It is an honor to host Hannah Barnaby today, in celebration of the publication of her second book, Some of the Parts (Knopf). I am grateful that she shared a bit about this deeply personal book with us because what she shared has me really thinking.
On February 16th, I celebrated the release of my second young adult novel, Some of the Parts. A book birthday is a day spent feeling equally relieved (“It’s done! It’s really finished! I wrote the whole thing!”) and totally panicked (“What if no one buys it? What if everyone buys it and no one likes it? Should I just give up and work at Home Goods?”).
It can be especially difficult to take things in stride when a book is as deeply personal as this one is. The story of a girl grieving the loss of her older brother, Some of the Parts is based on my own experience with sibling loss and therefore letting everyone read it feels a lot like one of those dreams where you show up for your first day of school and realize that you’ve forgotten how to walk. Or speak. Or put on pants.
One of the first reader reviews of Some of the Parts took issue with the heroine’s treatment of her friends and family. The reader called Tallie “rude” and “unappreciative” of how her best friend was trying to help her. You might think I’d take offense at my beloved main character being described this way.
On the contrary, I took it as a compliment. I even did a little dance in my living room. Because I—a lifelong nice girl—had successfully created an Unlikeable Protagonist.
There has been much discussion of the U.P. in recent months, especially female ones. It seems clear that we hold boys and girls to very different standards, in fiction and in life, and that many readers get particularly bristly when they encounter a female main character who is difficult. Perhaps she is stand-offish or rude. Perhaps her style of narration keeps the reader at arm’s length. She has baggage. She is broken. She doesn’t love. She’s mean. And it’s okay if she starts out this way, but if she’s still like this at the end of the book? Unlikeable.
But how realistic is it to take a character who has suffered a devastating loss and fix her until she’s loveable again? For me, as a writer and a reader, the truest sign of a well-constructed character is that everything she says and chooses and puts into motion comes from her center—she has a controlling belief and she acts on it, and she will not change it to please others.
I like that kind of girl.
I may, in fact, try a little harder to be that kind of girl.
The truth is, I don’t find Tallie unlikeable at all (and many other readers have gotten along with her just fine). To me, she is simply a girl who’s still reeling from the loss of her beloved older brother and is struggling to act normal but can’t. I have sympathy for her because I’ve been her. At the same time, I can see—from the perspective of a reader who hasn’t been through Tallie’s experience—that she’s difficult to connect with. But, I submit: that is what reading is for, to give us the chance to try out connections with people who are different than we are, to give us practice in empathizing with those who are difficult to love. To try and understand each other better.
Hannah Barnaby is a former children’s book editor and bookseller, and was the inaugural children’s writer-in-residence at the Boston Public Library. Her debut novel, Wonder Show, was a Morris Award finalist in 2013. She lives in Charlottesville, VA with her family. You can find her online at www.hannahbarnaby.com and follow her on Twitter @hannahrbarnaby.