‘Troubled girls’ are the true heroines of Anne Ursu’s new novel
In “The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy,” girls question gender expectations in the magical land of Illyria.
By ary Quattlebaum,
Anne Ursu/ Photo by John J. Ursu; book cover/ HarperCollins/The Washington Post collage
Only boys can be sorcerers in “The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy,” a new middle-grade fantasy by Anne Ursu. In the land of Illyria, a few boys are carefully selected and trained each year to help fight dark magical forces.
Girls are expected to be obedient, tidy and cheerful.
The novel’s main character, 12-year-old Marya, has none of these traits. Her parents consider her stubborn and troublesome, and they dote on her capable older brother, Luka. As Luka prepares to be tested by the Sorcerers’ Guild, Marya must scrub the chicken coop and tend the family’s mischievous goat.
Does that sound fair? Yet no one in Illyria wonders about the different roles for boys and girls, men and women. The characters believe these different expectations help the kingdom stay safe and run smoothly.
But Ursu, the author, hopes young people will examine Illyria’s views — and those of their own society.
“Fantasy [stories] allow readers to ask a lot of questions about the real world,” she said by phone from her home in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
When Marya is taken to a boarding school for wayward girls, she and her new friends dig deeper into the school’s history. Who was its first “troubled” student, and why was she given this label?
To discover the truth, Marya and her friends must decode a secret language created by women and look for clues in tapestries, portraits and the library. But danger mounts as those in power seek to keep the truth buried.
As you read, watch for the occasional appearance of a cat named Dracul. Ursu included him as an affectionate tribute to her own cats, Bartleby and Petra, who entertained her as she wrote the novel (and who could be heard playing during the interview with the KidsPost reporter).
As a girl, author read fairy tales
Ursu draws connections between events in the book’s magical land and those of today in our country. It’s always important to ask who is creating works of history and who is telling a particular version of what’s happening, she said, whether in books, in the classroom or on the news.
“What are the stories that people in power tell and how does it benefit them?” she said. “What are the stories told about kids” — and the labels given to them?
When she was Marya’s age, Ursu felt a lot like her character, she said. She often struggled to fit society’s expectations for girls. As a kid, Ursu liked reading, especially fairy tales, and playing Star Wars and putting on puppet shows with her older brother.
“What were girls supposed to be like?” she said. “I couldn’t quite figure it out. I felt there was something wrong with me.”
At first, Marya doesn’t question her misfit status. She feels deeply ashamed, until she and the other Dragomir students slowly realize the lies behind the labels — and begin to own their personal power.
“Perhaps many kids can identify with Marya,” Ursu said. They might have been told they are troubled or lazy or behaving inappropriately.
And in following Marya’s story, they may, like her, find greater self-acceptance and freedom by challenging those old labels and expectations.
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Virtual events What: Anne Ursu talks about “The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy” with author Laura Ruby. Hosted by: Red Balloon Bookshop. When: Wednesday at 8 p.m. Eastern time. How much: Free, must register in advance at wapo.st/3Fwtu1y. Best for: Ages 8 and older. For more information: Visit redballoonbookshop.com. What: Ursu talks about her new novel with author Kelly Barnhill. Hosted by: Wild Rumpus. When: October 26 at 7 p.m. Eastern time. How much: Free, must register in advance at wildrumpusbooks.com/DragomirAcademyEvent. Best for: Ages 8 and older. For more information: wildrumpusbooks.com.