Authors aren’t supposed to read our own reviews. I learned my lesson the hard way after my first book came out — that reading a bad review is akin to lighting a match, marveling at the beauty of it, and then snuffing it out on my tender arm skin. It hurt, and while it wasn’t entirely unpleasant to marvel that a stranger was talking about me online, it wasn’t good for me. I didn’t stop reading them entirely, but every few months I’ll stop in and see what people are saying. That’s when I first learned about the “Wendy Problem.”
I have two YA fantasy trilogies: The Queen of Hearts series about Dinah, a bloodthirsty and rageful would-be-queen of the “off with their heads” fame, and Wendy Darling, which is about a considerate, sensible, sweet, and somewhat repressed girl from the Edwardian Era. The traits of Dinah (the Queen of Hearts) are the things that we love in our strong male characters: rage, martial-art skills, a warrior’s sensibility, and a desire for vengeance. I lost myself a little writing this character, and when it was time to start my second series, I longed for someone different — someone maternal and gentle, someone a lot like the women I know. And let’s be honest; I know a lot more women like Wendy than I do like Dinah. Dinah, you could have said, embodied my worst traits. Wendy then, was a projection of my best.
And so I wrote Wendy Darling. I wrote her kind. I wrote her faithful. I wrote her like a mother, protective over her younger brothers whose care is suddenly thrust upon her in feral Neverland. I wrote her in great juxtaposition to a charismatic but wicked Peter Pan. I loved her character, loved her goodness in the face of evil, loved her strength and desire to do the right thing. Samuel Smiles once said, “Sow a character, and you reap a destiny.” Through sowing Wendy’s goodness, I saw a grand destiny emerge.
I couldn’t be happier with my choice of character.
That’s when I started seeing comments here and there threaded through the conversations about Wendy Darling. Snippets like, “When is she going to pick up a sword?” or, “She’s such a weak girl. When will she fight?” or, “I’m waiting for Wendy the Warrior to arrive.” I was asked at a signing if Wendy was going to go toe-to-toe with Peter Pan at some point. I smiled kindly and said, “I hope not, because she would very quickly die.”
I have bad news for these readers. Wendy the Warrior will never be arriving. You will wait for her for an eternity. If you care only to read about someone who is marching across a country with an army at her back, a blazing sword in her hand, and a heart full of rage, pick up Queen of Hearts. You will be more than satisfied. There is blood and violence in abundance.
But if you are looking for a character whose mercy will define the fate of the world, who will put others before herself, and whose compass will always point just shy of North, then Wendy Darling of London is your girl. In my mind, you don’t need a sword (or a gun or an axe) to lead a revolution.
Your womanly power is ENOUGH, whether or not you can wield a weapon or have an assassin’s training.
So, readers, if you are looking for all your YA heroines to be warriors, I would say that your feminist leanings have left your protagonists crippled. See, to me the best thing about being a woman is that you can be whoever the hell you want. You want to be a bad-ass, slicing your way through a kingdom? Fine. We have a need for the Dinahs, the Katniss Everdeens, and the Tris Priors of the world.
But we should also be cautious about equating the worth of a character based on her physical, violent ability. Fantasy characters — and real women — are strong because they are women. They need not be brutes to change the world. A woman standing in front of Congress is as strong as a woman standing up to the bully of her child. A character can be sweet and kind and still be strong.
We need Hermiones.
We need Wendys.
And, I promise, we will watch her rise.
Colleen Oakes is the author of books for both teens and adults, including The Queen of Hearts saga and The Wendy Darling saga. She lives in North Denver with her husband and son and surrounds herself with the most lovely family and friends imaginable. When not writing or plotting new books, she can be found swimming, traveling, and totally immersing herself in nerdy pop culture. She is currently at work on her third YA fantasy series, a children’s book, and a stand-alone YA novel. The final installment in her Wendy Darling saga, Wendy Darling: Vol. 3: Shadow, hits shelves on July 18.