Mindy Rhiger interviews Shannon Hale about DANGEROUS

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.

Welcome, Mindy and Shannon! Take it away …

Dangerous coverMindy: 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 HaleShannon: 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!

Mindy Rhiger reviews DANGEROUS

Mindy RhigerMindy Rhiger is a librarian specializing in children’s books.  She was born with one arm and has worn a prosthesis since she was a toddler.  You can read all about it on her FAQ called Fake Arm 101.  Mindy shared more books about being different in an article in Book Links called Just Like You: Helping Young People Understand Disabilities Through Books.

Dangerous coverThe first time I’ve really seen someone in a book who is just like me, and she turns out to be a superhero.

I was born with one arm, a condition called a congenital amputation.  It’s not terribly common in real life, and it’s even less common in fictional life.  It’s more common to that people with limb deficiencies lost a limb later in life in an accident or in combat.  Most people assume that’s what happened to me.  It often takes people by surprise to learn that I was born this way.  And that’s just the first of many assumptions I encounter on a daily basis.

If there’s a book about an amputee, it’s usually about someone who has lost a limb later in life.  Often I can find elements of relatability in these stories, but it’s never quite right.  Books like Izzy Willy Nilly and One Handed Catch, both amputee stories, are about adjusting to a new physical reality.  When you’re born with a physical difference, you don’t have to adjust to it.  It’s always a part of you.  The adjustments that I make to do things one-handedly are almost subconscious.  So I was excited to discover that Dangerous by Shannon Hale featured a protagonist with a congenital amputation, but I was also very skeptical of any writer’s ability to write my experience accurately.

Dangerous did not start off well.  On page ten, you find out that our heroine, Maisie, has one hand.  She describes amniotic band syndrome as the reason for her lack of an arm, which is cool because no one usually knows what that is.  But then she says, “It was my right arm’s fault that I was into space.  When I was old enough to dress myself, Dad replaced buttons on my clothes with Velcro, saying, ‘Velcro—just like the astronauts.’ I’d wanted to know more, and a few library books later, I was a space geek.”

I wish she would have said shoes.  My parents bought me Velcro tennis shoes when I was a little kid, so I didn’t have to worry about tying them.  It took me a bit longer to learn to tie shoes than it did other kids because it was hard to get the shoes tied tightly enough with the kind of prosthetic arm I used.  I did eventually get it, but it took some hacking.  But buttons?  They really don’t take two hands to do.  Not even as a little kid.

It’s an easy mistake to make though.  Most two-handed people assume that if they do it with two hands, it must be done that way.  I decided to let it slide.  I rationalized that Maisie’s parents wouldn’t have known about one handed life any more than most people.  It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to think that they would try to make life easier for their daughter by replacing buttons on clothes with Velcro.  I might argue that shoes would have been a more obvious choice, but I’ll set aside my arguments and move on.

The story moves quickly—sometimes too quickly—and soon Maisie is on her way to astronaut camp.  She’s a little self conscious about her limb deficiency, but she isn’t worried about her ability to do everything the other kids do.  That’s when I started feeling optimistic about the book.  It’s often hard for people to believe, but the biggest worry of my one handed life isn’t how I’m going to do something with one hand.  It’s wondering how people are going to respond to my one handedness.  Will I have to prove myself?  Will they not let me participate?  Will they stare or ask questions? Will they acknowledge it at all?  Especially as a young person, these social concerns were a much bigger deal than physical tasks.

When Maisie and her astronaut camp team gain super powers through some alien technology, the focus shifts away from any social concerns Maise might have to more pressing issues that propel that fast-moving plot ever forward.  Her limb deficiency didn’t come up that often as the story unfolded, but every time it did I found myself pleasantly surprised.  Hale avoided falling into the main false assumptions about one handed life: that everything will be so hard and that everything about a person who is different has to be serious.  I loved that Maisie never needed help because of her limb deficiency.  She didn’t complain about it or not attempt to save the world because of it.  She made jokes about it.  She nicknamed her initial prosthetic device and the robot arm she eventually builds herself.  That might not seem like a big deal, but it is.  Those assumptions are ever-present in my life, and it is always a pleasant surprise when someone gets it.

There were occasional minor slip ups, like the Velcro thing at the beginning, throughout the novel.  I would have loved more detail about her prosthetic arm, and I also wondered where her amputation began.  It makes a pretty big difference in how you do things whether you have an elbow or a wrist.  I was skeptical of Maisie’s teammates casually referencing her limb deficiency so quickly since that isn’t my experience.  But these things seemed so unimportant considering what Dangerous did right.

I really believed that Maisie was born without a hand. With the exception of the superpowers via alien technology thing, she might have been me. Kudos to Ms. Hale for doing her research and not allowing assumptions to write the story.

Mindy Rhiger also live-Tweeted her experiences reading Dangerous; check it out for even more of her thoughts and details about the character’s portrayal.

Mindy Rhiger reviews ONE-HANDED CATCH

Mindy RhigerMindy Rhiger is a librarian specializing in children’s books.  She was born with one arm and has worn a prosthesis since she was a toddler.  You can read all about it on her FAQ called Fake Arm 101.  Mindy shared more books about being different in an article in Book Links called Just Like You: Helping Young People Understand Disabilities Through Books.

Cover for ONE-HANDED CATCHWithin the first ten pages of One-Handed Catch by M.J. Auch, eleven-year-old Norm’s life changes abruptly when his hand gets caught in the meat grinder in his father’s butcher shop. A week later, he is sent home from the hospital an amputee. In 1946, it wasn’t uncommon to see an amputee, but they were usually war veterans. Norm is a kid, and from his perspective, losing his hand isn’t about learning to light cigarettes with a hook prosthesis. It’s about playing baseball and riding his bike.

Before I get too much further into this review, let me admit something: I am not an amputee. Like Norm in the book, I only have one hand, but I was born this way. Though doctors refer to my condition as a “congenital amputation,” I think a distinction between someone like me and someone like Norm is an important one to make. For one, I have no traumatic accident in my past. For another, I have no phantom pain, which often plagues amputees whose brains remember their absent limbs. The third difference is that I have always done everything with one hand (or with one hand and a prosthetic hook) while Norm has to adjust the way he does things throughout the book. Those differences aside, I still regularly recommend One-Handed Catch as the best book for young people about limb deficiency because it captures two big aspects of life with one less limb than the rest of you that I haven’t found in other books on the subject: humor and problem solving.

I’ll talk about problem solving first. One of the most frequently asked questions I get is some variation of “How do you [fill in the blank] with one hand?” Most people have never considered life with one hand, and the simplest tasks seem impossible to them. That’s what Norm thinks initially too. But thanks to his mom not letting him off the hook after his amputation, he learns very quickly that he can do everything he used to do with a little bit of creative thinking. The author doesn’t just say that Norm figured it out and leave it at that. She knows that kids want details. She describes Norm’s process for tying his shoes, which most people assume is impossible to do with one hand, and his trial and error method for figuring out how to play baseball well enough to make his local team. Some may say that Norm’s super-determined attitude when it comes to baseball crosses the “inspiration porn” line (I think every review I read of the book used some variation of the word “inspire.”), and I will admit that the tired theme of overcoming adversity is strong in this book. But I weigh the inspiration element with the de-mystification of many aspects of my life, and I still end up with more pros than cons. This book answers so many of the questions that kids ask me everyday about how I do things and how I learned to do them that way. That alone gets high marks from me.

Then there is the humor. I think this is the hardest thing for fiction writers to get right when writing about disabilities. My childhood was full of arm jokes with my brother or with close friends. We laughed at silly arm or hook related puns, and we giggled every time we passed a “second hand store.” Maybe we were just reacting to the awkwardness of people who tried to avoid using words like hand, arm, or hook. I don’t know the exact psychology behind it, but I do know that I loved the relationship between Norm and his best friend Leon. Leon was protective of his friend, often unnecessarily, but he was also willing to laugh when things were funny. Not everyone is willing to write about that. Or if they do, they don’t always get it quite right. The fact that the book is a light read without sacrificing realism or becoming saccharine is another huge chunk of points in its favor.

An author’s note from Mary Jane Auch reveals her connection to the subject. Norm and his story are based on her husband Herm’s childhood. While I would not discourage writers who have no connection to a particular disability from doing their research and include a character with a disability in their story, I imagine that the accuracy of the details and the realistic humor in this book are due to the author’s personal experience. I think that many readers will latch on to the element of perseverance despite an obstacle, but my hope is that readers will leave the book more informed about life with one arm. That they will consider the various responses of the characters in Norm’s life to his disability, which are all very realistic from his dad’s reluctance to acknowledge it to his mom’s tough attitude about it, and think about how they react to people who are different from them.

The story also explores period details of small town life just after World War II ended and includes some sports action and history throughout. Add it all up, and you have a great book to recommend to middle schoolers who like sports or historical fiction. It might also make a good classroom read-aloud (don’t worry, Norm’s accident is not graphically described) for fifth or sixth graders. You might even have your students try doing things like tie their shoes or sharpen their pencils without one of their hands to get an idea of Norm’s and my experiences. I predict it’ll be easier than they expect, and that’s one of the reasons I like this book.