Books

How Shannon Hale draws strength from Wonder Woman, the star of her new book, even amid boos

Victoria Ying/DC Comics/A young Wonder Woman navigates friendship in #x201c;Diana: Princess of the Amazons.#x201d;
Victoria Ying/DC Comics/A young Wonder Woman navigates friendship in “Diana: Princess of the Amazons.”
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Shannon Hale has made a career showing kids - girls especially - how to find their inner powers. Her books typically star feisty female characters, and that has at times caused trouble when she visits schools, she says, where boys sometimes boo her. “I’m always shocked by this,” the Newbery Honor winner said by phone from her home in Salt Lake City. But Hale draws strength in part from the character at the center of her new book: Wonder Woman. (For years, Hale, a mother of four, had a decal of the superhero on the hood of her minivan.)

Shannon and her husband and oft-co-writer, Dean Hale, have just published a graphic novel about the woman who inspired that car bling. The book, “Diana, Princess of the Amazons” (DC Comics), illustrated by Victoria Ying, imagines the superhero as an 11-year-old girl. Like her best-selling graphic novel “Real Friends,” the book explores the sometimes tricky world of female relationships. This time it’s a young Wonder Woman who is trying to figure out what a real friend is. By phone, Shannon Hale talked about the new book, the value of graphic novels and how she navigates challenging classroom crowds.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Q: What’s the origin of this Wonder Woman origin story?

A: I grew up in the ‘70s, so I watched Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman on TV. I got the Wonder Woman Underoos for Christmas and wore them around the house as a costume! Lynda Carter was so great, and though I didn’t know at the time, the show was empowering. All I knew is I felt great watching it. There were so few women characters on TV who were powerful in their own right. So the idea of writing a story about young Diana was really appealing - getting to know her at a young age and the setting of her childhood is fascinating.

In the 2017 movie, we see Wonder Woman on Themyscira, home to the Amazonian women warriors. For this book, I asked: What would it be like to be the only kid in the whole world, surrounded by people who are perfect beings - and you are still in progress? Every kid feels that way sometimes, so I looked at those feelings in the more extreme circumstances of Diana’s childhood.

Q: You write that Wonder Woman is the greatest superhero of all time. Why did you choose her?

A: One of the things I really like about Wonder Woman is that she has a strong sense of right and wrong - and of justice. So many comic book stories are about stopping a meteor or alien invasions. Wonder Woman is more about helping humanity and helping people who can’t help themselves. For me, that was very relatable and powerful and something people without superpowers can do. So she is such a wonderful model for anybody!

Q: You’ve written a number of books about princesses - rarely do they wear taffeta and crowns. Why did you decide to re-imagine this trope in your books?

A: Growing up, I loved princess stories. But the stories of princesses being helpless never felt true to me. It was a false narrative. But being negative about princesses is also a problem. There’s something anti-feminist about that - it’s like saying being a girl is a problem, that being feminine is a problem, that you need to be masculine, whereas I feel like feminine and masculine traits don’t need to be assigned to particular genders and both can be aspirational. And so I love the idea of subverting those expectations. There are all kinds of princesses - just like there are all kind of girls - and I took great joy surprising readers’ expectations about that in stories.

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Q: Many of your books - this one included - deal with friendships, in particular female friendships. Would you consider writing a book like that for boys?

A: When people say, when are you going to write a “Real Friends” for boys, I say it’s (BEGIN ITAL)already for boys(END ITAL) - it’s for anyone. But if someone asks: “How about a graphic novel about boys and their friendships?” I say, “Absolutely!” Girls could read it, too, of course, but we need all kinds of stories. There’s been just a renaissance of children’s literature, with so many great graphic novels written about kids - but we need more, and we need creators of color and all different backgrounds and abilities that are going to tell stories that are really going to connect kids - for kids who are going to say, yes, I see myself on the page for the first time or I never knew how a person that’s different from me felt and saw things, and so those books can be both windows and mirrors.

Q: When you go on school visits, does Dean go with you? If so, how does that change the dynamic in the audience?

A: When I’m presenting alone, I sometimes get booed by boys when I show covers of my books with female characters on them. Here I am, giving up my time, and I’m a professional, and they feel like this is acceptable, and the teachers do not stop them because there’s this mentality: “Well, boys will be boys.” I just hate that phrase. I hate when that happens, not so much for me, but I hate that the girls in the audience hear that, and they hear that it’s OK for boys to boo something that’s associated with girls and that this is just part of life. When I show books that have images of boys on the cover, the girls do not boo. So this is definitely pointed in one way. And this happens in red states, blue states, east, west, north, south - all over. And when Dean is with me - about half the time - they don’t boo.

I like having Dean there. Male modeling is really important because the majority of educators and librarians are female and the majority of people talking about reading to kids are female, so it is very possible that kids who identify as male therefore assume this is something for girls only. If they don’t have a male in their life who visibly reads, then having men come into school is great - to have them model that. At the same time, I’m disappointed that this is a reality, since women already get fewer requests to come, we get less money, so there’s already discrimination. That’s why when Dean and I are together, it’s a nice balance.

Q: What do you think Wonder Woman would do if she was booed by an audience of kids?

A: What an interesting question! Wonder Woman is neither meek nor cruel. She wouldn’t let it slide, but while she might deploy her lasso and get physically confrontational with adults, she’d temper that with kids. I think she’d command their attention, demand respect - she’s earned it! - and educate them.

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