I recently had the following exchange with someone I was meeting for the first time.
Him: What do you do?
Me: I write books.
Him: Cool! What kind?
Me: Action, adventure, mystery type stuff. For kids. But they aren’t serious books. I mean, they’re for fun. Not deep. Not award winning. You know? That kind.
He smiled. Sure, he said.
I cannot count the number of times I’ve described what I do as ‘not serious’ or ‘just for fun’ or ‘fluff’. Really. So. Many. Times.
But hang on a minute. Can these fluffy, fun, not serious books (you know what I’m talking about here) matter on another level?
When I was ten years old, I saw the classic sci fi thriller Alien, on the big screen, in a theater. (there is a story behind WHY ten-year-old me was there in the first place but let’s save that for another day, shall we?) Alien has action, adventure, thrills, chills and good old fashioned jump scares. Almost forty years later, it’s still terrifying.
Now would anyone describe this movie as profound? As life changing? As deep? Well, maybe if you never got another decent night’s sleep again on account of the slimy creature with the giant fangs bursting out of that poor guy’s chest but otherwise, probably not.
But as little kid me watched outer space up on the screen, my universal expanded. The notion of what it meant to be female opened up in a very unexpected way. I had never seen or read or heard about anyone like this Ripley. She was bold, brave, smart and strong. She didn’t seem to care if her hair was frizzy. She wore no make-up. Her uniform was just like the rest of the crew. But most importantly, she was not paralyzed by fear, even when I knew she was scared. She pushed through self-doubt. She gave orders. She demanded others pay attention. She made plans. She took action. She risked certain death to save her cat!
At ten, I doubted everything about myself. I questioned how smart I was, how able, but here was this person shining a light on the potential of girls, mine, my best friends, my classmates, all of us. Suddenly, I was sure I’d go back for the cat, too.
Alien was not presented as a ‘serious’ movie. It was meant to entertain, to thrill, to scare. But it has turned out to be much more. I have carried Ripley into my fiction, all my lead characters sharing her DNA, from super spy Sally Sin in my adult work, to Abby Hunter and her friends in the Mrs. Smith’s Spy School series. Certainly, I hope to entertain. I hope readers turn the page, breathless to discover what happens next.
But beyond that, somewhere out there, I want a girl to think to herself, I can be bold and brave and in charge and smart and when things are scary, I will not give up. I will charge forward. And then, I want her to do exactly that.
Not fluff. Not just for fun. Very serious, indeed.
For other middle grade books with Ripley DNA, check out:
A Dash of Dragon & A Hint of Hydra (The Mystic Cooking Chronicles), by Heidi Lang and Kati Bartkowski
The Mad Wolf’s Daughter, by Diane Magras
Rules for Thieves & The Shadow Thieves, by Alexandra Ott
The Prisoner of Ice and Snow & Seeker of the Crown, by Ruth Lauren