My childhood had a dramatic setting: a bridged island in Maine with mountains, thick woods, a thundering sea and granite boulders strewn over the coastline. It was just the place to come up with stories. It was also just the place to feel the crushing isolation of rural life. And so as a child, I read.
Books were my earliest link to a world beyond my own. I read widely—whatever was in the house, whatever sparked my interest on the library’s shelves. But what I loved most were fantasy adventures: stories of a bold character who sought to gain a treasure, win a contest or defeat evil, all while mastering new skills and exquisite weaponry and learning what it meant to be a hero.
The hero of these stories was nearly always a young man. During my formative years, I read no story in which a young woman played this role.
The heroine was quite different. Often strong-willed, she was also often in need of a boy or man to protect her or give her purpose. Some stories starring girls lacked a “hero,” but they usually didn’t include a lot of action and ended with the protagonist’s marriage or the promise of marriage.
Those were my fictional worlds.
In the difficult years of middle school, I found an additional world that helped me both persist and thrive: writing. I wrote my first novel at age 14. It was a wild tale of adventure with swordplay and rescues, danger and escapes. I remember a scene in which my young protagonist (a girl) held a sword for the first time.
But the weapon wasn’t hers: It belonged to the young male hero.
Even then, in a world I controlled, the stories I had read dictated the roles I could imagine. Of course, the girl was there to be rescued, to be aided in her escapes. Of course, the young man had the sword and was both brave and strong. Those were their roles.
And those are the roles that still exist today in hard-core adventure novels for the middle grade crowd. There are some exceptions, but not many. And when we have them, it’s often a transposition of genders—a girl takes the traditional boy’s role. But what about girls who are strong on their own?
I needed to write a novel to confront the gender roles in the novels I had grown up with and to offer new concepts of what a girl could be to readers today. And so in my fantasy adventure, The Mad Wolf’s Daughter, my protagonist Drest is more than a girl with a sword masquerading as a boy. She embodies the person I wanted to be when I was 12: strong, brave, determined and focused on doing the right thing. She lives in medieval Scotland when tales of men’s strength and bravery dominated all discourse. This was a world where no one expects her to play the boy’s role.
I gave Drest the support of her father (the villain of the story, by the way, another of my tweaks to the genre) and five vicious but loving brothers, who never see her for her gender but for who she is beyond it, and include her in their infamous war-band. She also learns from them how to care about other people. In her own way, she’s nurturing. She loves deeply and fiercely.
But Drest also begins with a kind of masculine arrogance, commonly seen in the adventure genre, where brash heroes need to learn humility. Like her brothers, she adopts a seemingly noble but ultimately unsettling part of her family’s war-band code: to honor and protect all women and girls. The code exists because women are weak and vulnerable, her father says, while he’s told Drest that she “was as tough as any of her brothers.”
And yet when she first meets girls and women, she realizes that they’re powerful in ways she’s never known. They are each as tough and strong as her brothers and make significant differences in their worlds—including one she only hears about: a girl long dead whose story motivates much of the action. Drest slowly learns that the gender roles she once understood don’t exist and that there is no one kind of woman. And in that process, she also learns about her own potential to be a true hero.
I hope that Drest, the women and girls, and the sensitive and physically weak boys in The Mad Wolf’s Daughter will help to dismantle the traditional gender roles of heroes and heroines in the fast-paced adventure genre. I hope my young readers take to heart these examples and understand that there are different ways of being a girl—and different kinds of strength and power.