NOTE: This is a work of cultural and literary criticism, and not a review. Please adjust your expectations accordingly.
When I was in the rewrite stage of Dangerous several years ago, a Smart Person read the first 50 pages and immediately let me know her concerns. She said, “Your main character is unrelatable. You made her a home schooled, science geeky, one-armed, half-Paraguayan.” Until this person said all that I had never thought it. I mean, of course I knew knew those things about her, but I’d never strung together all those adjectives in my mind, maybe because the decisions about her character came about piece-by-piece while writing the story, not all at once. . .
But the Smart Person told me, “Teens will not relate to someone so unlike them. Maybe with middle grade you could get away with this, but not in YA.”
I was shocked. I’d been writing this book off-and-on for years already and never considered this. And then I got a little mad. People exist who are half-Paraguayan or half-anything, or one-handed, or home schooled, or science geeky, or girls, or all of the above. Why can’t someone like Maisie be worthy of a story too?
I’ve encountered similar opinions over the years and began to come to an uncomfortable understanding, one that others before me have also discovered.
In stories (all stories, be they novels, movies, television commercials…) we (in the US) easily accept a certain kind of character as Neutral. Neutral is white, male, able-bodied, straight, not too young (in children’s) and not too old (in adult), and not especially extraordinary in any way. For example, Maisie is called “half-Latina” (rather than “half-white,” which is also true) because the “white” part is Neutral, assumed, and the “Latina” part is Specific. . . .
In stories, you can fairly smoothly take one step away from Neutral, maybe two, but more than this is risking turning off a wide audience.
Let’s move sideways for a moment. If you follow Hale on Twitter (and you should), then you may have noticed this about her before she did:
Realizing how often I flash between feminist rants and cute stories about my toddlers. So agile! What range! *followers drop like flies*
— Shannon Hale (@haleshannon) August 11, 2014
She pulls no punches when she’s arguing for equality in the literary marketplace, but she does it with ineffable charm and it makes me sad if even she gets unfollowed when saying something not crazy like
If we don't indoctrinate boys that they can only be interested in male characters, many will embrace female characters as well.
— Shannon Hale (@haleshannon) August 8, 2014
Shocking, right? Right?
Anyway. A few months ago, Hale was, with others, heavily promoting The Great Greene Heist with the hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks. The idea was that if you can put a book in the hands of a kid, and that book does not star a white male, and the book is good, KIDS WILL LIKE IT EVEN THOUGH THE MAIN CHARACTER AINT A WHITE MALE. A radical idea, but one I support (and apparently need to hear myself) and certainly something I try to keep in mind as I put together curricula.
And so, whether Hale calculatedly (ie, for political reasons) made Maisie Danger Brown four steps from Neutral or not, Maisie is four steps from Neutral and this is a chance for our popular white author of princess books to sneak a home-schooled, geeky, one-armed, half-Paraguayan female into the lead role of a superhero story and prove to a skeptical public that our imaginations can handle the strain.
This, as I see it, is the “purpose” of Dangerous: to take a “diverse” character and put her into a popular story type and show the world that everyone can love her as much as they love Peter Parker.
The important question for us to pose is whether or not Dangerous succeeds at this task.
I should start with admitting I did not love this book. Were I not preemptively reading it for the Whitneys I would’ve quit around page forty. Not that there was anything bad about it but simply because there are a lot of other books in the world and I was a bit bored. On page 91 (we’ll get there) something happens that made me realize I could write about this novel. And when Maisie returns to her family, I started to care.
Here’s a synopsis, from beginning to end:
Maisie wins a scholarship to an astronaut camp in the near future.
Her “fireteam” is crazy talented (and racially diverse!) but her closest relationship is with a rich white boy, although it’s tough to tell if he’s sincere or simply toying with her.
Her fireteam and the rich white boy (Wilder) are the best at stuff, and the nutty rich scientist who owns the camp invites them on her space elevator.
In space, they handle weird alien tokens that have been uncovered while mining an asteroid.
Each of the five kids watches as a token slips into his or her body, causing horrible pain . . . and superpowers!
We seem to be witnessing the birth of a superteam, but then they start dying, and taking the tokens from each other’s corpses.
After Maisie becomes the fist to steal a token (accidentally!), she runs away to her parents; the others get sucked into Wilder’s evil rich white father’s grasp and bad things happen.
Wilder ends up with two tokens and Maisie with three (although, like that other superhero Katniss, Maisie is never forced into morally compromising situations—people die but, conveniently, she’s never culpable).
Meanwhile a weird disease is taking over the Earth which, it ends up, is aliens possessing their bodies.
Wilder dies without dying and Maisie ends up with all five tokens and all five superpowers although, alas, they don’t work as well when all stuck in the same person.
Maisie saves the world.
Wilder (who, it ends up, has been a good guy all along) and Maisie go on a date to the movies.
Although this is the entire plot, the only real surprise is in the first hundred and thirty pages. Like any superhero story though, it’s not the obvious fact that the world gets saved that keeps you turning pages: it’s HOW.
I’m coming up on a thousand words here and I still haven’t got to answering the question posed. So let’s call this an introductory post, and tomorrow I’ll get to answering the question. See you then.
====Shannon Hales :: Dangerous====
Just how dangerous is Shannon Hale? (intro)
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Just how dangerous is Shannon Hale? (post)
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A note on Mormon cosmology in Shannon Hale’s Dangerous
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