The enemy is pink Lego

By Amy Reiwig, March 2015

Jordan Stratford’s feminist adventure story helps girls reboot their own reality.

I first met Salt Spring Island writer Jordan Stratford in 2011, when he organized the Victoria Steampunk Expo at Craigdarroch Castle. Nestled in the musician’s alcove, my brother and I were doing a theremin demo, awed at how Stratford, in his be-goggled top hat and mechanized wrist bracer, had wrangled a motley group of vendors, artists, performers and costumed patrons into this wondrous creation of a new-old, retro-futuristic world within the castle walls. 

That kind of synthesizing, creative vision which, in pure fun, forges alliances between times, people and possibilities is now playfully at work in Stratford’s new novel, The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency: the Case of the Missing Moonstone (Random House/Knopf, January 2015). It’s the first in a series of pro-math, pro-history, pro-science and pro-literature adventure-detective novels—with what he calls “a steampunk perfume”—for readers 8 to 12. 

Set in a slightly revised version of 1826, the book bends history to bring together 11-year-old Ada Byron (later Lovelace, who in real life became the world’s first computer programmer) and 14-year-old Mary Godwin (later Shelley, who became the world’s first science fiction writer with Frankenstein). While actually further apart in age, Stratford thought it would be more fun to have these two intellectual superstars meet and form a secret detective agency to catch clever criminals, in this case the thief of a treasure from the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, there is a lot of fun in the book as the girls use witty wordplay to trick guards at infamous Newgate Prison, get help on clandestine errands from a young Charles Dickens, learn about mesmerism, and chase down the perp in a giant balloon. Illustrations by Kelly Murphy bring them to playful life, freckles, wayward curls and all.

While the awkward Ada and sensitive Mary bring contrasting but complementary crime-fighting approaches—one based on intellect and the other on intuition and emotion—this is not a simple reimagining of Holmes and Watson as tween girls. A self-described feminist, Stratford has embedded the book with powerful lessons rooted in his respect for these real women and their cultural box-breaking. 

The 19th century is known for its restrictive rules for women, including on work and education. But after the French Revolution, “traditionalism was weakened and vulnerable,” Stratford tells me over coffee at the colourful Rock Salt café in Fulford Harbour. “And things that did not exist suddenly did exist”—things like the electric battery, the submarine, gas lighting, and steam-powered trains and boats. This climate, into which Stratford drops his young heroines, opened the door for new ideas about what people, including women, could achieve. 

Therefore, underlying the girls’ quirky escapades is a bedrock of values embodied by the third woman of the book, who doesn’t appear but lends the series its name: Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), viewed as the first great feminist treatise. (Wollestonecraft died giving birth to Mary.) When Ada and Mary first decide to fight crime after discovering newspapers—which was “like opening a hundred books at once”—Mary disappoints Ada, saying “Young ladies cannot be magistrates or on the constabulary.” Undeterred, Ada counters: “Your mum wrote that girls can do whatever…Education. Profession.” Mary at first argues her mother “wrote about how things ought to be, not how they are.” But a moment of reflection leads to the logical conclusion of: “How are things to be the way they ought, unless we make them so?” And so the adventure begins, not just of opening a secret detective agency but of rebooting their own reality—a key message for girls today as well.

The story behind the book also shows what people-power can achieve by taking an out-of-the-box approach. Originally funded through a Kickstarter campaign that blew away the original ask of a mere $4000 by raising over $90,000, the project obviously touched a public nerve. Stratford tells me his intent was simply to use the crowdfunding platform as a way of saying: “I’m doing this cool thing. This premise and these values are important to me. Who’s with me?” But the pledges and promotion kept going until he landed the kind of dream contract one just doesn’t hear about any more. 

A non-traditionalist of restless, agile mind, Stratford has previously published books on gnosticism and alchemy, as well as a steampunk e-book called Mechanicals (which he describes as the Crimean War with giant robots). But he believes this project received so much support from Joe and Jane Public—all the way to someone at the White House office of science and technology—because he tapped into real-life role models for girls in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) and created heroines who use math and science and invention not just to solve mysteries, but also to satisfy their own innate curiousity about the world. For instance, in trying to make a cannon for shooting socks, Ada discovers the dry fact that “force equals mass times acceleration” and she also realizes that such a fact can be interpreted alternately as “Oomph times zoom equals kaboom!”

While a fun rewrite of remarkable historical women, the characters reflect Stratford’s obvious affection and respect for what he calls “the tween girl energy going on in the back of my car.” The book is dedicated to a gaggle of very real Saltspring girls, including Stratford’s daughter Xoe, and Stratford wants to show today’s girls that, as he says, “they don’t have to wait” to do amazing things. Ada’s “small but determined” voice and Mary’s simple “Can” response to a moment of potential impossibility are subtle but important indicators of how young people can have real agency, and the book’s Latin epigraph De parvis grandis acervus erit means, we learn in the course of the crime-solving, “From small things, great things will come.”

This empowerment aims to help 21st-century girls struggling against their own obstacles of discrimination and preconceptions. “There seems to be this cloud of bullshit in today’s society that women still have to deal with,” Stratford laments. One example (aptly, where sci-fi and computers meet) is the recent phenomenon in which women denouncing sexism in video game culture are insulted, harassed and even receive death threats. By providing capable, brash characters who rely on their wits, friendships and a belief in fairness and justice, Stratford hopes today’s girls will feel freer to also buck societal boxes. “The enemy,” he says quite seriously, “is pink Lego.” 

As the father of three sons as well as a daughter, Stratford knows how sexism affects young men and therefore how valuable positive female role models are to boys as well in terms of changing perceptions. So despite media buzz largely focusing on what the series offers girls, Stratford emphasizes that the books are not limited to a gender-specific audience. Growing up in a house of sisters, he read whatever was lying around and didn’t distinguish between boys’ literature and girls’ literature. And he wants boys to know that some of the things they like—science fiction and computers—were pioneered by women. “If you’re a 12-year-old boy who likes Doctor Who, you wouldn’t have that without Mary,” he says. “Or you’re a middle school boy who likes Minecraft? You wouldn’t have that without Ada.” Basically, one of his girl-positive messages to boys is: “You like that cool shit? You wouldn’t have that cool shit without these girls."

So while it’s a funny, engaging read, this ultimately not-so-simple adventure story has a lot of reach. How far? Well, Stratford hopes it just might inspire resourceful young people—boys and girls—to bring their creative intelligence and technological savvy to perhaps the biggest adventure of all: saving the planet. “It’s time for big ideas,” he tells me. “It’s everybody in.” As the book’s dedication says: “I’m counting on you kiddos.” 

Writer and editor Amy Reiswig is somewhat saddened by how much of a fight women still have for equality and respect across the board and around the world and welcomes every positive step forward.