You can’t tell by book sales. I’m not on the best-seller lists. I’m still able to safely walk through airports without being flagged for autographs.

But the other day I walked into my eight-year old daughter’s class (I was there to volunteer as a writing coach), and I had to wait. I was happy to wait, because Read-Aloud had gone late, and no one wants to interrupt Read-Aloud. Especially WHEN THEY ARE READING YOUR BOOK.

Can Stephen King say that? Has he ever walked into an elementary classroom and watched a whole room of children laugh at his words? Has he waited breathlessly while they try to guess whether Cleo is helping Timber or leading him into a trap, as one child so astutely summarized? (Wise students of literature, these third graders are.) I think not.

I have arrived.

"Fortunately, she was the kind of lady who liked to go first. She hopped in and nipped at a string attached to a single bulb. The pathetic incandescence did little to reassure Timber, especially when he could now see spiders crawling the walls. And . . ."

“Fortunately, she was the kind of lady who liked to go first. She hopped in and nipped at a string attached to a single bulb. The pathetic incandescence did little to reassure Timber, especially when he could now see spiders crawling the walls. And . . .”


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:


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?)


What my kids are reading now

Trying to find something for your child to read? Yep, me too.

For great ideas for middle-grade readers, check out kateywrites, Nerdy Book Club, or Scholastic.com. Don’t forget about your local children’s librarian—if you know even ONE book your child liked, ask for something like it. The Internet is great, but a real librarian is all that with a frontal cortex, a master’s degree, and often a smile. Plus, they have a memory that goes back longer than six months.

We’ve got a nine-year old who reads to the exclusion of taking care of vital needs (sleeping, eating), and a seven-year old who mostly refuses to read independently, for fear we will stop reading to her. Finding fuel to keep both these kids’ fires burning is challenging. The avid reader is picky. The stubborn reader is too, and we’re tired of A-to-Z mysteries (she’s not). The first one was great, but by Q, the formula is…predictable.

Oh, what could the quicksand question be?

Oh, what could the quicksand question be?

Here’s some successes we’ve had recently:

The Seven-Year Old Emerging Reader

—Trying to duplicate the success of Captain Underpants (the first book she read on her own at home), I’ve tried many tricks, but mostly I resort to arguing.

“Just read one paragraph!”
“No. It’s too hard.”
“You can do it!”
“I don’t want to.”
“Just try it!”

Yeah, I know how ridiculous that sounds. My other trick is getting to the good part, and then saying, “Sorry, I’ve gotta go feed the cat.” (Really, I have hungry cats.) Only I come back ten minutes later to find her staring at the same page.

So what finally worked?

I was trying to get her to read things that were too hard. It turns out she really likes those A-to-Z Mysteries for a reason—they’re exactly at her reading level. Right now, she needs that confidence boost. So one night I read her a chapter, and then went to bed. In the morning, she got up and finished the book on her own.

I should have listened to her instead of argued with her.

Same old Nancy, Bess, and George, but with laptops and cellphones.

Same old Nancy, Bess, and George, but with laptops and cellphones.

—The second success was reading her a real novel: We bought her the first Nancy Drew Diaries by Carolyn Keene. She usually balks at longer chapter books, so this was momentous. Some of the words were too complex for her to read on her own (some seven-year olds wouldn’t have a problem with this, but she’s not quite there yet). She loved it, as long as we were reading it TO her. Because I had learned my lesson (see above), I happily read her the whole book, and she happily listened.

Maybe it’s something about those cliffhanger chapters…My son saw us reading to his little sister, and wanted in on the action.

The Nine-Year Old Emerging Reader

Few would consider a nine-year old who can read way above grade level an “emerging reader”, but this article reminded me that reading aloud, even to older children, is still important.

A great book to read aloud to a younger reader, if you don't mind a few swear words and a lot of dead bodies.

A great book to read aloud to a younger reader, if you don’t mind a few swear words and a lot of dead bodies.

So I bought my son Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.

Sure, I could have set him up with a dictionary. His friend tackled the same book this way, and it’s how I probably would have done it at the same age. There’s nothing wrong with letting kids read complex things, as long as they are given the right tools.

Occasionally, one of those tools may be you reading aloud.

Reading this book to my son gave me a chance to do something I hadn’t done in years—reconnect with him at bedtime. He’d been reading by himself because he could and his sister couldn’t. By reading to him again, I was able to check in: “Did you get what they meant by that?” This book was set in a foreign country almost eighty years ago—there were many things he THOUGHT he got (the words were the same) that meant something else entirely.

Of course, even a nine-year old is too cool to let his mom read to him every night. So he’s back to his usual routine, reading the Guinness Book of World Records, the I Survived series, the Infinity Ring series, Origami Yoda, and anything else that gives him an excuse to stay up long after we tell him to turn off his light.

"One more chapter. I promise....." (Next thing I know, he's on the next BOOK.)

“One more chapter. I promise…..” (Next thing I know, he’s on the next BOOK.)

“Just let me finish the chapter.”
Turns the page.
“Wait, you just started a NEW chapter!”
“Hee hee.”

Though my son hasn’t returned to the mystery genre, reading aloud let us explore something new together: a complex story with mature themes and many new words. My daughter continues to gobble up the whodunits.

It’s no wonder why. They’re usually quick, the tension is high, and there’s always an answer at the end. Kids love a good mystery!  To find more:

Children’s Mystery Series Authors – a list of traditional series

Top Ten Middle-Grade Sleuths – more literary heroes

And though not on either of these lists, Agatha Christie is the Queen of Mysteries for a reason!

Why Science Fiction Will Save the World

The world is changing. Maybe not so fast that tomorrow we’ll wake up to having our husbands be zombies, or our cats be spaceships, but if it could happen, someone has imagined it, and odds are, they’ve published it, possibly in Daily Science Fiction.

What, you say, is Daily Science Fiction? Every day, a snapshot of the world to come or that could be, delivered free to your Inbox! Preparedness for tomorrow, often in a thousand words or less.

As a subscriber to DSF, I’ve supported their Kickstarter campaign (11 days left!), and I encourage you to do the same. Maybe someday I’ll get the chance to be in your Inbox, too.