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Why I refused to change the main character of my book from a girl to a boy

As a kid, my funny voice was discouraged. I don’t want that to happen to other girls.

When I was asked if I had any interest in writing a middle grade book, I immediately said, “Yes, I do, and I want it to be about a funny girl.” I’d just read Mindy Kaling’s memoir, "Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?," where she talks about growing up as a “comedy nerd,” much like I had. I spent countless hours watching "The Carol Burnett Show" and "Laverne and Shirley," writing down jokes, and even checking out Erma Bombeck books from the library at age 10. I jumped at the chance to create a funny, awkward girl character, one whom I would have embraced as a kid.

Unfortunately, when my agent submitted my manuscript for "Ginger Mancino, Kid Comedian" to publishers, nobody bit. Not only did they not bite, the feedback we received was that they liked my writing, but they found Ginger to be “too annoying.” Too annoying? Maybe they’d never met a 12-year-old girl? Or at least one who said things like, “The soundtrack of my life used to be applause. Now it’s just a sad trombone. Wut wahhhh.” 

It was crushing, but even worse was when someone brought up the idea to change Ginger to a boy character. “It’d probably sell if you did that,” I was told. “Look at 'Diary of a Wimpy Kid.'”

Nope. No way was I going to do that.

When I set out to sell my new children's book, I struggled. I was told that if I changed the main character to a boy, instead of a girl, that might help.
When I set out to sell my new children's book, I struggled. I was told that if I changed the main character to a boy, instead of a girl, that might help.Courtesy Wendi Aarons

Here’s why: It took me a long time to develop my humor. I’ve now written satire and humor for publications like The New Yorker Shouts and Murmurs and McSweeney's Internet Tendency for many years, but I only started doing so in my 40s. My 40s. The funny voice I had as a kid took a long, boring 30-year vacation because, like a lot of women, I was more concerned about being nice and well behaved. Boys were the ones who got the laughs for acting up in class, or for doing crazy stunts in college. Men were the ones who got the TV writing fellowships like the one I tried to get in my 20s and didn’t, despite being told my scripts were some of the best submitted. And of course a mother should never crack jokes in PTO meetings, even though those are a veritable goldmine of material. I could do a tight 10-minute set just about sign-up sheets. 

As a kid, I was more concerned about being nice and well-behaved than being funny.
As a kid, I was more concerned about being nice and well-behaved than being funny.Courtesy Wendi Aarons

My funny voice that I’d buried finally came out the day I saw the condescending message “Have a Happy Period” on an Always maxi-pad, and decided to write a hilarious, satirical piece about it from the perspective of a middle-aged woman. The piece went viral. You’ve maybe even seen it. As the saying goes, “Don’t get mad, get funny,” and that’s exactly what I did. 

My friend Meredith Walker, co-founder of Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, tells today's girls what it took me decades to understand: “Humor helps you be more of yourself than you would be otherwise. When you can look at your own life and some of the less than perfect things that you have done; when you can look back and laugh at yourself, then maybe you can see yourself more honestly. Being able to laugh at your own life can keep you from the false belief that you have to be perfect. You never can be. Laughing at yourself is a good way to stop that undoable perfection project. That’s why having a sense of humor becomes a more humane way of looking at the world.”

Humor definitely helps me make sense of the world, and that’s why I’m so passionate about celebrating and nurturing it in girls. I started teaching kids’ comedy-writing camps in my hometown of Austin, Texas, a few years ago because I feel strongly that girls need their goofy natural voices nurtured so they don’t disappear after the tween years. And, my goodness, are these girls funny! One day I told an 8-year-old student to write something using the rule of threes and she came up with, “This summer I did a lot of things. I painted, I swam, I joined the Illuminati and forever isolated my parents … ” Thank goodness her parents weren’t actually isolated because they clearly knew their little comedic prodigy belonged in a humor-writing camp and not a poetry-writing one. 

Of course humor in boys needs to be nurtured, too, and they also need to know the rules of humor like the ones Ginger uses in my book. My two sons know to “punch up, not down” and to “never explain a joke,” but most importantly, they know if something they think is funny makes someone else sad, it’s not actually funny. 

After "Ginger Mancino, Kid Comedian" didn’t sell, it sat in a drawer for a couple of years, waiting to find a home. That home turned out to be a woman-owned independent bookstore’s new imprint, and I’m thrilled to say that Ginger finally steps into the spotlight and makes her worldwide debut on June 21, 2022. I’m excited for girls, boys and even parents, to read her story about being a washed-up comedian at 12 years old, and the heart and humor she uses to stay true to her comedic voice while fitting in at middle school. I’m hopeful that any funny kid who reads it will be inspired to not wait until they’re 40 to start sharing their humor with the world.