Does Timber Howligan pass the Bechdel test?

I believe in equal opportunity reading. Having both a boy and a girl, I’ve seen some differences in their preferences for certain kinds of stories…they’re gender differences, but is that a bad thing? When my daughter wants to fill her shelves with Fancy Nancy and Pinkalicious, I don’t make a big deal out of it. I know she equally enjoys Captain Underpants. My son will read anything, including The Princess in Black and Zita the Spacegirl, but he really enjoys Diary of a Wimpy Kid, an all boy story if there ever was one.

It’s all good…as long as they’re reading. Right?

Then, along came the Bechdel Test. According to Wikipedia:

The Bechdel test (/ˈbɛkdəl/ bek-dəl) is a short test that is used as a way “to call attention to gender inequality”, and to assert that women are under-represented in films due to sexism. It was introduced in Alison Bechdel‘s comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. In a 1985 strip titled “The Rule”, an unnamed female character says that she only goes to a movie if it satisfies the following requirements:

  1. The movie has to have at least two women in it,
  2. who talk to each other,
  3. about something besides a man.

Okay, so it turns out the Bechdel test is not new. It’s been around for thirty years. Named after graphic artist Alison Bechdel, the “test” originally appeared in her graphic comic Dykes to Watch Out For. But I’ve heard of it a lot more lately, probably because the only comic I read when I was twelve-years old was Garfield, when I still thought a “dyke” was a large wall in Holland:

Bechdel

As a woman, and as a writer, I get it. I get why the test is important, why we should pay attention to it. The test sounds so simple, yet only about half of Hollywood’s movies pass it, and half of those because the women talk about marriage or babies (source: Wikipedia quoting writer Charles Stross, unverified). I totally agree that we want to give our daughters better models of what it means to be woman.

Then I went and wrote a story where the first female character of note doesn’t show up until half way through the book. Granted, when she does, she’s awesome. She’s a bit haughty, but that has more to do with being a cat than any inherent character flaw. But I’m sad to say that Timber Howligan absolutely flunks the Bechedel test. There are more than two female characters, and they’re all named. But they don’t talk to each other, unless you count a brief interaction between a dog owner and her slobbery companion. (This conversation, for what it’s worth, is not about a man.)

Of course there’s an opposite imbalance in children’s literature: More middle-grade books tend to be aimed at girls, more girls read than boys, especially as they enter their teenage years. There are whole websites devoted just to getting guys reading. Did this influence my decision to write a humorous middle grade action adventure that boys might like? No, I just like writing about secret agent cats. At the same time, the story wouldn’t have felt right without a few girls to balance things.

So it comes back to this: Is a good story a good story, no matter what? I say a cat who fights to save the day, surrounded by his friends—male or female—is totally someone to rally behind. Let’s not pick him apart because he’s got too many guys in his life, or because he’s not an equal opportunity hero. Especially, let’s not assume that girls only like reading “girl” stories or boys like reading “boy” stories.

I like the Bechdel test and the fact that it raises awareness to gender inequality in movies and books. But it’s not the only way, or even the most important way, to judge a book.

(The other way would be by its cover. Don’t you like this cover?)

 Front-Cover-(smaller)

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With all these books, do we need one more? (Hint: We do)

Have you read every book in the library? Every one in Barnes & Nobles? Do you have any idea how many used book stores there are in the world? Even if the book industry collapsed today, we’d all still have plenty to read for the rest of our lives.

But our kids especially want the next new thing. The books we read as children, as much as we loved them, seem outdated by the time we pass them on to the next generation. Some books will always be classics (Charlotte’s Web, Watership Down), some books are instant classics (Harry Potter, The Lightning Thief), but for the vast majority of middle-grade authors, trying to get noticed by kids who spend hours a day streaming the world directly to their eyeballs is an uphill battle. Your intended audience has no buying power. Your memories of the books you loved as a child have nothing to do with what kids are reading these days—nothing. In children’s literature more than ever, the publishing industry’s editors and agents serve as valuable experts—they know what kids are reading, they know what kids want. Better yet, they know how to market it, package it, and make parents want to buy it for their kids.

Why on earth would anyone, like me, try to self-publish a middle grade novel?

I’m realistic. Timber Howligan, Secret Agent Cat isn’t going to be the next Harry Potter. First of all, Timber Howligan is a cat, not a wizard, so I doubt he could even get into Hogwarts. While I would love for the world to enjoy this book, my goals in writing it were simple: my eight-year old son needed something to read. He was an avid reader who had devoured the first three Harry Potter books, but wasn’t ready for the complex, dark themes in the rest of the series. He could read anything in middle-grade fiction, but had no interest in books about middle school drama. Kissing and crushes? Yuck. Bullies as villains? Not interested. He wanted something fun and funny, full of adventure.

He read my first draft, stayed up late to finish it, and laughed out loud at all the right places. He’s already planned out my next ELEVEN sequels. I’ve drafted the next book, and he’s eager for me to finish.

You cannot, when querying an agent, use your own child as a reference. But when it comes to books, I trust my son—he doesn’t read anything he doesn’t like, especially if I recommend it, much less if I write it.

Having my son believe in me was reason enough to put this book out there—and reason to do it right. I’ve got the final copy edits, and will be working on incorporating those over the next month. I’ve commissioned an extra interior image because I was so happy with the first ten. I’m working with the artist on the final cover design, and I’m sure it’s going to be wonderful. Self-publishing is a lot of work, but it’s an adventure, and I’m enjoying it.

Finally, as I’ve mentioned before, Timber Howligan likes to help animals in need, and so do I. I’ll be using the book to raise money for the American Humane Association (not, as I linked erroneously in a previous post, to be confused with the Humane Society of the United States) or a similar agency. I’m going to do some more research and due diligence over the next month and report back—is the Humane Association the best charity to help animals? They have an A- from CharityWatch, but like any large organization, there’s overhead—not all funds go to their programs. Donating to a local shelter is always most effective, but that lacks wide appeal, assuming this book sells beyond my local region. Stay tuned!

Is YA just for girls?

Are Young Adult books just for girls? Should they be?

Well, no.

But how do you explain this:

“Imagine your local independent bookstore’s shelves. They teem with pouting girls and hunky boys and various shades of purple. Few self-respecting teen boys would venture there to find their next great read…So you are taking quite the gamble if you target your YA to a boy audience or use a boy-centric male protagonist.” – Mary Kole, “Writing Irresistible KidLit”

And this, a snapshot of the latest YA titles from GoodReads:

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The landscape is remarkably similar to what Mary predicts. And her advice has never steered me wrong before. You can tell at a glance that most of these books are heavy on the romance and angst, spanning genres from high fantasy (The Shadow Throne by Jennifer Nielsen: “One war. Too many deadly battles. Can a king save his kingdom, when his own survival seems unlikely?”), Science Fiction (Cress by Marissa Meyer: “Rapunzel’s tower is a satellite. She can’t let down her hair—or her guard.”), the infamous dystopian novel, (Landry Park by Bethany Hagen: “Downton Abbey meets The Selection in this dystopian tale of love and betrayal.”), and Romantic Comedy (Better Off Friends by Elizabeth Eulberg: “For Macallan and Levi, it was friends at first sight. Everyone says guys and girls can’t be just friends, but these two are.”) Fourteen of 15 are clearly aimed at the female audience (we’ll come back to the exception, Grasshopper Jungle, at the end).

Young adult, as an audience, existed long before the broody “teen romance” market blossomed. Somewhere between The Outsiders—a 1967 novel about rival gangs, and Twilight—a 2005 novel about vampires who sparkle, publishers apparently got the idea that teenage boys didn’t go to bookstores.

But boys do read (although apparently not as much as girls), and they even read books with female protagonists. GoodReads’ list of “YA for Boys” has The Hunger Games series in its Top Ten. Other YA books I expect boys would like: Scott Westerfield’s similarly dystopian Uglies, Pretties, and Specials series (there’s a classic YA love triangle, but the sci-fi element is superb, and the action is gripping). When I was a teenager, I discovered science fiction, so most of my recommendations fall in that direction. Ask any male science fiction fan over 40 in your life about their favorite Robert Heinlein book, and most will sigh happily at the buxom babe on Friday—a book I loved for apparently entirely different reasons than my husband. In fact, I suspect that when we lose boys from YA, we gain some of them in Sci-Fi–a genre that tends to have more male readers. (I have absolutely no data to back this up, just a strooooong hunch.)

The teenage years are a time of finding your place in the world, and good YA usually reflects this by placing compelling external conflicts against a soul-searching internal conflict. In YA, the internal conflicts are always larger than life—a good YA author can make you feel 16 again, when every slight was the end of the world, every crush was your first love, every failed friendship was the downfall of a dynasty–it was all so breath-taking and terrifying because every experience was new. When you are 16, these books make you feel like you’re not alone. Some of the best books I’ve read lately (Veronica Roth’s Divergence, Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle) place these conflicts against literally end-of-the-world scenarios, hence the appeal of the Dystopian genre.

Another reason we’re so drawn to books where things go so badly is that fiction is a kind of disaster-preparedness simulation: It helps us navigate potentially scary situations by modeling various horrible outcomes from the safety of our couch. Especially emotional outcomes—cowardice, fear, longing, sexual insecurity, love, rejection, betrayal. Boys need this sanctuary as much as girls, if not more. Our society is more forgiving of girls who show emotion. Boys are told from the time they feel the first rush of cold air in the delivery room to “Man up!”

So while it may be a bad “business” decision as a writer, I reject the premise that YA is just for girls, and that KidLit authors should target their YA that way. (I do, however, recommend Mary Kole’s book–she knows the market, she knows writing, and she is chock-full of excellent advice. She would probably advise me not to use cliches like “chock-full.”)

So if they’re not reading about brooding vampires, self-reliant heroines, and voluptuous fae, what are boys reading? And how do we write for them? Take a lesson from Andrew Smith. Grasshopper Jungle is a YA sci-fi/dystopian/weird tale—and the less you know of before you read it, the more you will be delighted when you do. It is about a 16-year old Polish boy who accidentally unleashes a plague of giant praying mantises on his dying rural town. He is in love with his girlfriend, Shannon, and his best friend, Robby. He is horny and confused. Never have I read anything that more perfectly overlays the outer end of the world with the inner.

How did Andrew Smith do it? In the Acknowledgements, he shares his secret: He gave up writing. This book is not written for girls or boys. He wrote this book for no one but himself.

Not only do boys read, they write, too.

More reading:

What were your favorite books when you were a teenager? What do you recommend for teenage boys today?

Books your child should like because of the movies (there are worse reasons to read)

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Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman

Published by Harper, 2009
117 pages
Opening line:
There was a boy called Odd, and there was nothing strange or unusual about that, not in that time or place.

During an endless winter, an odd, crippled, unlucky boy runs away from home. When he encounters three animals and their strange tale—a bear missing a hammer, a tricky fox, and a one-eyed eagle—he finds himself in the middle of a battle to save Asgard, the City of the Norse Gods, from the Frost Giants.

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Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger

Published by Amulet Books, 2010
141 pages
Opening line:
The big question: Is Origami Yoda real?

Is Origami Yoda a wise sage who can predict the future, or just a finger puppet belonging to the strangest kid in the sixth grade? Lines are drawn, friendships are threatened, and the whole story is revealed in “The Strange Case of Origami Yoda.”

What do these two books have in common? Both are captivating middle-grade novels. Both are books I bought for my son and ended up reading myself. And both are stories that kids who love movies and video games should have no problem enjoying.

While this strategy has yet to work on my own kid, it may work on yours.

I admit it, I bought Odd and the Frost Giants because I have a writer’s crush on Neil Gaiman. But by the time I read it, I’d seen The Avengers, and I had a full-blown crush on Thor. Even though my kids are a bit too young for all that death and destruction on the big screen, they eat it up in Lego Marvel Superheroes, the video game. They are well-acquainted with Asgard, Thor, Loki, and the Rainbow Bridge. Do I justify their hours in front of the screen as an introduction to Norse mythology? I’m not that self-delusional. But did I hope it would inspire an interest in this book?

I haven’t given up yet.

The book is everything you’d want a children’s novel to be—a tale of adventure and bravery, rich with honest, beautiful language that takes you straight to the heart of the story. I read it in less than an hour. It would make a great book to read aloud to a younger child. For independent readers, it is self-contained, story-wise. The many references to Norse mythology could be a springboard to learning more.

Origami Yoda has tapped into that brilliant Star Wars marketing engine that started in the 70’s and hasn’t stopped yet. Yes, I bought it because there was a cute, crumply Yoda on the cover. That alone should make my son love it. What more could an eight-year old boy hope for in a book?

A can’t-put-me-down sense of pacing and plot? Believe it or not, this book had those. I was the one who ended up hooked. The first thing I noticed was the notebook-like pages and handwriting-like font. We’re detoxing from The Wimpy Kid series, but I realized in Origami Yoda, the format was consistent with the “case file” presentation. I liked it. The chapters jump from kid to kid, as the main character builds his case in favor of the finger puppet. Meanwhile, the plot revolves around some classic boy-girl tension as a monthly school dance looms.

Despite the, dare I say, “love story” angle, the main theme of the book seems to be about not taking your friends for granted. Very appropriate middle-grade fare.

Most importantly, it has plenty of Star Wars references for the true fan. Origami Yoda is first in the series that contains Darth Paper Strikes Back, Secret of the Fortune Wookie, The Surprise Attack of Jabba the Puppett, and Princess Labelmaker to the Rescue.

Some things are worth waiting for–my experience with a professional editor

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Timber Howligan is a silver and gray Maine Coon…just like this one. He’s formidable, not fluffy!

There are so many good things about being a writer—author Katey Howes captures most of them in this post: http://kateywrites.wordpress.com/2014/01/29/an-almost-objective-look-at-choosing-a-writing-career-illustrated/.  I happen to agree with all of these, especially the part about showing up to work in pajamas, and loving it so much you sometimes forget to pick your kids up from school (although, strictly speaking, that is not a good thing if it happens too often).

Over a year ago, I decided to “be” a writer. I wish I could say I’ve forged ahead, guns blazing, conquering all obstacles in my way like my secret agent cat hero, Timber Howligan. Russian spies? Vicious guard dogs? Wily rabbits? No problem for Timber Howligan.

Oh. You haven’t heard of Timber Howligan yet? Er, that’s because the book isn’t published yet. It’s not, um, actually done.

My path has been more like the novel that gets rewritten seven times.

Not for lack of trying, mind you. More for taking a hard look at the first 65,000 words I ever wrote, and realizing…

Wow. That needs work.

Back in November, I thought the book was done. Almost signed, too—with a local independent publisher, but a publisher nonetheless. Obviously there would be one more round of edits, but according to the publisher, they’d be quick—she promised to have the book out within six months of signing the contract.

Except she didn’t want to sign the contract right away. Okaaaaay….I told myself I wasn’t the one in a hurry. She told me when she would call.

In the meantime, I started having second thoughts. As an independent publisher, she offered little in the way of marketing and not much more in the way of services beyond self-publishing, except she took most of the royalties. I did my homework—I talked to some of the authors who had published with her. I read some of the books she’d published.

I decided that when she called, I had a lot more questions to ask.

However, she never called.

So my “publishing” deal fell through, but to be fair, I kind of let it. I wanted my story not just to be published, but to be good.

In December, I hired a professional editor—Mary Kole, of kidlit.com.

This was by far the best thing I have ever done for my writing.

That book I thought was almost done? Major plot surgery. Serious character work. Right now, it’s on life support. I’ll do my best to stitch it back together—hopefully retaining some of the voice and style and humor that I loved about it to begin with.

They say you have to kill some darlings along the way. This edit may have murdered my baby. But not every first novel is going to see the light of the bookstore shelf.

Then why did I write it? I created a character—Timber Howligan, secret agent cat—who will live forever in the hearts and memories of those who have already read my book. Including my eight-year old son, who stayed up late to finish it and laughed at all the right places. My kids dressed up as Timber Howligan and Lester McMuffin (Timber’s best friend) for Halloween. I WROTE A NOVEL. I know how to do it—and because of the patience and professional help of Mary Kole, I know how to do it better next time.

I’m not giving up on this book—Timber deserves everything I can give him. I love this story. It still makes me laugh out loud. Sometimes I cackle while I’m typing. By the time I’m done with it, it will be a lot better than it would have been before…

And worth waiting for.

Rediscovering A Wonderful Book for Young Readers…and Writers

ENMTitle: Emily of New Moon (first of three in the Emily series)
Author: L.M. Montgomery
First Published: 1923
Opening Line: The house in the hollow was “a mile from anywhere”—so Maywood people said.

Plot Summary:

Emily Byrd Starr is orphaned at the age of 11 when her father dies of tuberculosis (“consumption”). Her mother’s people will take her in, of course—the Murray pride demands it—but none of them want her. Lots are drawn, and Emily ends up at New Moon farm with strict Aunt Elizabeth, loving Aunt Laura, and kind Cousin Jimmy.

Emily is miserable at first. Though school is difficult for her—she accidentally writes poetry when ought to be doing sums, and the teacher, like many adults in her life, finds her maturity frustratingly willful—Emily soon makes friends. Her best is the wild and free Ilse Burnsley, whose father barely notices her (Ilse’s mother disappeared mysteriously under no small amount of scandal, and Dr. Burnsely holds all women responsible).

Emily’s hopes, dreams, and disappointments are all keenly and vividly described as she pours her heart out to the page—in long letters to her father, on scraps of paper, on her chalk board at school. At first, writing is her refuge. As she grows to love New Moon—and it becomes clear her heart is generous and full of love, no matter how she may clash with Aunt Elizabeth—she writes not out of need but out of passion. Because she simply must. Even though, as expected, Aunt Elizabeth forbids it.

Despite Aunt Elizabeth’s rule, Emily thrives. She finds allies and friends, even among her Murray relatives. She develops close friendships with not one but three potential love interests, who all are captivated by her slow smile and long lashes. By the end of the book—which takes us not only on a delightful literary journey of adolescent growth, but solves a suspenseful mystery along the way—we are eagerly looking forward to the sequel in order to see who this captivating young girl will become. (And who will she marry?)

Why I STILL Love This Book

This book has so much to offer young readers—especially the young girls who will most be drawn to it. It is marketed as a “YA novel for ages 11 and up.”

By today’s standards, it is quaint. Probably old-fashioned—at New Moon they refuse to use lamps, and still use the giant cauldron from the old country to boil the pigs’ potatoes. But I found it absolutely magical, even thirty years later. So much fades with time–this grew brighter.

It is a book that celebrates the imagination and the written word. The innocence and joy and power of youth—for much of the book, four children entertain themselves by writing, sketching, orating, or putting on a Shakespeare play in Lofty John’s bush. And there is no doubt about it, Emily is destined to be a woman of power. She is surrounded by strong female role models: her mother who defied her family to marry Douglas Starr, Aunt Elizabeth who works so hard to ensure Emily grows up to never do such a thing, and Aunt Laura who co-exists, in her own way with her own peaceful rebellions, side by side with Elizabeth.

And for writers? Revel in this book. Fall in love with the written word the way Emily does. Share in her amazement each time she has “the flash” of inexpressible delight—whether it be from:

the dark boughs against that far-off sky…with a high, wild note of wind in the night, with a shadow wave over a ripe field, with a greybird lighting on her window-sill in a storm, with the singing of ‘Holy, holy, holy’ in church, with a glimpse of the kitchen fire when she had come home on a dark autumn night, with the spirit-like blue of ice palms on a twilit pane, with a felicitous new word when she was writing down a ‘description’ of something. And always when the flash came to her Emily felt that life was a wonderful, mysterious thing of persistent beauty.

And above all, write. Fill notebooks until your hands cramp. Hide them from prying eyes. Burn them rather than let them fall into the wrong hands. If you run out of paper, write on the backs of envelopes and magazines. Fight for it the way Emily does:

“Oh, I must write, Aunt Elizabeth…You see, it is this way. It is in me. I can’t help it.” …If Aunt Elizabeth had asked her to give up crocheting lace or making molasses taffy or eating Aunt Laura’s delicious drop cookies, Emily would have done so wholly and cheerfully, though she loved these things. But to give up writing stories—why Aunt Elizabeth might as well have asked her to give up breathing.

I didn’t realize until I re-read this book: Emily of New Moon was the first book on writing I ever owned.

Related links:

My eight-year old’s favorite books

I have an avid reader. He is also a reluctant reader. How can he be both? This is how my son gets into a book:

“Son, what are you reading right now?”

“Nothing.”

“Why don’t you try….”

A. The 39 Clues

B. How To Train Your Dragon

C. The Mysterious Benedict Society

D. Etc.

“No, thank you.”

“No, really. Pick one.”

Whereupon, he will. And he will do nothing else until he finishes the book. Including sleep.

So for all those other parents trying to guide their newly independent readers into interesting territory, here’s what has captivated my son’s attention lately:

The 39 Clues Series

day of doomBy Rick Riordan, David Baldacci, and many others

His favorite book is “Day of Doom, Cahills versus Vespers Book 6.” He has read a total of “16- no, 17” books in this series so far. And, “that’s all there is at the moment.” How would you describe the series? “Nothing is better.” What is it about? “Amy and Dan trying to save the world from the Vespers.” Could you use some adjectives? “Awesome.”

I have not read this. But having heard my son talk about it, there are some mature characters and plot complications. My son knows about credit cards because of these books. And car rentals. But he loves this series above all else, so it’s hard to argue with something that keeps his interest this long.

I did some fact-checking, as you might when interviewing an eight-year old. There are indeed 17 books between the original (11) and Cahills vs. Vespers (6) series. But book one of the Unstoppable series came out in October 2013, and more are planned.

Although I generally believe books are for reading, I admit to letting him explore the website. The games are pretty cool. He kind of learned how to pick locks.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid

diary wimpy kid

By Jeff Kinney

What can you tell me about this series? “It’s petty good. Not as good as 39 clues. It’s basically just a journal of Greg Heffley’s life.”

Do you like it? “Yeah. But not as much as the 39 clues.”

What’s good about it? “It’s just really funny.”

I read this also, and while I agree it is funny, and captivating, it reads more like a series of comic scenes than a novel. Kids might laugh, yet miss some of the more sarcastic humor at the same time, much of which relies on pranks and generally treating other people badly. I had to have the following conversation with my son as a result of this series:

“You know I don’t want you to be like any of the people in this book, ever, right?”

“Yes, Mama.”

Which did not stop him from devouring the first four books. In a week. There are seven books in the series so far, plus a do-it-yourself book and a movie diary. Interestingly, because of this book my son has shown interest in keeping a diary himself. We’ll see how that works out, once he realizes his doesn’t come with cartoons.

The Mysterious Benedict Society

mysterious benedict society

By Trenton Lee Stewart

“MBS. Yeah.” And? How do you like this book? “Good.” What’s it about? “That is a really hard question.” Try. Put down Minecraft. “The four friends are trying to save the world from Ledroptha Curtain.”

Much longer than the average middle grade novel, but full of fun puzzles, and yes, a somewhat complicated and not easily summarized plot. Extremely well-written, and age-appropriate, despite its complexity and length. It inspired my son to learn Morse Code. He is working his way through the sequel, “The Perilous Journey,” and enjoying it just as much.

There are a total of four books in the series, including the recently released prequel. I’m going to show my son the website–the games and puzzles looked as fun and challenging as the ones in the book.

How to Train Your Dragon

how to train your dragon

By Cressida Cowell

Is it funny? “Yes, very funny.” Which is better, the book or the movie? “Movie.”

A fun fantasy, relying heavily on bodily function humor. For those hoping the book will be as magical as the movie, be prepared for a very different voice and plot. I admit, I only read the first few chapters. They were cute. And my son enjoyed the book, even after seeing the movie first. However, he required more prompting than usual to actually finish the book, and so far shows no interest in the sequels. Of which there are many. At least ten.

Last but not least…

“I forgot to ask you about your favorite book. What about Timber Howligan?”

“Good. I mean, great.”

‘Atta boy. He read an early draft, stayed up late to finish it, and laughed at all the right places. My book is currently undergoing professional edits and with any luck (and a lot more hard work) will be available to readers…eventually!