I have always been very interested in why an author might begin writing. Why they choose to write to a certain demographic, why they choose to write a specific genre. Authors are people, just like the rest of us, which means they can be unpredictable. Their careers don’t have to make sense to us. Still, there are so many authors who I have wanted to walk up to and simply ask, “why?” Shannon Hale is one of those women.
When I was in middle-school, I read the brand-new Newbery Honor, Princess Academy. The cover art was a beautiful illustrated landscape. Unlike many other fantasies for young girls, there was not a ubiquitous brunette staring at you with a castle in the background. Instead there was a little chain of painted girls, nine of them holding hands on a ridge. The story lived up to the cover. The rocky landscape of Mount Eskel and the folksy culture of the village was unique. The story, in which the main character Miri did not win the prince or leave her village for the capital was engrossing. The Newbery Honor was an interesting win for Hale, who was so new to the scene, especially as the award had been going to increasingly “YA” type books, such as Kira-Kira and Criss Cross. For the next few years, Hale’s novels would be given to me as birthday and Christmas gifts… until they suddenly stopped.
Shannon Hale was born in Salt Lake City in 1974, where she lives to this day. She received her BA in English from the University of Utah, and her MA in Creative Writing from the University of Montana. A practicing Mormon, Hale did an 18 month missions trip to Paraguay between her degrees. During this time she reconnected with her future husband Dave Hale, who she began dating upon return from Paraguay. She knew she wanted to be a writer by the time she finished her Masters and by 2001 she was working on her first novel. She worked a day job while writing, and her debut novel The Goose Girl was rejected from nine publishers before Bloomsbury picked it up. The Goose Girl is the first of the Bayern novels, a fantasy series about elemental magic in an otherwise non-magical world, and the powers which can be ostracizing and dangerous. Hale’s advance on The Goose Girl was not large enough to quit working, so she continued to both write and work until she became pregnant with her first child. Quitting her day job to become a mom also allowed her the time to write, because while raising her two youngest children, Hale also published ten books.
To the outside world, Shannon Hale burst into the scene as an author. Bloomsbury, the publisher of Harry Potter, had recently opened an American office when they picked up Hale’s debut novel, looking for more fantasy for young readers. In just five years, between 2003 and 2009, Hale published the bulk of her body of work. She published the acclaimed Books of Bayern, the Newbery Princess Academy, and the Cybils winner, Book of a Thousand Days. In the earlier days of blogs, Hale kept a faithful blog for her fans, updating her website Squeetus on a regular basis. On the blog you could track the progress of her novels, hear funny stories about her children, or look at pictures of her husband on their most recent vacation. The openness and good humor of Shannon Hale on her blog definitely contributed to my interest in her as an author, and possibly to her success. I awaited each Book of Bayern with excitement, reading the snippets Hale posted to tease the story. You always knew what was coming next.
And for years there was something coming next. After publishing three successful novels for young girls, Hale dipped her toe into adult literature, starting with Austenland. You might know it from the 2013 film with Keri Russell and JJ Fields. Not many authors write for multiple ages at the same time, but Bloomsbury took a chance on her modern-but-old-timey romance, set in a Jane Austen themed resort. She followed this with the 2009 release The Actor and the Housewife, an even more “adult” book about an unhappy, pregnant woman who has an emotional affair with a celebrity. What is so strange to me about Hale’s books for older readers is how badly written they are compared to her books for children. Hale’s magnum opus Book of a Thousand Days, published in 2007, is a breathtaking story set in a magical medieval Mongolia, a great juxtaposition to the fantasy version of Europe we are so familiar with. This is a very good book. It is well written and unique, poetic, memorable. Austenland was published the same year, and despite its fun concept, its execution is sort of lame.
In 2008, when Hale was still on a roll, she published a graphic novel co-authored with her husband, Rapunzel’s Revenge, a retelling of the fairytale set in the American midwest, which was followed by a sequel Calamity Jack. After Hale’s last Book of Bayern came out, Forest Born in 2009, I stopped actively following her. She had no projects on the horizon, and understandably since she gave birth to twin girls in 2010. During that time the Austenland film was also in development, and she spent a lot of time consulting for the film. Hale stopped writing for a bit, and I grew older and I stopped looking for her name in bookstores.
Late last year I was browsing the kids section of Barnes and Noble and I saw her name on an Ever After High book. For those of you who don’t know, Ever After High is a very lame series with multiple contributing authors, based on a line of Mattel dolls which look like a mix between Barbie and Bratz. I was surprised she’d put her name on the series, so I did some quick Wikipedia research and I found that since 2010, when I assumed Hale had burned herself out, she had published two sequels to The Princess Academy, three Ever After High books, a young adult stand alone novel called Dangerous, a sequel to Austenland, and three picture books co-authored with her husband.
So Hale had not burned herself out after all. Or has she? Over the past few months I have investigated some of these projects. It’s not that she has done nothing of worth since 2010. It’s just that I don’t think it’s very good… when compared to what she accomplished in the past. Hale abandoned the world from her best efforts, The Books of Bayern, for some less ambitious projects. Saddest of all, all of her books were updated with new covers, leaving the gorgeous illustrations of Alison Jay behind for Ella Enchanted-esque jackets. So then I checked her blog to see what she had been up to outside of her writing. I found five years worth of thoughtful posts on diversity in books, on writing other cultures and non-white characters, on how to raise four children and write, on rape culture, on how to separate an author from their work, on how to write books for young boys. Hale may have stopped writing what I wanted from her, but she has not stopped contributing to the literary world through her website.
I can’t speak to how fulfilling Hale’s most recent publications have been for her. She has four children and a good deal with Bloomsbury. I can’t fault her for writing picture books. When I thought she had stopped writing, I definitely couldn’t fault her then either. She had done so much in such a short period of time. What I do find disappointing is that her recent books for young girls are not very original. Hale’s fantasy was challenging and new – just like The Goose Girl’s original dust jacket was breathtakingly different, so was the story of Ani, the girl who could speak to the wind. Seeing the mind behind The Goose Girl write Ever After High stories makes me want to ask, “why?”
I want Hale to be a driving force to revitalize stories for children. I want to make assumptions about her life or her art; I want to think that I can understand the choices she has made. But I can’t. Right now her blog is more interesting to me than the books she is publishing, and I don’t know how to reconcile that. I, of course, want more from her so I keep assuming she is selling herself short, but how can I know why Shannon Hale does anything she does? Who am I to even ask? When modern authors make themselves vulnerable to us through social media, we as readers become too demanding of them. It’s easy to think that I know Hale, that I can predict her career. But I can’t.
I don’t know why she wrote Austenland. I don’t know why she stopped writing, why she started again, or why her new books aren’t as good as her old ones. But despite any flaws, her body of work still covers a massive amount of ground. Austenland might be lackluster, but the fact that she published a YA novel about a woman obsessed with Mr Darcy the same year she published a Mongolian fairytale is pretty impressive. Few authors do that. Ever After High might seem like a bad career choice, but she went for it. She’s probably paid well for it. The sequels to Princess Academy were disappointing to me, but at least she’s still writing. Maybe the fault is partly on me for growing older while her target audience is younger than ever. I am very quick to judge authors when they are not doing exactly what I want them to do. I want them to cater to me till their death, to continue a good series forever, to put all else aside for me.
Hale is already a memorable name in fantasy. She has accomplished a lot in under twenty years, and whether she wants to give up writing or keep publishing picture books, she still is the woman who published ten new and unique stories in just six years, all while raising her family and keeping up a blog. And that’s a feat in and of itself.
Look at me. I have no children, have no published novels, and still can barely keep up a blog.
Sarah V Diehl