I first hit on the idea of a girl Robin Hood while I was drafting my steampunk Cinderella retelling, Mechanica. What kind of story would inspire a girl whose life is full of injustice, of service to a cruel family who’s supposed to take care of her? A hero who lives in the wild freedom of the forest with a loving chosen family and who robs from the rich to give to the poor: Robin Hood was a perfect story for Cinderella to tell herself.
Turning the noble thief into a girl was only natural since I was already exploring feminism and gender roles in Mechanica. The Forest Queen became a figure of legend that my characters frequently referenced, and a role model for them as they grew into their own strength.
That’s what fairy tales always do. They’re models for the stories of our own lives. We learn about love and courage, cowardice and vengeance, and so many other facets of the human experience from those archetypal stories that get passed down through centuries and cultures. Whether we accept them at face value or push back against them, they have much to teach us. In my own life, I’ve drawn crucial support and inspiration from so many women—all of them strong in different ways—so it was important to me that my girl Robin Hood be surrounded by heroines, too. In too many of the gender-swapped retellings I’ve read, there’s just one special girl filling the shoes of a traditionally male character, and too often the author seems to suggest she’s the exception to the (weak, boring) rule of girlhood.
My girl Robin Hood is no exception: The Forest Queen has a whole band of “merry women,” like a giant girl named Little Jane, a nun-midwife called Mae Tuck and a dashing musician named Alana Dale. (Alana’s name is a variation on the Allan-a-Dale of the old Robin Hood ballads, of course, but it’s also an homage to one of my real-life writing heroines, Tamora Pierce, and her iconic Alanna.) All of these characters are at least as heroic as my protagonist, and in many ways more so: the Forest Queen starts the story as a sheltered young noblewoman, and she comes into her heroism by learning from those around her. I wanted the women in my story to work together for the collective good rather than compete with each other—that seems like a big part of what Robin Hood’s ethos is all about.
As I wrote and revised The Forest Queen, a real-life group of teen heroes rose into the national consciousness: the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The teenagers who responded to their school’s tragedy with such courage and grace were the embodiment of all the ideals I work toward in my fiction. Emma Gonzalez, in particular, struck me as so much like the girl Robin Hood I’d dreamed of: a compassionate, brave young woman of color with an awesome haircut, to boot. She’s been the image of the Forest Queen in my mind ever since.
I really do believe that we learn to be heroes by example—from heroism in real life, if we’re lucky enough to witness it, and always, always from stories. I started writing about Robin Hood to give a heroine to my Cinderella, and then some real-life heroes inspired my work on that story. Today’s young people are a generation of activists, smart and savvy and strong in ways that challenge us older generations to do better. I’m so proud to get to write for them, and I hope that my books reflect back to them some of the strength and courage that they’ve modeled for me. After all, that’s how we all learn to be heroes.
Betsy Cornwell is a New York Times bestselling author living in west Ireland. She is the story editor and a contributing writer at Parabola, and her short-form writing includes fiction, nonfiction and literary translation. She holds an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Notre Dame and a B.A. from Smith College. Her latest novel, The Forest Queen, follows 16-year-old Lady Silvie and her band of diverse outlaws as they attempt to upset the status quo of their medieval land.
Betsy is currently working on The Circus Rose, a queer YA retelling of “Snow White and Rose Red” slated for release in fall 2019.