Hale: What's wrong with how kids are taught to read | Books | Salt Lake City Weekly
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Shannon Hale: What's wrong with how kids are taught to read

Required reading & gender confines


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Shannon Hale
  • Shannon Hale

Acclaimed Utah author Shannon Hale blogs. A lot. And her blogs often aren't about her upcoming tour dates or how hard it was to write that day or what she's wearing. Hale gamely sticks out her tongue to talk about her views on loaded subjects such as required reading in schools and the disparity between male and female protagonists in movies and books.

"I tend to blog about things that I’m really passionate about, and when I’m passionate about something the words just flow faster, so it makes blogging a lot easier," she says. "A lot of my blogposts come out of conversations that I have with other people. So I read an article that someone on Twitter recommends, and then I get outraged, and talk about it with my husband, and then think, 'OK, I’ve got to let this out,' and then write about it on the blog. That’s how a lot of them come out. My friend was an English teacher, we have a lot of conversations."

Hale made time with me earlier this year during a signing for Midnight in Austenland to talk about some of these issues, and also responded to some e-mail questions before the release of Palace of Stone, her long-awaited sequel to the award-winning Princess Academy. I asked an insane number of questions that couldn't all be included in City Weekly's writeup of Palace of Stone, so her ruminations on readership, education and more are below.

What's it like to have readers of all ages?

It’s really fun. It wasn’t like a master plan that I had, like, “I’m going to write in every age group.” It came out of my own sort of boredom, that I can’t just do one type of book, or age group or style. I want to stretch myself, and I want to explore different characters and stories. And the benefit of that is that I have this wonderful wide spectrum of readership. The downside, I’m told, is that my books are in four or five places in a bookstore, and so I don’t sell as well. People want a dependable product. You know that so-and-so is always going to write this kind of book, and you go to the shelf and you know right where they are. And that’s great, and there’s a real advantage to that, cause I think you sell better, but my boredom just won’t allow me to do it.

Who are your main readers?

I have readers from 6 to in their 90s. Mostly female, mostly women. Boy readers will read my graphic novels, Calamity Jack and Rapunzel’s Revenge, but not as many boys read the older ones. And I think it’s mostly because they’ve got girls’ faces on them. And then boys get teased if they read a book with a girl on it, which is too bad. I think it’s a real disadvantage for boys and men. Girls are so much more flexible, and they’ll read so many more styles of books. And I think that gives them an understanding and insight into people that boys aren’t allowing themselves to get. And as we’ve seen women sort of come up and meet men in the workplace, I think you’re going to see women overtake men. Women are allowing themselves to be more flexible than men, and I wonder what that’s going to do. In our house, I’ve got a son, and we have lots of all kinds of books, and we read all kinds of books, cause I want him to have advantages. Boys when they’re younger will [read books with female protagonists], and I think it’s a learned behavior.

More on Why Boys Don't Read Girl Books (Sometimes):
The original post here:
The followup, with reader reactions, here

Where else is this phenomenon present?

Unfortunately you see it in movies, too. You almost never see movies for children that have a female main character, and I actually keep track of the ratios because you’ll see 10 male characters for every two or three female characters. And when they do have female-led movies, parents don’t often take their boys to them. Either they assume the boys won’t like them, or some people think that it’s going to … make them effeminate to watch girl movies or read girl books, which I think is such a weird prejudice that we have, and really sad. I hope it changes.

Hale's blogs on female protagonists here and here

You feel pretty strongly about issues in education, English classes in particular.

First of all, I worry that our teachers aren’t being appreciated. I feel like you have to value a person, and they have to feel valued and respected in order to do their best job. And I think that the way we pay and blame teachers makes some of them less willing to do a great job. I think that in Utah we are so underfunded in education. There are so many kids, so many more kids per family, that the classes are huge, and it’s an impossible task. If you’ve got parents at home that are reading with the kids and helping them along, they’re going to be OK. But it’s the kids that don’t have parents helping them that get left behind. And I worry about them. I worry about those kids who don’t have books in their house. And then when they go to school, the books that they’re required to read are Beowulf, and Canterbury Tales, and The Iliad. And these are not books that are going to inspire them, and be more literate, and be able to navigate a literary world.

I do feel passionately about books that engage a young reader, that are written in the vernacular, that give them a reason to turn pages, and empower them with both their stories and words to read more, to understand the world more, to feel they’re a part of the world, to find their place in the world … that’s so important as a teenager. And I do think that there are books out there that can do that, and I think that a lot of the required reading doesn’t; I think it fails them. Many teachers are not allowed to choose what books they teach. I think that’s a problem. Many librarians are not being used properly as a resource, I think that could be worked out better. I think a lot of things. I could go on and on.

Hale's posts on required reading here and here

What’s it like after taking time off to come back to 2012 with two books [Midnight in Austenland and Palace of Stone]?

It’s crazy. I took about two years off as I had a pregnancy—a twins pregnancy, so it was much more intense, and then two babies. I really have just been at home being a mama. I have been writing on the side, and I did go to England last summer and got to watch the movie be made. But it’s funny because I kind of forgot about … I think there’s kind of two personas. There’s you and then there’s the author you, like the public you. And I sort of forgot that part of myself. It’s not a false part of myself; it’s just a different side of myself that I haven’t exercised in a while.

What inspired you to write Palace of Stone? Seven years is a long time between sequels.

Initially I thought I was going to write a sequel for it, but then another book just was more insistent for me at the time, and I started to write the other one. And then the story just got lost at the back of my mind, it just didn’t feel as urgent anymore. And I thought, Maybe I’ll never write a sequel to this. And then I got another idea for it, three years ago, a new aspect of it that complicated and made the story more interesting for me. It kept percolating in there, and I couldn’t wait to jump back in and write it. It was very fun to write. I’m very nervous about how it’s going to be received, because the first one [Princess Academy] is probably my most best-selling and acclaimed book, so it feels like there’s a lot of expectation.

In Palace of Stone, the exterior challenges Miri faces are very nuanced. You can see both bad and good in the revolutionary agitators and in the king and queen. Is it difficult to find that balance during writing? What do you hope your readers take away from that?

Even when writing fantasy, I have to believe that the story is possible. (Is it embarrassing to admit I believe the fantasy elements I invent might be possible? We don't need to get into how often I've tried to talk to animals and the wind…) I believe there is very little pure evil in the world. People with good intentions make terrible mistakes. The more I write, the more I know my characters and understand why they do what they do. It's hard for me to judge anyone when I can see things from their point of view. I do think reading helps us develop empathy. Perhaps the more we read, the more we can be patient with others and look for good.

What led you to decide to donate the proceeds from Palace of Stone to LDS Humanitarian Services?

I feel so grateful to be able to be a writer. I made a goal years ago to do as much as I could for charity to try and give back. With other local writers, we started Writing for Charity, and do a workshop every year that raises money to buy books for needy Utah children. In the acknowledgments of Book of a Thousand Days, I mentioned giving a percentage of my royalties to Heifer International. So many people told me they contributed to that charity because of my note. My parents were involved with LDS Humanitarian Services in Mongolia, and I was impressed with how little overhead they have and how all of every dollar donated goes directly to those in need. My husband and I decided we should dedicate a percentage of Palace of Stone royalties to that charity, and perhaps by mentioning that in the book's acknowledgments we might inspire others to do the same.

Rachel Piper Twitter: @RachelTachel