Wednesday, October 01, 2008

New Voices Blog Tour: No Girls Allowed

I'll admit it: When I was little, I wanted to be a boy. So I was thrilled to talk to Susan Hughes about her new book No Girls Allowed: Tales of Daring Women Dressed as Men for Love, Freedom and Adventure! for the New Voices Blog Tour. (A review will be posted tomorrow, but as you'll see from my interview, I loved these stories of girls dressing as men throughout history.)

Now for the interview:

Kelly: Thanks, Susan, for taking the time to talk to me today. I really enjoyed No Girls Allowed: Tales of Daring Women Dressed as Men for Love, Freedom and Adventure! Like you I was always fascinated by stories of girls and young women dressing as men throughout history. I’m really glad you decided to tell their stories. How did you narrow the stories down to just these seven examples?

Susan: I’m surprised you knew about these girls and young men! I found out about them accidentally, while researching for a book about spies. When I searched online for “undercover” and “women’ and “disguise,” many of these stories began popping up. I was surprised and intrigued. There were so many women sharing this experience! But we couldn’t tell all the stories in our book, and so, as you point out, I had to narrow them down to seven. It was difficult, but I ended up choosing stories that were, first of all, the most interesting, and then, ones that helped show how pervasive these experiences were. I chose women whose adventures began, and took them to, a variety of places around the world, and I chose women whose stories ranged throughout different historical time periods.

Kelly: Why did you decide on a graphic novel format for telling these tales?

Susan: Actually, this was the editor’s idea. I wrote up a proposal to tell these stories as typical non-fiction text and she came up with the terrific idea of telling them in the graphic novel format. She thought, and I agreed, that the stories were exciting, dramatic, and action packed, and they would lend themselves to this visual form with short, snappy dialogue. Reading these stories in the graphic novel format is almost like watching a movie about them – very engaging! I’d never written to this format before, but I really enjoyed the challenge and learned a lot about dialogue while doing it.

Kelly: Willow Dawson’s bold black-and-white panel style works wonderfully with the young women’s stories. What can you tell us about Ms. Dawson?

Susan: Willow is an experienced Toronto-based graphic artist and illustrator. I’ve met her several times now. It’s so nice to get to know one’s co-creator on a project! Willow is lovely -- smart, talented, and thoughtful. She was able to read my text and see the shape of the story, and help direct it. As I wrote, I was trying to provide her with opportunities to show all that was happening behind the words, and she did that and more. She added texture and atmosphere to each story. For an example, in the second last frame of the chapter about Sarah Rosetta Wakeman she placed a crow on Wakeman’s tombstone. The final frame, which is also the final frame of the whole book, shows simply the crow flying away, providing a poignant reflective moment. Also, I was impressed by Willow’s incredible attention to detail. She and the editor were meticulous about making sure everything in every frame was historically accurate.

Kelly: Of the seven stories included in No Girls Allowed, which is your favorite and why?

Susan: Agggh, I can’t choose a favourite. I love the story of James Barry, because she is such an inspiration, a woman with such ambition to practice medicine even though women were not allowed that she went undercover as a man, all her life, and not only that, but pushed the envelope with her insistence that health care be available even to the weakest and most vulnerable in society; I love the story of Ellen Craft, because she disguises herself and puts herself at great risk to escape slavery and to make a life with her husband, and then she goes on to continue the fight by working for the freedom of others; I also love the story of Sarah Wakeman, because she fought in the Civil War, hoping to earn money to send home to her family, without knowing she was following in the footsteps of Mu Lan, who had disguised herself as a soldier to protect her father, and without knowing that she was sharing this difficult and dangerous experience with hundreds of other disguised American female Civil War soldiers. And I love the other stories too … ! It’s too difficult to choose!

Kelly: One thing that struck me when reading these stories, is that, often, the heroines find they are not alone—that there are other young women passing as men fighting alongside them. In my favorite story, “Alfhild,” the heroine even inspired these girls to start their own pirate band! That’s very cool, especially when considering that Alfhild lived in 9th-century Scandinavia. Did this phenomenon surprise you when you were researching No Girls Allowed?

Susan: Well, as I explain in the afterword of the book, you have to remember that this book is based on historical facts but many of the details were not available. So some of this is the result of my imagination at play. In fact, the story of Alfhild is actually based on a very old legend which may or may not be based on an actual event. Because the story has been passed down and passed down, like the story of Mu Lan, it’s been included, especially as we have good documented accounts of the many British and Irish women pirates that did sail the seas. Instead of repeating one of these better known biographies, I decided to bring to light Alfhild’s story, a woman of a time and place that many North American kids won’t be familiar with. Did it happen? Were there other women also disguised as pirates that she might have met? Did they unite to form their own girl (pirate) band? I’d like to think so, and I think the story I wrote and Willow illustrated delivers a plausible riff on the centuries-old Alfhild legend.

Kelly: Tell us a little bit about you, Susan. Do you write full time? What are you working on now?

Susan: I am full-time writer and editor of children’s books and educational materials. Right now, I’m a developmental editor on a social studies program for the Atlantic provinces. I’m also working with an editor on the final stages of a non-fiction manuscript about how science has, and is, helping us search for lost people, such as Sir John Franklin and his crew, and Anastasia Romanov. It will be published by Kids Can in 2010. I’m also in the final editing stages of a young adult novel, unnamed as yet, which will be published, also by Kids Can, in 2010. It’s very exciting to have so many great opportunities like these!

Kelly: Okay, now a speed round:

  • Beer, wine, or a soft drink? Wine.
  • If you had the chance, would you travel back in time? Yes. Where would you go and why? I’d like to hang out with some of the girls/young women that I wrote about in this book and see how they spoke, what they felt, and if life for them was really like the way I’ve been imagining it. Perhaps I’d even take a copy of my book back for them to read!
  • Beach, city, or forest? Beach.
  • Why did you decide to write children’s books and not, say, mystery, chick lit, or “literary fiction”? I was looking at the job board one spring after my third year of university and saw an ad looking for student English majors to work for a children’s publisher, and the die was cast!
  • Coffee, tea, or a triple skinny latte? Coffee, and more coffee!
  • Movie, Theater, or a Concert? Theatre.
  • If you had an entire week and unlimited resources to do whatever you’d like, what would you do and why? Travel with my family through the continent of Africa and spend the money on supporting local communities there in some fundamental way, either related to health or education.
  • Halloween, New Year’s, or Valentine’s Day? Valentine’s Day.
Thanks again, Susan! You can catch the rest of the New Voices tour here:

Sept 29
Shelf Elf: read, write, rave
Matt Hammill, Sir Reginald’s Logbook

Sept 30
Good Comics for Kids
Willow Dawson, No Girls Allowed