By Kellie Larson Murphy

Just in time for summer and coinciding with the 5th year of the “Girls of Summer” reading list at bcbg books, JRW presented “Writing for Girls”. The subject of the June Writers Show drew a large crowd, all eager to hear from an interesting panel that included a recently published author, two spirited young writers, and a veteran writer and teacher.

Sarah McGuire loves fairy tales and considers them the best way back to Narnia – at least until she finds a working wardrobe. She lives within sight of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, where she teaches high school creative writing and math classes with very interesting word problems. During the summer she loves having the extra time to travel and, of course, write. She is the author of Valiant, published earlier this year.

M.E. Novak-Ellis is a 14 year old writer, musician, and artist who loves animals, sewing, and music. They spend their free time speaking French, reading, and singing and are an LGBTQIAP+ activist, feminist who identifies as genderqueer. They take creative writing classes with Valley Haggard through Richmond Young Writers to write prose, flash fiction, and horror.

Odessa Hott has always loved to write. At age 7, she took her first class with Richmond Young Writers and now, aged 13, she has self-published over 20 original works on Quotev and written hundreds more in many notebooks. Her favorite genres are fiction, fanfiction and romance. She plays Japanese Taiko drums with River City Taiko and is studying Japanese.

Rebekah Pierce has been writing and teaching English Literature for over fifteen years. She is a lover of mystery novels that feature female protagonists who have their own demons to fight as they save the day. Her first novel, Murder on Second Street: The Jackson Ward Murders, is a blend of history and fiction. In December 2014, Pierce released her second historical fiction novel, The Secret Life of Lucy Bosman, set in Richmond, Virginia in 1862.

Rebekah acted as moderator and opened the show by asking each of the panelists to describe their writing style.

M.E. informed the crowd she writes with no gender, age, or body type. Odessa likes to write fanfiction as a way to “get away from it all”. Sarah returns to the stories of the young, fairy tales and fantasy, reimagines them and tells them in a new and fun way.

When asked what writing for girls means to them, the answers from the panelists were varied. For Sarah, it means telling a story through the eyes of girls. She wants to honor and write the type of girl she’d like to be. Odessa finds it easier to write female characters who already know who they are whereas M.E.’s characters are different versions of herself. She likes a strong female lead for girls.

In Sarah’s novel, Valiant, she flips the gender of the main protagonist. The novel is the retelling of The Brave Little Tailor, but the lead character is a girl—not a boy. She is currently working on a retelling of the Six Swans fairy tale, again switching up the parts.

Odessa’s protagonists are also usually girls. She works hard to make them confident and admitted, she often learns a great deal from her characters. M.E. said her characters are one way to present mental health issues and to remind girls there is nothing wrong with being feminine.

The subject of femininity brought forward a recent trend in YA fiction where the female characters are strong (a plus), but often have what are considered “male” traits and use “male” props such as weapons. Sarah pointed out this is easily seen in the character of Katniss in Hunger Games. The panelists discussed the evolution of female characters from just “crying” to “action”. Sarah pointed out that emotion is still useful and is best used as a turning point in the story.

Rebekah asked the question, “Do boys read works with female protagonists?” Sarah felt they would if it was presented to them in a positive light. Odessa said she reads quite a bit of romance and wished it wasn’t labelled as such. The label keeps boys from reading the books although she believes they are for everyone.

Rebekah commented that there seems to be a movement in YA for more diversity in both gender and color. However, diverse characters with diverse backgrounds can be a challenge for writers. Odessa’s writing incorporates the diversity organically. She said it is not planned and is a reflection of who each character is. M.E. likes to research to accurately represent the diversity of her characters. Sarah feels it means asking the right questions to create a world that is different from your own and in the end, comes down to good, solid writing.

Wrapping up the first half of the show, Rebekah asked the panelists which writers they liked. Odessa is inspired by the Robin LaFevers trilogy and M.E. said she feels nostalgic for the Junie B. Jones books. She can identify with her pickiness and sensory issues and still finds the books comforting. Sarah is drawn to the world-building of Terry Patchett and his amazing ability to catch and illustrate humanity even in a story of fantasy.

The full panel was available for a Q&A session that covered why it was important to write books for girls. The crowd was enthusiastic and kept the show lively and fun. July’s show, Novel Ways to Organize your Research, will feature an expert panel to discuss software, online and traditional paper storage, and offer tips to help writers best access information for their projects. Looking forward to it!

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