When Joy McCullough discovered Artemisia Gentileschi’s story, she was outraged.
“I reached my early 20s without having heard of this woman, who should be not only known as an artist, but a feminist icon,” says McCullough, who began researching the 17th-century Italian painter’s remarkable life when a passing reference caught her eye in Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride. “I was so outraged I hadn’t heard her story before that I had to write it—it had to be told.”
Gentileschi toiled in her father’s studio at a time when women were considered men’s property, painting countless works to which he signed his name. When she was sexually assaulted by a tutor he hired, she refused silence: The case went to court, and the perpetrator was banished from Rome. McCullough based her debut YA novel, Blood Water Paint,on transcripts from the trial. In 2018, it was nominated for a National Book Award.
“One of the reasons I wrote the book is to encourage people to tell their stories,” she says. “That doesn’t mean you have to bring charges against a rapist or tell everyone in your life. Sometimes telling your truth means telling it to yourself. Actually articulating what happened to you can begin so much healing...and you don’t know, when you tell your story, how you might be affecting someone who’s not able to tell theirs.”
That the stories of women and girls need to be told and deserve to be listened to is a guiding principle at Penguin Young Readers Group. In the spirit of sisterhood with Blood Water Paint, two hotly anticipated 2019 titles further illustrate the point: Laurie Halse Anderson’s SHOUT (March 12) and Stacey Lee’s The Downstairs Girl (Aug. 13). All three are ways of looking at the past that tend to a feminist future.
Like Blood Water Paint,Stacey Lee’s The Downstairs Girl is historical fiction. However, Lee’s heroine, Jo Kuan, didn’t actually walk the streets of Atlanta, Georgia, circa 1890: She emerged from the author’s imagination, based on intensive research of Chinese-Americans in the South.
“I had to think, what sort of education would she have had access to?” Lee says. “Probably not a lot. But then how would she have come by her American ways? That developed as I had her living under a print shop, where she would have been an eavesdropper....Then I had to think, How would this have happened? What sort of personality would’ve been able to live down there?”
Witty, buoyant, wise, Jo is a keen observer of human nature. Unjustly fired from a millinery job, the 17-year-old accepts a position as a lady’s maid to a privileged young white woman with a cheerless disposition. By night, however, she dons the hat of “Miss Sweetie,” an anonymous newspaper advice columnist whose bold missives become the talk of the town.
“When I was growing up, I was the shyest person in the room,” Lee says. “I sat in the back, I didn’t raise my hand. It was fear of judgment, but also being very introverted.
“The more you get knocked down and get back up,” she says, “the more you learn about your strengths—Jo had to have a sense of humor, which is really one of those underrated strengths, to survive—the stronger you become. Then you’re less afraid to share those pieces of you with the world. That’s been a journey in my life....Learn how to express yourself and, hopefully, one day you’ll have the ability to affect others.”
Both Lee and McCullough are inspired by Anderson, whose novel Speak, a 1999 National Book Award Finalist, launched a million conversations—and counting—about teenage sexual assault. Her latest, SHOUT,is a powerful and profound memoir in verse that guides readers through her childhood, the sexual assault that inspired Speak,the writing and publication of the novel, and all that came after.
“This book came from a place that I didn’t even know existed,” Anderson says of SHOUT. “Obviously, I’ve been talking about sexual violence and listening to survivors for two decades, and that’s a lot of people. My dad was a preacher, which was helpful; I had a great model of how you listen when people want to share their pain, and what an honor that is and what a responsibility that can be. So I’ve been doing that for a long time, and what I didn’t realize how deeply planted the seeds of…”
“It’s not that this is a book about pain,” she says. “I think this is a book about hope and my own journey and the journey of countless others. We’re tired of pain. We’re ready to move to hope. And I think that journey from pain to hope, you have to walk through fire for part of it, and that’s what this book expresses.”
SHOUT’s blazing hope is for equality, understanding, compassion, bravery, productive conversations, and creative solutions. As Anderson writes in “The Reckoning,” it’s for nothing less than:
the new seeds, planted deep and cared for,
[who] will grow into strong children
with kind hands and strong bodies and honorable
the first generation unscarred
that’s your loss
and our triumph
“It’s been exciting to see people moving toward the understanding that we need to reframe how we talk about bodies,” she says, “starting when our children are literally learning how to speak. We’re going to have a new crop of tiny humans, and we are going to do better by them, and they’ll do better by their children. We’ve got to play a long game here. The patriarchy’s been making it hard on everybody for way too long.”
Megan Labrise is a staff writer and co-host of the Fully Booked podcast. The photo above right of Stacey Lee is by Steven Cotton Photography and the photo above left of Joy McCullough is by John Ulman.