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5 Questions For ...

Shannon and Dean Hale

With the sixth "Princess in Black" book publishing this week, we talk with the creators about the crimefighter's origin and the dangers of labeling your daughter a girly-girl or a tomboy.

Illustration LeUyen Pham
Interview By John Brodie

Short of picking up my 9-year-old daughter after school with Taylor Swift in one hand and a Flour Shop cake in the other, interviewing "The Princess in Black" creators was a close second when it comes to Cool Dad Cred. Princess Magnolia entered our lives four years (and five books) ago, and she’s been just as faithful a bedtime companion for us as her trusty unicorn, Frimplepants, is for her. A perfect role-model, she's a princess who enjoys tea, karaoke jams and dresses, but when the monster alarm sounds, she changes into a Bat Girl-like avenger who dishes out “sparkle slams” to the baddies. Like the best children’s entertainment, the books have a subversive charm that will be familiar to fans of Roald Dahl or Bugs Bunny.

With “The Princess in Black and the Science Fair Scare” publishing this week, we decided to check in with Shannon and Dean Hale, the husband and wife team behind the series, who are also the parents to one son and three daughters.

1. Where did the initial idea of a princess who is also a crime fighter come from? Was it a eureka moment or was it the result of long hours filling out a legal pad?

SH: Eureka! When she was four years old, our daughter Maggie (aka Magnolia) was examining her favorite article of clothing: a multicolored, butterfly-covered skort. She pointed to each of the butterfly colors. "Pink is a girl color," she said. "And purple, and yellow, but not black."

"Girls can wear black," I said. "I wear black all the time."She looked at me as if to say, “You're not a girl. You're a mama.” I said, "Well, what about Batgirl?" sure I'd won the argument.

Maggie said, "Mama, princesses don't wear black."

All day I couldn't stop thinking about a princess who did wear black, and when Dean walked in the door after work, I yelled at him, "The Princess in Black!"

DH: And I said, “Of course! She’s a superhero! And she fights monsters!” because monsters and superheroes are awesome.

2. In your experience are most people either a girly-girl, Princess Magnolia-type or a kickass Princess in Black-type? Please explain.

SH: In my experience, girls and boys are complicated and interesting, have a lot of sides, and are constantly changing. Our daughters, for example, have loved dressing up in gowns and having tea, and they also loved picking up foam swords and battling monsters – often while still in dresses. Sometimes adults have the tendency to put labels on kids: "girly girl," "tomboy," etc., and that, in fact, can just limit them. I say, “Let them be their complicated selves!” Princess Magnolia likes fluffy pink dresses and princess parties, and she also likes putting on a cape and battling monsters. She doesn't have to choose.

"Humans are incredible, and children contain so many possibilities within them. I think the vastness of those possibilities sometimes confuse and frighten parents and adults."

DH: Exactly. Humans are incredible, and children contain so many possibilities within them. I think the vastness of those possibilities sometimes confuse and frighten parents and adults. It’s so much more comfortable to subtly push them into categories and limit those possibilities. I do it with my own kids. It’s easier to think about two kinds of people they might grow into rather than 2000. But that can be a disservice to the kid.

3. Having given readings and talks across a wide range of venues, from elementary schools to Comic-Con, have you noticed how boys and girls react differently to princesses? If so, why do you think that is? And what should both mothers and fathers do about it?

SH: At younger ages, both boys and girls can be interested in princesses. As they get older, and boys get teased, shamed and mocked for having any interest in anything to do with "girls," princesses often become a girl-only interest. This makes me sad. Inviting boys to also enjoy stories about girls — be they princesses or detectives or superheroes — is a great way for them to develop empathy for half of the human race.

DH: What she said. I think shaming is one of the most toxic things we do to each other, especially to children. Often, we (I) do it without realizing. It’s important for me to realize and communicate to others that having a preference for something is not a moral choice. Liking or not liking football, or Pokémon, or tea parties aren’t good or evil things. They are just things. Too often, especially as children, we try to create identity through what we aren’t, rather than what we are. And I feel like that creates instant conflict that doesn’t need to be there.

4. How did you two meet? How did you evolve from husband and wife to creative collaborators?

SH: We were both grown in a lab by the same mad genius, but he assured us that didn't technically make us siblings.

DH: Always with the lab! Don’t listen to her. She was born completely normally a full one year and three months after my instantiation. Shannon is a classic example of an above-average human being and I love her.

SH: Aw, I love you too, sweetie! Also, the rumor is that we were friends in high school and ended up marrying 11 years later. Our first collaborations were children; books came later.

5. How has parenting four children influenced your work? Can you give some specific examples of anecdotes or traits of theirs that have appeared in your characters?

SH: Well, our oldest daughter basically gave us the idea for “Princess in Black.” But besides that, they read our manuscripts, and we talk through story ideas with them. We love to involve them in our work.

DH: It’s like having an in-house focus group. Though I’m not entirely sure they are one hundred percent representative of the Standard Human Child.

SH: I blame the mad genius.

Shannon Hale is the New York Times best-selling author of over 25 children's and young adult novels, including the popular "Ever After High" series, the graphic novel memoir "Real Friends," and multiple award winners "The Goose Girl," "Book of a Thousand Days," and the Newbery Honor-recipient "Princess Academy." With her husband Dean Hale, she co-wrote the Eisner-nominated graphic novel "Rapunzel's Revenge," the illustrated chapter-book series "The Princess in Black," and two novels about Marvel's unbeatable superhero, Squirrel Girl. They live with their four children near Salt Lake City, Utah.