for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations
I never saw this as a particular problem or even issue to be addressed. As the fans of mystery, dystopia, humor and fantasy can happily attest, subsets in the field of children’s books abound, and there are many ways to make readers happy. So writing books that appealed chiefly to girls didn’t seem like an issue to me.
So when I was tapped by an editor from Scholastic to write what eventually became The Bicycle Spy (Scholastic, 2016), I had already taken some tentative, baby steps across the gender line. Scholastic wanted a book about a 13-year-old boy who lives in the Southwest of France during World War II. His parents own the bakery in town. Unbeknownst to him, they are members of the French Resistance and he’s been delivering the messages that they have baked into loaves of bread. He’s also an avid cyclist and fan of the Tour de France—suspended during the war years—and bicycling was to play a major role in the story. And he had a new friend in school; when he learns the truth about her family, he is called on to help them escape. These were the bare bones—the rest was up to me.
To my surprise, I found the task less daunting and more exciting than I expected. I wanted to make my protagonist Marcel appealing and relatable, so I turned him into an unlikely hero: small for his age, bespectacled and the unhappy target of the class bully’s teasing and aggression. Marcel loses to his best friend in a game of chess, flubs the occasional answer in class and dreams constantly of being stronger, taller and faster—like the winners of the bicycle race he reveres. And yet, for all his flaws, he’s also shown to be brave, loyal and determined.
As Marcel’s story evolved in my mind, I realized I wanted it to include a female component, something that would appeal to girls as well as boys. And so I began to develop the character of Delphine Gillette, the new girl at school who loves cycling as much as he does and is revealed, midway through, to be Jewish. Her family has fled Paris and is hiding out in this small town, protected by the false papers her father has been able to procure. But when the Nazi presence intensifies, Marcel learns that the papers of the residents, particularly those newly arrived, are going to be scrutinized carefully. Delphine and her family are no longer safe. They will need to flee again and it is Marcel who is instrumental in the daring plot to help them find their way to freedom.
As I wrote, I tried to keep the concerns of both boys and girls balanced in mind. I knew that boys would like the suspense aspects of the story, the coded messages, and the workings of the Resistance movement, as well as the descriptions of both the occupying soldiers and the French gendarmes who supported them. I also made sure to include details about Marcel’s relationship to his parents—his mother’s worry and occasional tendency to nag, his father’s pride in his courage—as well as the push-and-pull with his school friends.
For the girl readers, I explored Delphine’s experiences as the new girl in town, her efforts to fit in and be liked, but also her spunk and her courage. I added references to the clothes she wore—because yes, girls do care—and her affection for her pet cat.
But as I got deeper and deeper into the story, I also began to notice a certain softening of gender lines and began to realize that the concerns of these two characters were more alike than different. They both loved cycling, worried about their place in the social pecking order, and had to deal with parental expectations. Both faced the awful upheavals of war and both feared an uncertain and potentially devastating future.I had started out believing that boys would relate to Marcel, and girls to Delphine; I came to see that each of these characters would have appeal for the other gender. It’s a revelation that I hope to carry with me when I approach my as-yet-unwritten next book. Writing for boys taught me something about writing for girls and I am glad to have discovered that that universe of fiction is far broader—and more inclusive—than I had formerly imagined.