Geneva Anderson digs into art

Thinking Girl’s founding author Shirin Bridges creates books about princesses who’ve got more than landing a prince on their minds, at the 12th Annual Sonoma County Book Festival this Saturday, September 24, 2011

Award winning Bay Area author Shirin Bridges saw a need for some intelligently-written books about real-life princesses and started Goosebottom Books and published the “Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Real Princesses.” Bridges will at the 12th Annual Sonoma County Book Festival this Saturday at Santa Rosa’s Courthouse Square. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Ask almost any woman what she thinks of when she hears the word “princess” and you’re likely to get an earful.  I’m 50 and when I was a kid, the princess thing was mainly about reading story books, dressing up and waving a wand and dreaming about your prince.  While it wasn’t a very healthy message about female self-empowerment, it was fairly innocent.  Nowadays, “princess”  is an entirely different animal―it’s all about the princess diva who wears designer clothes and make-up and defines herself, and others, from the outside in…and, of course, still waits for her prince. (Disney Consumer Products Reports (DCP) in 2011 states that Disney Princess brand products are a $4 billion industry  all wrapped in seductive pink glitter, the new gold.)  And no matter how bohemian, liberal, feminist or hip a mother considers herself to be, there’s no guarantee that this baffling craze won’t strike a girl in their family.  What to do?   Enter award-winning Bay Area author Shirin Bridges, who observed her young niece coming off her Disney fixation and saw a niche for a new princess story done differently.  Last year, Bridges founded Goosebottom Books and self-published The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Real Princesses about six real-life princesses―Hatshepsut of Egypt (1500 BC), Artemisia of Caria (500 BC), Sorghaghtani of Mongolia (1200 AD), Qutlugh Terkan Khatun of Kirman (1300AD), Isabella of Castile (1400AD), and Nur Jahan of India (1600AD)―who led glamorous lives but also wielded power and had a lot more on their minds than hair and make-up. The six-book series, targeted to  9-13 year-old girls, employs a fun and lyrical story-telling style, a rich cultural backdrop and beautiful artwork including maps, historical artifacts and pen and watercolor illustrations by Albert Nguyen that help bring the stories to life.  The underlying goal is to fascinate girls with intriguing stories about real women, with loads of rich detail, that ignite a love of history and show girls that they can do it.  Bridges also recently completed a second series, The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Dastardly Dames,—which explores six women in history who were so powerful that they couldn’t be ignored and got labeled with terrible nicknames─ Cleopatra “Serpent of the Nile,” Agrippina “Atrocious and Ferocious,” Mary Tudor “Bloody Mary,” Catherine de’ Medici “The Black Queen,” Marie Antoinette “Madame Deficit,” and Cixi “The Dragon Empress.”   For this series, Bridges commissioned six different authors, all of them co-incidentally from the Bay Area, and the series is unified by the pen and watercolor illustrations of Peter Malone.

Bridges will be in Santa Rosa this Saturday at the 12th Annual Sonoma County Book Festival, signing books and greeting people and Goosebottom authors Mary Fisk Pack (of Santa Rosa) will read from Cleopatra “Serpent of the Nile” at 2:00 PM and Liz Hockinson (of Novato) will read from Marie Antoinette “Madame Deficit” at 2:45 PM, at the Peanuts Pavilion in Courthouse Square. 

I met Bridges last October at Goosebottom’s launch party at Books Inc.’s Opera Plaza store in San Francisco.  She sent me the six books in The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Real Princesses series and recently sent Agrippina “Atrocious and Ferocious” from The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Dastardly Dames.  I read them all and was enthralled.  Because I love history and art, I was especially impressed with their sumptuous design which packs in a lot of easy to digest contextual information. The Dastardly Dames series had special appeal to me because I have nieces who are now entering a period when they’re fixated on the dark side, and throwing some real life villains into that weird vampire-fantasy brew is a great idea.  I couldn’t wait to talk with Bridges about Thinking Girls and her future plans.  Here is our conversation:

Marie Antoinette "Madame Deficit" (2011) by Liz Hockinson tells the story of the young, pretty queen who is remembered for supposedly uttering, “Let them eat cake.” Marie Antoinette had fun and spent money on beautiful things, while her people starved. But was she as heartless as everyone believed?

 What was the special niche you were trying to fill with the series? 

Shirin Yim Bridges:  The stories had been in my head for years but the idea for the series came about when I saw that my niece, Tiegan, was growing older and out of that Disney princess fixation.  I said to her “Do you know there are many princesses in real-life who did really amazing things?”  And she wanted to know but when I went out to find books about them, there weren’t any.  That’s when I discovered that there was a huge gap in girls’ literature.

I get asked often if I consider these to be feminist books and I think that word means different things to different people but I do consider these “girl power” books.  There are many mothers out there who have an axe to grind with Disney, but the princess stories themselves existed long before Disney and they really do have shockingly bad messages for girls.  You have to be beautiful and you sit on your butt and wait for your prince who whisks you away and solves all your problems for you and it’s happily ever after.   This is the very antithesis of what we want to tell our girls these days. 

My generation is the first generation where it’s expected that you work.  For my mother, it was optional.  There are a lot of women out there who have benefitted from this new playing field but the literature has not kept up.  The children of these self-actualized women are still out there going for the old Disney princess route and that’s not really all we need to offer our kids.   One of the things that I want to say is “Girls can do it and girls have done it and in much tougher times─ all across the world, all throughout history and in all different cultures.”  Of course, girls can still be all wrapped up in this fascination with princesshood, which does seem to be innate.  My feeling was, if they’re so fascinated, let’s use that interest to expose them to much better examples of princesses who give them much better messages about what they can do for themselves.  These women made decisions that changed their own lives and actually changed history.   

I was successful with my first two books (Ruby’s Wish, one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Children’s Books of 2002, and The Umbrella Queen, named one of the Best Children’s Books of 2008 by TIMEmagazine).  Without any planning, my stories tended to be about girls who do things that people don’t expect them to do.   I decided to do something unexpected, too, and self-publish the series.  

Artemisia of Caria (2010) by Shirin Yim Bridges, founder of The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Real Princesses, tells the story of Artemisia I, the ruling Queen of Caria (500BC) who somehow managed to learn sailing and led a fleet of 72 ships to join the Persian Great King, Xerxes, in war against the Greeks. The Greeks were so intimidated by her that they offered a special 10,000 drachmae reward for her head.

You conceived the series in February 2010, and by October 2010, you had six done.  How did you achieve this?  Did you pick all six princesses at the same time and work on the stories simultaneously, using the same format to make the research more efficient” Or did you complete one and then move on to the next? 

Shirin Yim Bridges:   The stories had been ruminating in my head for a long time, but I actually researched about 12 stories simultaneously at the British Library.  My brother calls me a “power nerd” and I love history and I tend to get very immersed in my work.  Amy Novesky, our editor and my former editor with Ruby’s Wish, helped me with the final selection of women.  For example, Elizabeth I of England (the last Tudor queen of the “Elizabethan era”) seems an obvious choice.  If you want to find books for this age group, your best chance is with her as she’s also quite easy to find, so we left her off the list.  We wanted to make it more multicultural and to really focus on some interesting women who have not been written about in this way.

After that, it was a matter of establishing guidelines and sticking to them.  My work didn’t require much editing and the development of the series itself, the way it was styled, was a collaborative effort that worked so well because of the core team I had in place―I had worked with them all before― and we all agreed to work to schedule.  So we imposed the deadline-driven demands of journalism and advertising onto the process yet were still very attentive to quality. 

When other commanders were silent, Artemisia of Caria expressed her true opinion to the Persian Great King, Xerxes, and tried to discourage him from engaging in the Battle of Salamis, which he ultimately lost. "The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Real Princesses" tells stories of real-life princesses who made difficult decisions.

I grew up in the 1960’s and my exposure to stories about princesses was largely through fairy-tales, which were imaginary.  In writing the stories in your series, what responsibility did you feel to adhere to the true facts of these women’s lives?  Do you expose any of their errors in judgment?

Shirin Yim Bridges:  Absolutely.  Artemisia of Caria is an example that immediately comes to mind, one of my favorite princesses in the series.  She lived in ancient Greece and in that world, women were not even supposed to leave the house.  There were special women’s quarters on the second level of the house and, whether you were royal or common, you basically spent your life within this narrow confine.  Artemisia somehow taught herself to sail ships and not only did she sail ships but she also managed to lead a squadron and a navy, and she actually took a fleet to join the great king Xerxes in the Greco-Persian wars.  Herodotus writes there were over a million men there and she was the only woman that we know of and she was recognized as being the best admiral of the day.  Who isn’t inspired by that story? 

Do we expose their bad side?   In the war, Artemisia actually did something dicey, super dicey.  In order to get out of a tight spot, she actually rammed a ship and the ship was on her own side. The book poses the question to the kids―do you think she was doing a good thing by saving her men whom she sails with every day, or was she doing a bad thing by ramming people who expected her to be on their side and depended on her?  In such a large navy, she probably didn’t know the people she was ramming but she did know very well the people who she was trying to save.  Does this matter?  Where is that moral line and how is it drawn?  So, yes, there are good and bad parts exposed…these princesses are human.

Agrippina "Atrocious and Ferocious" (2011) by Shirin Yim Bridges, tells the gripping story of Roman empress Agrippina, a woman of power who amassed even more power through marriage to her uncle. When she demanded to treated with the same respect given the emperor, she was called haughty. She was later accused of poisoning her husband with mushrooms.

 In your new second series of books, Dastardly Dames, you chose to write just one book and had other authors write.  Who did you choose to write about and why?

Shirin Yim Bridges:   First, I have to tell you how underrepresented women are in biographies of historically significant people.   Women have played a huge role but just aren’t written about enough.   When I started thinking about doing this series, I knew that the audience of 9 to 13 year olds has this fascination with the dark side and we wanted to keep our books fun and not too moralizing or preachy.  The idea was to present women who wielded enough power in the past to actually be considered villains, at times when women were suppressed and basically ignored.  We got some feedback about the idea and were surprised about comments expressing concern about whether or not these women would be good role models.   We don’t do that with men—there’s plenty out there about Hitler, Stalin, Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun and on and on.   I was a little offended by the notion that only “good women” should be talked about and that made me want to the do the series even more.   The idea is to present some of the binds these women were in and let the readers evaluate some of their decisions, good and bad, so that they can start to think about what it really means to use power responsibly.  

I chose to write about Roman empress Agrippina.  She was actually the mother of the Emperor Nero, the sister of Emperor Caligula, and the wife of Emperor Claudius.  She had a very strong personality and was very bossy and demanded that she be treated with respect, the respect that was given to men of power, which angered a lot of people.  She was accsued of many horrible things, including several murders, but in the end, there was no conclusive  evidence.   One of the things that always struck me about her was that, whether she was good or bad,  was that she was a woman of amazing endurance.  At one point Nero tried to murder her by capsizing her boat and drowning her and she, in her long robes and all, managed to swim to shore and survive.  There were no gyms in those days either.  She was just amazing.  

Peter Malone’s illustrations for Agrippina "Atrocious and Ferocious" (2011) by Shirin Yim Bridges are lavish and the book’s graphics convey loads of information.

How did you pick the other five women authors who contributed to the Dastardly Dames series?

Shirin Yim Bridges:   We posted on Facebook.  Also, Amy Novesky, our editor, actually does a lot of workshops and she just knew a lot of writers because she used to be an editor at Chronicle Books and is incredibly well-connected.  We got applications from all over the country from which we made a short list.  And there were some amazing coincidences.  One of the first authors she picked happened to be my sister, Natasha Yim, a published children’s books author and playwright.  Believe me, there was no preferential treatment.  And then, we found that all of the writers we selected lived in Northern, California.

Any Sonoma County writers?

Shirin Yim Bridges:  Yes, Mary Fisk Pack, who wrote Cleopatra “Serpent of the Nile,” lives in Santa Rosa and she will be at the book festival.

How did you balance each author’s desire to craft the story in her own way with the demands of a series?   Did they write to a format to make it more uniform?

Shirin Yim Bridges:  We decided to keep the sidebars because they have been so popular―about what they wore and ate and that type of cultural context.  And the main narrative would be told in the same way.  

Artist Albert Nguyen (right) illustrator for “The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Real Princesses” created a real-life princess portrait of ARThound (Geneva Anderson) (left) depicting her as a working journalist (tape recorder and pen in hand) out on the town in her ball gown. Photo taken at Goosebottom Books’ launch party in October 2010 at Books, Inc. Opera Plaza, San Francisco. Photo: Susan Cohn

I like the illustrations in your books–the women are not “embellished” with big breasts and tiny waists and big hair.  Did you give your illustrators any instructions about how you wanted the women to be presented?

Shirin Yim Bridges:  The whole idea was not to defeat the purpose with illustrations that made these women look like fashion models or to go too much in the other direction either.  It was a balancing act, nothing was too idealized in the face or body.  Our idea is that each series will be tied together by one illustrator, and so Albert Nguyen did The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Real Princesses and Peter Malone did the Dastardly Dames series.

Do you have any plans for a third series?

Shirin Yim Bridges:  Yes, but we’re not planning to release that until 2013, and it’s currently under wraps.   I can tell you that, in 2012, we are planning to add two new titles to our existing series: in The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Real Princesses, Sacajawea of the Shoshone, by Natasha Yim, illustrated by Albert Nguyen, and in The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Dastardly Dames: Njinga “The Warrior Queen” by Janie Havemeyer,  illustrated by Peter Malone.

I understand that you also have a new children’s book coming out in 2012.

Shirin Yim Bridges:  My third book, Mary Wrightly So Politely, will be published in fall 2012 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  It’s a picture book about a little girl who has a small voice and how, in certain situations, she learns to make herself heard.  Like many kids out there, she’s shy and very very polite and soft spoken and she doesn’t want to disturb people around her.  She doesn’t change who she is but she learns how to speak up when she needs to.

September 23, 2011 Posted by | Book | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment