Utah author Shannon Hale on writing, faith and landing in the book-banning controversy

Author Shannon Hale can’t help but remark on how different the University of Utah’s campus looks now, compared to when she was a student.

Today, her eldest child is a student at the U. Back then, more than two decades and a successful writing career ago, her origins as a published author started on this campus.

“I spent more time in [the Marriott Library] when I was researching my first book,” Hale said, “than I did all the time that I was here going to school, because I was desperate for it. It was pre-internet.”

That book was “The Goose Girl” — the young adult fantasy book, inspired by a Grimm fairy tale, that Hale affectionately calls “her baby.” Hale celebrated the 20th anniversary of its publication in August.

Since then, she has written 42 books — children’s picture books, young adult tales, comic-book inspired works, novels for grown-ups and a multipart graphic memoir — aimed at audiences from small children to adults. She has even ventured into movies, partnering with Jerusha Hess (the co-writer of “Napoleon Dynamite”) to write a script adapting Hale’s comic novel “Austenland” into a 2013 film, directed by Hess and starring Keri Russell and Jennifer Coolidge.

In those 20 years, Hale has become a household name to readers in Utah and beyond. In her standing, the content of her work and, recently, the controversy accompanying it, she has become something like Utah’s version of Judy Blume.

Reflecting on her 20 years as an author, Hale said, “It is a moment where I have to step back and say, ‘Oh, I’m not new anymore.’ Certainly in writing, you never feel like, ‘Oh, I’ve got this figured out. I know how to write a book now.’

“You’re climbing, but the mountain is rolling underneath you,” she added, pantomiming a climber scrambling uphill, “and the rocks are dropping away constantly and you never stop the struggle. You never stop fighting for it.”

Hale, 49, has lived in Utah her entire life, raised in what she calls a “very orthodox LDS household.” She served a mission in Paraguay and was married in the temple. She remained an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for more than 40 years.

Utah has often inspired her books. The landscape setting of her “Princess Academy” fantasy series is based on the Wasatch Front. She starts the action in her science-fiction thriller “Dangerous” (2014) in Utah. Her comic novel “The Actor and the Housewife” (2009), she said, is the only fictional work she has written that’s about Utah itself. Her graphic memoir trilogy — “Real Friends” (2017), “Best Friends” (2019) and “Friends Forever” (2021) — is about growing up in Salt Lake City.

Belonging in two very different spheres, as a writer and as a Latter-day Saint, Hale said, has been an undercurrent in her books.

“I’ve always held this kind of place of tension between living in one absolute but also holding a second reality,” Hale said. “The tension between those two things is in everything that I write. The tension of being taught things that I needed to believe completely, but that part of me always felt uneasy about.”

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Shannon Hale holds a first edition of “The Goose Girl,” her first published work as an author, at her home in Daybreak on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023.

How she got here

In two decades, Hale said, her approach to writing has evolved. “I would say every single book I’ve written has had a different process.”

She said she has “made friends with outlining,” so she can problem-solve issues more easily before diving into the narrative.

It took Hale four years to write “The Goose Girl,” she said, and now she tends to write two books a year. And, with four kids, Hale said she grabs time to write whenever she can — 30 minutes here, 45 minutes there.

On her website, Hale wrote that she thought her dream of becoming an author was once “impossible” and, in a way, she said that rings true today.

Living her dream, though, “is tempered with the practicality of real life,” Hale said, noting that while being an author, she also is doing laundry and getting her kids to clean up after themselves.

“It doesn’t feel like living the dream in the middle of it,” she said, “but, nevertheless, I love what I do.”

Hale started writing fantasy stories at age 10. She said a lot of what she wrote as a young child reflected what she was reading then: “Nancy Drew” mysteries, C.S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia” and the books of fantasy author Robin McKinley.

“I’ve always been a storyteller, because before I was writing things down, I was making up stories,” Hale said. “I was a chronic daydreamer.”

While she said she loves writing for all ages, she especially enjoys producing works for fourth to sixth graders — because the books kids read at that stage are life-changing.

“[It’s] when you first start discovering the stories that help you make sense of the world, and start to figure out your own self,” she said. “It’s the way you interact with the stories you’re going through. This process of self-discovery, in a way, that’s foundational for the rest of your life.”

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Shannon Hale, a Utah-based author, holds a copy of her book “Itty-Bitty Kitty-Corn” and a stuffed animal of the main character at her home in Daybreak on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023. The book, telling a story of a pink kitten that wants to be a unicorn, has been placed on some banned books lists.

Modern-day challenges

Last year, ahead of Banned Books Week, Hale wrote an open letter, signed by 40 other Utah children’s book authors, decrying the “plague of book banning.”

As someone “deeply invested in the power of books and who cares deeply about children and teens,” she said, watching the rise of efforts to ban books has been “heartbreaking.”

“Suddenly people who have grown up being used to books being all about white, straight people are seeing something else: More representation of what’s actually out there,” Hale said last year. “And it’s making a lot of people afraid.”

Hale said her main reason for writing the letter was to “support librarians and teachers,” because “they’re out there on the front lines, and they’re receiving the brunt of it.”

This summer, according to the website LGBTQNation, a school district in Katy, Texas, near Houston, halted access to new library books over material one school board member called “sexually explicit.” One of the books at the center of the fight was Hale’s 2021 children’s picture book, “Itty-Bitty Kitty-Corn,” which is about a kitten that wants to be a unicorn.

The school board member reportedly texted that the “main character does want to transform into something they are obviously not.” (Another parent in the district posted a screenshot of the board member’s text on social media.) The board member also, inaccurately, wrote that Hale used a gender-neutral “they” pronoun for the kitten, who is clearly identified in the book as “she” and “her.”

Because of her anti-banning letter, Hale said, “I’ve been put on a lot of do-not-buy lists. … That affects my career, my ability to support my family. So I don’t like doing it, and I don’t get any advantage out of doing it. But I feel like I have to, because if you know that something’s important, and you know that kids are being hurt, you have to speak out.”

It’s not the first time Hale has been outspoken. She frequently has argued with teachers who separated boys from girls at her book readings, saying that boys should be able to listen to stories with girls as protagonists. In 2018, she criticized the FanX Salt Lake Comic Convention’s management over its tepid response to accusations that a prominent male author had touched a female author without her consent.

Hale said she doesn’t regret writing last year’s letter, and she tries to ensure every decision she makes — as an author, mother and person — is full of love and compassion.

“I’m in a place of privilege where, because of the years that I’ve been doing this, my voice has a certain weight — which, to be honest, still feels weird to me,” she said. “I don’t feel like my voice has weight, but people tell me that it does. So if I do have that, then I should be using it to support other people. I don’t know if it’s helped. I hope it has.”

The criticism is hardly new, she said, because she’s received critical emails for every book she has ever written.

“For the same book that I heard [criticism] from my fellow church members, I also heard from other fellow church members: ‘I’m so glad that you’re writing stuff that I can trust and feel safe sharing with my kids,’ or my grandma or whatever,” she said. “There’s not one universal response from any demographic.”

Parents, Hale said, should have the right to decide to opt out of having their children read whatever books they want. However, she added, the current censorship campaigns are “getting to the point where it’s just a fear-mongering tactic, and when people are afraid, they’re more easy to control.”

The state of the world — particularly where the content of books, and the banning of them, is concerned — weighs on her as she writes, she said. It’s daunting for all authors, particularly those who are queer or people of color, to be creating now.

“What will the audience think of this? Will I offend anybody? That’s always a question that you think about and you have to turn off, because it is paralyzing,” she said. “You cannot write anything, you cannot create anything, if you have to anticipate what the reaction of every single person who encounters that will be. … We cannot smooth it all out to be inoffensive to everybody.”

Hale added, “All you have to do is just try to keep being the best human you can be … because the human that you are affects what you write.”

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Various titles by Utah-based author Shannon Hale stand on a bookcase at her home in Daybreak on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023.

Thinking about the future

Looking toward the next 20 years, Hale said, jokingly, “I just hope that I don’t lose my job to A.I.” because she has “so many stories I want to tell.”

Asked about her greatest accomplishment to date, Hale said, “Sometimes, things were really hard. … Life at times is really hard, and I kept going.”

If it were all to go away, she said, “If the only thing I did was write ‘The Goose Girl,’ that would be enough.”

Hale said she recently had a mindful meditation experience, where “I had kind of a moment, where I saw the earlier versions of myself, as if I was looking at the bookshelf of all the books I’d written. … Would I throw away ‘The Goose Girl,’ because I didn’t know as much when I wrote it as I know now? No, I wouldn’t — it is precious and deserves to exist by itself.”

The meditation, Hale said, gave her writer brain a metaphor for “the earlier versions of myself, even if they’re different than who I am now, even if I think that I am more enlightened now and have experiences that have helped me become a better person, in some ways, than I used to be. [It] doesn’t mean that the earlier versions of me didn’t deserve to exist.”

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) A copy of Shannon Hale’s “Princess Academy” stands next to the Newbery Honor Book award it received at her home in Daybreak on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023.

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