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Interview with Shannon Hale, Author of "The Goose Girl" and "Princess Academy"

Girls Find Their Own Strengths in Her Fairy Tale-Inspired Novels


Interview with Shannon Hale, Author of

Author Shannon Hale

Photo courtesy Bloomsbury USA
Updated July 23, 2008
It's not easy to make a name for yourself as a writer of fiction for children and young adults. It's even harder when you insist on making your protagonists female. (Publishers prefer books that feature boys. Consider the title Harriet Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and you may grasp why.)

Shannon Hale has never chosen the easy path. (After all, the other career she seriously considered was acting.) Yet after 19 years of writing and dozens of rejections, she sold her first novel to Bloomsbury, the original publisher of Harry Potter. And when Goose Girl was published, it was quickly named a Teen's Top Ten choice by the American Library Association. Another novel, The Princess Academy, is a New York Times bestseller and a Newbery Honor Book.

A wife and mother of two small children, Hale lives in Salt Lake City where she can be frequently found typing away with a baby on her lap. She's got five award-winning young adult novels under her belt now, along with a romantic comedy for adults. Up next - a series of graphic novels she's co-writing with her husband.

In an exclusive interview with About.com, I asked Shannon Hale about the unique female characters she creates, her thought on the influence of pop culture on girls today, and why she places her characters in imagined lands instead of contemporary society

Strong female protagonists are the hallmark of your work. Yet in the publishing world, it's acknowledged that books featuring boys sell better. Girls will read about boys without hesitation, but boys won't read about girls as the main character. When writing your first book, didn't you think having a female protagonist was a risk?

Never. I'd like to say that I was being noble and consciously sacrificing high book sales in favor of making a stand, but the truth is I'm just not clever enough to research and understand markets. All I can do is try to tell a story, and the story I wanted to tell happened to be about a girl.

I did, however, make a conscious decision not to endow her with a typically masculine strength. There is (and was) a movement in fantasy to give girls swords and armor and send them off on a screaming stallion to do battle--a totally cool idea.

But The Goose Girl, the tale I based my first book on, was about a weak girl, a sheltered girl thrown into an adventure against her will, and I wanted to be true to that. It was the joy of the story for me to watch that girl struggle into her own kind of strength.

How do you create your female protagonists? Where do they come from, who are they based on, and why do even the gentlest girls reveal a hidden backbone of steel?

I don't know where my characters come from. Honestly (and this may sound silly) but they seem to grow organically from the story. A character is what she says and does, and that means I have to write a story first to see what the character says and does. Then she gets formed by many, many rewrites (thirty for The Goose Girl).

I have to say, though, that I don't think I'm trying to write strong girls--I think I'm writing realistic ones. Every girl and woman I know personally is extremely powerful in her own way.

Your books could be described as fantasy. Yet they feel more like classic fairy tales written by the Brothers Grimm. Is this intentional? Is this your attempt to revisit and revise the way fairy tales treated girls?

Yes, I do want to revisit the fairy tale landscape because it feels like home to me. That's where I spent much of my childhood. There's a wonderful quality to these stories, they speak to our primordial story needs, which is why they've lasted for centuries.

I don't want to rewrite the originals--I want to retell them in a way that speaks true to my own self. That's the purpose of fairy tales--to be retold again and again in many ways for many different hearers.

Though his work has recently fallen out of favor, child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim argued that fairy tales allowed children to face challenges and darkness in their lives, and confront their feelings through these stories. Do you agree? Is that why you write?

Absolutely. I write to confront my own needs through stories then let it go out there and see if anyone else has the same needs. It's been fascinating to watch my four-year-old son grow into a need for narrative. He needs stories. It's the way he's coming to understand the world. He wants a story told about everything. It gives him control and security, and also sends him on adventures he's aching to have but too small or afraid (or wise) to try. And he doesn't just want or need happy stories--he wants and needs to hear about monsters, about people turning into animals or getting lost or being afraid. And then he needs to hear it all be okay in the end.

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