In April, librarian Mindy Rhiger reviewed Dangerous, a YA science fiction novel by NYT bestselling and Newbery Honor-winning author Shannon Hale. We invited the both of them to the blog to discuss the book and its main character Maisie, who was born with one arm.
To make things even more exciting, we’re giving away a brand-new hardcover of Dangerous! Details at the end of the post.
Mindy: I opened my review of Dangerous by saying that the first time I read a character like me (with a congenital limb deficiency) in a book and she turns out to be a superhero. Tell me about your decision to write a superhero with a limb difference.
Shannon: I don’t think I ever thought about it like that, in the same sentence. For years I’d wanted to write a superhero story. And for years I’d wanted to write about a person with a congenital limb deficiency. And I’d wanted to write about someone from Paraguay. And someone who loved science. And someone who was homeschooled. And someone who was burdened with the middle name of “Danger.” And everything just came together in this story. People with limb deficiencies exist in life but not so much in books, and I felt that lack. I don’t think I’d be the right person to write an issue book about disability. But I thought I could write a superhero story, and I thought I could write a character who has one hand.
Mindy: I think that Maisie’s limb difference challenges many people’s preconceptions about superheroes, and your story includes more than a few details about one-handed life that may challenge reader’s assumptions. Tell me about how writing Maisie’s story challenged assumptions you may have had.
Shannon: I love getting inside characters’ heads who are different from me. Writing, even more than reading, is so immersive. But I remember in a second or even third draft (I did about 20 drafts) finding passages where I’d forgotten that Maisie didn’t have a right hand. Two hands is so fundamental for me. And one hand is fundamental for her. This was not a loss for her, she was born with it, this was her norm. I really had to rewire my brain sometimes, because I would consider the amputation of my right hand a huge loss (as did one of my favorite characters ever in a Megan Whalen Turner book) but for Maisie this is just a fact of her life.
Mindy: Many people don’t even realize that it’s possible to be born with a limb deficiency, much less the differences between life with a congenital amputation versus with an acquired amputation. What kind of research did you do to make sure you got the details correct?
Shannon: Initially I wasn’t aware that Amniotic Band Syndrome wasn’t common knowledge. I can’t remember when I first learned about it. My father is an OBGYN and I think I grew up assuming everyone knew stuff that I’d learned from him. Let me give a peek into what it’s like to be my father’s daughter. On a bookshelf at home we had a miscarried human embryo in a small glass jar of formaldehyde, and my siblings and I used to take it to show & tell at school. Not till adulthood did I look back and wonder if that made anyone uncomfortable. Words like “vagina” and “cervix” weren’t dirty words; we overheard our otherwise very conservative father use them regularly on phone calls. I remember a specific conversation I had with a friend in my 20s when she told me I probably shouldn’t share gynecological stories over dinner. In some areas, I was naively overeducated. But anyway.
The first person I met with Amniotic Band Syndrome was a newborn. In 1999, a friend of mine was fostering a baby who had been born without one hand and one foot. I held that sweet, happy baby and just fell in love. She was eventually adopted and I don’t know what happened to her, but our meeting stayed with me. I crossed paths with other people who had limb deficiencies: a teacher, an extended family member by marriage, a sibling’s roommate, a friend’s son. And I read, did as much research as I could. Nevertheless, I’d be surprised if I didn’t get some things wrong. And I’m sure not everyone with a limb deficiency or everyone who uses a prosthesis has the same experience.
Mindy: While I appreciate books that are specific to the disability experience, I loved that Dangerous wasn’t that kind of book. Nor was it a book about a homeschooler (though Maisie is homeschooled) or about a Latina (though Maisie is a Latina). How did you keep all these elements of Maisie’s experiences from overshadowing her story?
Shannon: Apparently by having so many Maisie elements that they all drown each other out! Girl’s got lots of stuff going on! Really, I think it’s a matter of genre. This is a scifi superhero story. It doesn’t have time to be an issue story. I too appreciate so much books about the disability experience or any experience that isn’t in our default canon. But that’s not what I wanted to write. I wanted to write a fast-paced, kickbooty, twisty adventure story, and I wanted the heroine to be a real girl who I hadn’t met in books before.
Mindy: You mention in a recent blog post that one challenge of writing a Specific character (characters of color, with disabilities, who are religious or LGBTQ or have any other non-neutral traits) is that people will challenge you if they feel you get it wrong. What kind of response have you gotten from readers about Maisie’s disability or other Specific traits?
Shannon: No challenges. Nothing so far. (I hope that doesn’t mean no one’s reading it!) I have gotten several emails from readers, who say things like “I’d never read about another homeschooled Latina like me before” or “I’d never read about a girl with a prothesis like me before” or “I’d never read about a Latina science geek like me before.” That’s really awesome. And if challenges do come, that’s great. People need to feel free to speak up, to draw notice, to educate. I can’t get it all right. No writer can. And one of the best things a book can do is start a conversation. I hope the fear of the challenges won’t stop any writers from respectfully tackling Specific characters.
Mindy: There are no references to Maisie’s disability on the back cover of ARC I have. Was that a conscious decision on your (or your editor’s) part?
Shannon: I don’t know. I don’t write the jacket copy. I tried early on in my career and discovered I was horrible at it so I stay out of it now. I actually didn’t even notice that until someone pointed out to me after publication that the jacket copy made no mention of her disability or race or any of her specific traits. I guess none of my other books’ jacket copies mention those kinds of traits about my other characters either. It’s more about plot points, setting, and relationships. What do you think, is that something we should change in the paperback?
Mindy: What advice do you have for writers who want to write Specific/diverse characters that are outside their own experiences?
Shannon: Research. Read. Talk to people. Do your homework. Be respectful. But don’t be afraid. Mindy, if I’d known you when I was writing this, I’d have begged you to read a draft.
Mindy: What’s next for you?
Shannon: Zoinks, so much. I kind of exploded. Sorry about the mess. Third of my Ever After High books this summer. The Princess in Black, a new early chapter book series, this fall. The third and final Princess Academy next March. And I’m starting a new MG series with my husband. It’s a contemporary realism/fantasy/scifi/horror/wish fulfillment/alternate history/dystopian/comedy because why pick one genre when apparently you can squeeze them all in?
Thanks so much, both of you!
Bloomsbury has generously donated a hardcover of Dangerous to be given to one of our followers. To enter, simply leave a comment here on WordPress or reblog our Tumblr post. (Yes, doing both increases your chances!) In one week, we’ll select a single winner from one of these locations. This giveaway is limited to US addresses.
The giveaway has ended, and the winner has been notified. Thanks to everyone who entered!