I wore full slips under my dresses when I was a kid. We Vis girls wore tights and bloomers under our jumpers at school, and I had my share of tiptoing from the car to the house trying to keep my slippery, black, patent leather party shoes out of the snow. Good girls had party dresses and regular day dresses, knee-length and long. If we wore shorts, culottes or overalls, we knew we were daring into tom-boy territory.
Then, about the time I hit the self-consciousness of puberty, my neighborhood baby-sitter Cathie Hartnett gave me a tee-shirt with a cross-stitch design on it declaring: NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF A WOMAN. The irony of the cross-stitching, the labor of patience and pigeon-holed creativity, went way over my head, but the shirt garnered plenty of reactions from my brothers and my father’s friends, who took delight in cracking jokes about women’s lib.
In short, it was fashion that clued me in to how the world was changing for women and girls back then, and now in the time-travel method of memory, I feel like I’ve just written a book for the teen I was.
Strong girls are clear winners in sci fi these days, and if it seems like they’ve popped out of nowhere, it’s because their predecessors—Meg from L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and Offred from Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale obviously come to mind—have been far outnumbered by their brother protagonists.
Just two years ago, when I was working on the first draft of Birthmarked, Collin’s The Hunger Games, Pearson’s The Adoration of Jenna Fox and Meyer’s The Host had not come out yet, and the books I liked—The Giver, House of the Scorpion, Ender’s Game, Anthem, Holes, and Among the Hidden—were all about boys. I liked the action, science and politics involved. I loved how they made me think about society.
But where, I wondered, were the girls? I was surrounded by princesses and shoppers and the newly dead, all wonderful in their ways, but I wanted a girl grounded in fact and grit. I wanted a girl to be in charge of her own futuristic story.
I have a couple of sweeping theories I might as well throw out here: genre fiction like romance, sci fi, fantasy, horror, mystery and western ends well. Maybe it isn’t all Ewoks dancing, but you can trust there will be some version of justice or at least hope at the finish. Literary fiction is the opposite. It ends badly. You can see the train wreck coming, and then, bam, Lennie is dead.
I’ll also throw out that some books are devoted to the private domain: relationships, love, home, mating and children. In the private domain, court life is not grueling diplomacy or international posturing, but a backdrop for fashion and a tiara. Books concerned with the public domain, by contrast, deal with politics, crime, military, science, and medicine. Guess which books typically get the girl protagonists?
Or at least, that’s been the case until lately. Why more girl protagonists are showing up in sci fi now, precisely, is something I can’t answer, but my girlhood self is rejoicing to see it. My old cross-stitch tee-shirt is rising from the dust, vindicated.
And here’s my discovery. The key is to cross domains. Take a girl protagonist, a real one who is smart and hard-working and loyal and brave, and put her in a public domain book. If her personal decisions put her in conflict with her society, and those decisions have repercussions that affect others, very cool things can happen. That’s what I did with Gaia Stone in Birthmarked.
It seemed to be the humanist thing to do.
Caragh O’Brien’s futuristic, dystopian story, Birthmarked, is due out from Roaring Brook Press in April, 2010. It is her first young adult novel.