Interview and Giveaway with THE SMARTEST WOMAN IN THE WORLD!


So my wife is a pretty smart cookie. We were sitting around talking about female characters in novels for teens the other night.  (Gretchen is an Associate Editor splitting her time between Atheneum and McElderry. She's also a super rad blogger with her first book on sewing coming out in 2012)  Gretchen made the observation that sometimes writers think they're writing a "strong female character" when all they're really doing is writing a "girl who punches people."

Such a great observation and also a great reminder that it was way past time that I invited Gretchen over to the League for a little interview.

While she's here she's also going to provide a giveaway! Just comment on this post for a chance to win an ARC of Blood Red Road, the highly anticipated post-apocalyptic novel by Moira Young coming out this June.


So what's the difference between a strong female character and a girl who punches people?
Hi everyone! Thanks for having me.

The problem for me is the way a female character's violent actions can be read as "kickass" and therefore feminist. It's a pretty reductive way of thinking. Since The Hunger Games trilogy gained popularity, I've seen a lot of writers attempting a Katniss-like character but only really succeeding in writing a cookie cutter with all the trappings of a "tough girl": weapons, impulsive violence, etc.  (Oh, and big boots! They always wear boots.) I feel like we've reached a plateau where strong female characters fit into this bad girl template, but it's time to take it a step further. I think the most feminist YA book I've ever read was The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks. Frankie is tough, but her strength comes from her intellect. Ironically, I think she's one of the angriest characters I've read.

On the other hand, some of my favorite female characters are known to throw a punch every now and then. There's a reason we love girls who hit things, especially as women. If you're brought up to be a "good girl," I think it's a sort of superhero fantasy; a vicarious acting-out. The real issue is when writers use impulsive violence as a shorthand for a strong girl character.


Why do you find the "girl who punches things" such  a troubling archetype?
Besides being a simplified glorification of violence, what disturbs me most is how sexualized it is. It's a pretty typical straight male fantasy, as far as I can tell. (Think Lara Croft or Sucker Punch for some pop culture examples.) I was recently at a cover shoot with a beautiful model. We'd toyed around with the idea of her holding a crossbow on the cover (though we later ditched that direction) and you should have seen the reaction from the men in the studio when this gorgeous model started posing with the crossbow. It was kind of icky, actually.

I think we have to be really careful with strong girl characters to make sure they're not simply a product of male fantasy, but an organic extension of the anger and raw emotion one can feel as a teenage girl.


How'd you get involved in Children's books? What do you think it is that draws you to them as opposed to adult lit?
I started my publishing career at Harcourt about 7 years ago after working as a manager in a bookstore. Seeing the YA boom as a bookseller made me positive that I wanted to work in children's. I think it's awesome to edit this relatively young category that's always growing and figuring itself out.


Any books coming up that you're particularly excited about?
I'm extremely excited about Blood Red Road by Moira Young coming out this June. It's a very raw, bleak, post-apocalyptic novel about a girl who is both incredibly violent and a well-developed character. (So I guess you can have both!) There's also The Trouble with May Amelia by Jennifer Holm, releasing in April. It's her sequel to the fantastic Our Only May Amelia, about a plucky heroine growing up as the only girl  in a Washington State settlement in 1900. 

For fall, I'm psyched for The Pledge by Kimberly Derting, which is set in a dystopian society where only women can rule, interestingly. This is further off, but I'm in the thick of working on a fantastic debut novel for 2012 called Smashed by Lisa Luedeke, which deals with alcoholism and sexual assault in a really dark, moving way.


Ok. You knew it was coming. Here's the obligatory "what kind of things are you looking for right now?" question. Out with it.


Dark and fast-paced YA. Sweet, classic middle-grade. That pretty much sums it up!




Thanks babe! Great interview!


To enter for a chance to win Moira Young's Blood Red Road just leave us a comment. I'll announce the winner right here next Wednesday.


Jeff Hirsch
The Eleventh Plague
Coming from Scholastic, September 1, 2011

Find me at jeff-hirsch.com and @jeff_hirsch

74 comments:

Tez Miller said...

Jeff, thanks for using your biz/spousal connection for good, and not evil ;-)

Gretchen, I'm glad I've found someone who shares my opinion, though you've said it far better than I could ;-) "Strong" (read: violent) characters feature heavily in adult urban fantasy, which explains why I'm very picky about what I read in that sub-genre nowadays. To me, violence doesn't make one strong - in fact, it's the decision NOT to resort to violence that makes me actually like characters ;-)

Anne said...

Ooh, I like her. Thanks for the interview!

Alex said...

What a fantastic woman...
You lucky...person.

I think that every-time I read a female character (particularly protagonists) I'll find myself thinking of this post and those wise words.

She must be a busy lady, but I have to ask- even beg- if she wouldn't be prepared to do a consistent contribution. Once a month? Every other month? Every few months? Bi-annually?

I can't actually tell you how much I agree with her though. I like characters, regardless of gender, who try to use their brains and instincts to solve a situation rather than thinking with their fists. As said above, I much prefer and become endeared to a character when they do everything in their power to avoid violence and physical conflict.

I think when we read- as proper readers, not sexually charged animals- we like characters who know themselves and, better yet, how to handle a situation true to themselves and fights have to occur in this.

Thanks for a thought-provoking and interesting post!!!

Alden said...

Looking forward to more dystopian YA novels. Thanks for the heads up on a few more titles to add to my to be read list.

Vidisha said...

Thanks for the interview!!

vidishamun@gmail.com

Book Nerds said...

Thank you for the interview. Great thoughts on strong, female characters. I really love the emergence of them so often these days, in YA lit and other places.

TweetyB99 at aol dot com

Michelle hawley said...

Ha, I love that she made that observation, because it's so true!

thebookheist@gmail.com

LindsayWrites said...

Husband and wife blogger love. My blogging heart has just melted. :)

Big boots. I will admit my tough girl character wears them! But really..tough girls cant defend themselves wearing flip flops from Target!!

Americangirlie1991@yahoo.com

buddyt said...

I suppose I have never really thought about the bad girl heroines who throw punches. shoot, slash. I just got accustomed to them.

But you make a very valid point which I can agree with completely.

Thanks for that.

If the giveaway is open worldwide, I would like to be entered.

Thanks.

Carol T

buddytho {at} gmail DOT com

the janice said...

Thank you for addressing this! It's exactly what I've been thinking about recently...

Bittersweet Fountain said...

I love it when people read my mind and post exactly what I've been thinking. I hate how to be feminist it seems like you have to be either uber violent or uber sexual. Being an awesome strong girl is not about those things. It's intelligence and strength of will, to me, that makes a strong female (or male for that matter).

Loved this post!

cristy012 said...

Great interview, I agree completely.

Thanks for the giveaway

m_terry06@hotmail.com

lotusgirl said...

Great interview. It's nice to get to know you Gretchen. I had my female MC punch someone once but it was because she felt powerless and was frustrated. I have since taken it out. It didn't really ring true to her character to react that way.

Angie Smibert said...

Great post you two! And amen, sister. Thank you for deconstructing the "kickass" female stereotype! Some tough girls with boots are fine, but not if that's the only thing they've got going for them. Unless they're really nice boots. (JK)

Lois D. Brown said...

I agree. There are a lot of angry male-like female MC. Well put. and enter me for the giveawy.

Kathryn Packer Roberts said...

I really like this post. Great points. I very much agree. It sort of turns me off to a book when the opening scene (or soon thereafter) there is a girl kicking someone's butt. I think true bravery and strength come from how well we deal with situations (and violence doesn't seem strong to me, it seems weak). As in Katniss' role, she worked because she was FORCED to fight, but didn't want to. But what showed her strength was when she refused to kill.

Mrs. DeRaps said...

I love, love, love your comments about girls who punch things being a male-driven fantasy. I have always been turned off by those characters in film and in books, mostly because I do not identify with that type of heroism. I like a strong female lead who uses her brain to solve problems...Fists are just not a girl's first instinct.

I'd love to be entered for a chance to win this book. Thanks!

mrsderaps @ hotmail . com

Matthew Rush said...

Excellent post! Reminds me of Men with Breasts.

Rae said...

This lack of real strength for female characters happens in many genres, I’ve noticed. But I’ve been reading a lot of YA lately, and more than a few authors have turned me off their very interesting story line/world creation because of a poorly written lead female.

(P.S. Love the spousal blogging love. Thanks to Gretchen for tweeting about this post and introducing me to a whole slew of authors to check out)

Elana Johnson said...

Fantastic interview, Jeff! I can't wait for Kim's dystopian.

Twilighter said...

Thanks for the great interview if this is International include me please. I love dystopian books. Cant wait to read Kim's book.

meganmcdade2008@yahoo.co.uk

Patty said...

Thanks for the interview!
-Patty K.
greekpatty13@gmail.com

Villain Extraordinaire said...

Very thoughtful and though-provoking interview. Blood Red Road sounds like it hits the nail on the head.

Book Groupie said...

Great interview! Please count me in for the giveaway.

Encgolsen@gmail.com

John Sankovich said...

This was a very timely interview for me as I am working on a female protagonist and trying to make her strong. I think that the way I'm making her strong might work, we'll see when it's all said and done though. Great interview.

Tere Kirkland said...

Thought-provoking interview, Gretchen. Thanks, for introducing your wife to us, Jeff!

I love YA where the female mc is a person first, not just a girl who kicks ass, or a love interest, or a caring nurturer. She can be all these things, or none, as long as she's a person.

Good luck with your book, and I'd love to win Moira's book. It sounds great!

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Fascinating look at female characters - thanks Gretchen!

Please sign me up for the giveaway - sounds like a great book! :)

Nova said...

What a great interview with Gretchen!

Melody said...

Great post! I enjoyed looking deeper into the typical 'kickass' female character. Sometimes I feel like all they do is hit things and act like boys, when they're really girls and need to be strong as girls. :) Also, sign me up for the drawing! :)

Cade Crowley said...

Thanks for the interview! I agree that girls don't have to punch a lot of random people to be strong.

I've been hearing a lot of good things about Blood Red Road in the blogosphere, it sounds like an awesome read.

Sarah E. Bradley said...

Wow Gretchen, I never thought about that, but it is so true. Strong characters are normally those that make hard decisions and stick with them, they support people and gather people to them, its not just that they have mad fighting skills. Although, there is nothing wrong with having that too.

Liana said...

Great interview. I'm very excited about the evolution of YA too.

Stephsco said...

Good comments on what makes a strong female protagonist. Although, sometimes I feel like I'm trying so hard not to be cliche w/ my characters that they end up a little too much of everything. It's definitely got me thinking!

Minas said...

Great interveiw!

minas_1989(at)hotmail(dot)com

Mary Aalgaard said...

Great interview and description of what makes a female character strong. I'd also include, she's not strong just because she uses strong language. I think Hermione is a strong female character because she's smart and not apologetic about it.

Stacey said...

great interview! I'm also a bookseller and am trying to figure out how to break into the publishing industry so it was cool to see it can be done!

Stacey
secsec1 (at) gmail (dot) com

Jessy said...

I completely agree. Sometimes I read a book where the MC is supposed to be a strong woman but she just turns out to be annoying. Often times I wonder what younger girls think of these characters. If they try to be more like these characters, we're in for trouble.

Bethany said...

Awesome topic! I like girl characters that are strong and independant, but there's a fine line between "strong female character" and "violently disturbed".

fallenleaf99@hotmail.com

Sophia the Writer said...

Ugh I agree! I blogged about this trend with heroines last month - I was actually afraid nobody would want to buy my book because my girls DON'T fight.

TheGirlOnFire said...

I am a huge fan of Katniss and agree that she is a very unique character. I do wish there were more lead characters like her.

Stephanie
thegirlonfire27 at gmail dot com

Christi said...

Know what bothers me about strong female characters? The tendency is to have them hate wearing dresses or makeup or feminine clothes. I think it's pretty stereotypical--you can't be strong and still like to wear a dress occasionally?

Great post!

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

@Christi For a great strong female (vamp-butt-kicking) that also really likes pink, see Paranormalcy. :)

Catherine Denton said...

Thank you for sharing so eloquently the difference between a violent female character and a strong one.

Jay said...

Awesome interview! XD Thanks!

Mystery Robin said...

Thanks for the interview. That was fabulous. :) I think my favorite "kickass" female character is Ruby from Ten Cents a Dance. She's strong and sassy and tough, but in her own way.

Emy Shin said...

Thank you so much for this great interview! There is definitely an assumption that a physically strong female automatically equals a strong character -- but that's not the case at all.

Sarah Nicolas said...

yes, yes and yes! I was just talking earlier today about how the hates pink + snarky + physically/magically strong combo has become a sortcut to creating a 'kickass' girl heroine. It's getting on my nerves a bit.

Temperance said...

I like her:)

sewsterhood said...

Gretchen, I'm so glad you linked to this interview from your blog. So fun to hear about your day job! I absolutely agree about the misuse of "impulsive violence as a shorthand for a strong girl character." The strong female characters who stick in my head are more along the lines of Anne from Anne of Green Gables and Lotty from The Enchanted April. They both have strong opinions that they don't hold back from voicing, and they both confidently decide what direction to go in when their lives need a change. They choose joy and delight in life--even when that's harder than getting mired down, even when that means going against the grain--and they give others the chance to come along with them.

Katie L. Carroll (KT) said...

It was nice to meet your wife! I think the idea that a "strong female character" doesn't equal "girl who punches people" is something that has been on my subconscious for awhile. It's definitely something I'll be actively thinking about in my own writing.

Oana said...

I agree with what you said about girls showing how tough they are through means other than just throwing punches.
At the same time, I don't think that all the authors who wrote about violent girls tried to make them that way to appeal to the male population. I've been working on a dystipian book for few years now and my lead character is a girl. She's not necessarily violent, but she has quite the temper. She can use words just as well as she can use her fists and she's not afraid to do either if you push the wrong buttons. Just saying.
I'm not trying to defend my character. Not at all. I just write about her just as I see her in my mind. I didn't make her this way to fit a certain description or a certain type of character. She is just as she is.
I got a little off topic here..
I think the book Blood Red Road sounds really interesting and i absolutely love to read about strong female characters. It is very inspiring to read about their struggles, and as you do, you almost feel like you can borrow some of their strength.
I loved reading the interview, and I'll be sure to add Blood Red Road to my "to read" list.

LaurenNicole said...

Can't wait to read this book!!! It sounds so interesting!!

Noelli Spanelli said...

hoping i'm lucky enough to win what looks like an absolutely amazing book :)

Samantha Cheng said...

Hi :)

Wow, here's the connection between a husband and wife that everyone's looking for! I loved her response to how violent girls are male fantasies because I think it's really true. Teenage girls are being so exploited nowadays that even they don't realize it! And WE LET IT HAPPEN!!! ok, I'm done ranting. That said, I would love to be entered in this contest xD

hsiu_an@hotmail.com

Jasmine (The Reading Housewives) said...

I can't wait for this one! We need more strong female characters!!

jasminediana13(at)gmail(dot)com

f5d98cb6-4052-11e0-adb7-000bcdca4d7a said...

I was wondering why some seemingly strong female characters were bugging me recently - you've hit the nail on the head! We need balance. We can have badass and still have intelligent and realistic too. You're right, strong is not just physical, but mental and emotional as well.

Though like someone else said, the sexy version of strong females isn't completely the male population's fault, because like you said - girls growing up as good girls with hardly a reason to verbally battle let alone physically, being able to pull off amazing stunts and fighting moves is almost parallel with how we look for a guy in a romance novel. We want a female who can do everything we're too afraid to or never could, and a (fantasized) guy we never found.

Too many sides of the coin here. You've got me thinking now, and much more aware of the females I'm writing... thanks for that! :)

Elizabeth said...

hooray for more books on the booklist! i've really been digging (good) YA dystopian fiction lately, and it varies so widely in quality that i'm glad to have recommendations from a bona fide editor. i really hope i win the ARC!

kmillie4 said...

Thanks for the interview! i really enjoyed it.

PurpleInspiration said...

You're right. I have recently read a lot of books that try to portray the "independent, b-a, girl". Not all of them are bad girls though. For example, Paranormalcy is about a girl who can kick but but also adores pink.

Shani said...

I love reading about strong female character, and there seems to be a plethora of them running around kicking butt these days!

Litzalou said...

This world needs more strong female leaders, not sexpots who use their fists. Thanks for sharing the interview & for offering a giveaway!

thunter_5 said...

I just read the summary on Amazon for this book. Sounds amazing! Our world needs more heroines. The interview + the giveaway = awesome idea. Thanks.

thunter_5@yahoo.com

Joann said...

Great interview! the book sounds awesome! :D

Dani said...

Thanks for the great interview, Gretchen!

Wise words. =)

Miss Vanderloo said...

I followed the link from Gretchen's blog, and really enjoyed the interview. I am always amazed at the number of YA books at the store, and now I'm curious enough to read one and see what the genre is all about now.

Lynette said...

I'm also a bookseller and since I read a lot of children's/ young adult books, I often get asked questions about teen books for girls. As someone who grew up loving Tamora Pierce's Alanna series, I find myself often searching for strong female characters who possess Alanna's daring or confidence. Since books have had such a strong influence on my life, I like to recommend books with strong female role models for younger girls. I've been saddened to see that they're harder to find, and less sought out than before. I'd love to see more books on the shelves with female characters who struggle and make mistakes in order to come to terms with their own place in the world. Weapons or no weapons, there's nothing more encouraging for young girls than to read about characters who have the same questions and the same struggles. I find that some authors confuse the inner struggle with the need to infuse action into their work, leading to a female protagonist who kicks ass and takes no prisoners, but ends up in nearly the same place as where she started. It's the evolution of these female characters into strong young women who can think and act for themselves that I find to be most fascinating.


Thanks for the interview! I love chatting about books, especially the influence of chldren's/teen books.

linda2060 said...

Loved the interview and I totally agree! There been a lot books with girls strong on the outside and inside. Makes me feel as if girls are finally gettin more power lately. Thanks.

Eliza said...

I love when my worlds collide! I found Gretchen through her blog and then learned of her day job and your novel. I'm a grad student in book publishing (Portland State, 2011) and soon library studies (Florida State?, 2013), both with a focus on young adult lit.

I think it's easier and easier to find great female characters, to the point that even boys are willing to read books that feature girls as the MC. I just hope that we don't swing so far that books with strong, positive MALE characters become scarce.

Jeff, can't wait to read your novel--sounds awesome!

Michelle said...

I love your wife's thinking.

Thanks for the interview.

MannaB said...

Cool interview! Thanks!

crazypplrok@gmail.com

Onge said...

Great interview!! I like that you mentioned a lot of books. I'm going to have to check them out. Thanks for the giveaway!
chickenherder@hotmail.com

Doria Gray said...

Thanks for the interview!
Blood Red Road sounds really interesting, I wouldn't mind winning it :)

haslehurst-1462 said...

Amazing interview! Your wife makes many great points about what makes a strong girl.
Thanks for the awesome giveaway also!

haslehurst-1462@cotc.edu

Robin said...

Great interview! Some wonderful food for thought. And please do enter me in the giveaway!