Author Caroline Paul was 13 when she decided she wanted to build her own pirate ship…out of milk cartons.
Inspired by an actual race in which sailing vessels were held afloat by said objects, she set out to do it herself. Paul collected the cartons over four months, cleaned them out, taped them together, and fashioned them into a raft, comprised of 167 milk cartons, 15 nails, and some plywood. The HMS Homogenized was born.
The vessel’s service was short-lived, ripped apart on its maiden voyage by river rapids, depositing Paul and her crew into the water. However, the experience had a lasting effect on the shy teenager.
“Our grand adventure had been cut short,” she writes in her latest book, The Gutsy Girl. “On the other hand, I had commanded a ship that I had fashioned with my own hands (with a lot of help from my dad), a ship that I had dreamed about and made real….How cool is that?”
In the book, subtitled Tales for Your Life of Ridiculous Adventure, Paul encourages girls to follow her lead in their own way: Get outside and get gutsy.
“I was at [an earlier book] reading where I read a story about one of my mishaps and misadventures,” she says from her San Francisco home. “Another writer, she was a mom, came up to me and said, ‘You know, you should write a book about your adventures for girls because they really need to hear it.’ I had finished my last book and I was casting about for something to do. It was sort of provident, it was perfect.”
The Gutsy Girl is part memoir, part adventure guide. Each chapter outlines one of Paul’s real-life exploits (“All of the stories are true,” she chuckles), from her attempt at setting the Guinness World Record for crawling, to trying to make the U.S. Olympic Luge Team (her nickname: Crash), to rafting in Siberia and climbing the Golden Gate Bridge. She clearly notes the latter is illegal, writing: “I’m not suggesting in any way that you too should live a life of bridge-climbing crime…You will read this story the way it should be read — as a lesson in managing fear and not as a blueprint for a life of crime.”
Building bravery and managing fear are critical for today’s girls, Paul notes.
“It’s vital because girls are not really given the language of bravery,” she says. “Boys are really taught to live within a paradigm of courage very, very early. Girls are taught to live within a paradigm of fear, and by that I mean I believe we teach them to approach life with fear, and that’s the predominant emotion. I don’t think that’s helpful. Fear doesn’t offer you tools in which to face a situation, it just tells you to run away.”
Paul, a former San Francisco firefighter (the 15th female firefighter ever hired in the 1,500-man department) — notes she is not diminishing the feeling.
“Fear is an important emotion,” she says. “I think people think I’m against fear and I’m really not. I just believe that a bravery paradigm is way more rewarding than a fear paradigm. That’s what the book’s about: giving the girls the vocabulary of bravery and the tools to start making decisions based on bravery instead of based on fear.”
Considering her adventurous resume, Paul, a Connecticut native, surprisingly says she grew up without a sense of derring-do.
“I was quite shy when I was a kid and pretty fearful of a lot of things. I have an identical twin; she was not afraid,” Paul notes. “She was very precocious and I was really intimidated by big kids and adults, being called on in school, whatever was under the bed. What I probably didn’t know consciously at the time is that bravery is learned, and that’s the point of the book. You can learn bravery. I did.”
Paul describes The Gutsy Girl, her fourth book, as “a bravery-in-the-outdoors book.”
“The great thing about the outdoors is that it’s this little training ground where everything is pretty obvious. The physical-ness is really important for girls. When they hit puberty they’re going to be facing these challenges of having to be pretty, having to be perfect, and having to be liked,” she notes. “I think outdoor adventure and understanding your own physical abilities and your own strengths is an antidote to that.”
Being outside — and outside of their comfort zone — is not only empowering for girls, “it’s fun,” Paul adds. “Kids love fun. When girls grow up, they don’t learn exhilaration because they mistake it for fear. Fear and exhilaration feel very much the same physically: the pounding heart, a little bit of sweat, a little nerves. So I think girls often decide not to do something because they think they’re afraid, and in fact what they are is exhilarated. That’s something you learn when you step outside your comfort zone a little bit and start practicing bravery.”
When Paul asks girls what’s the bravest thing they’ve done, their answer is usually followed by, “I really felt great afterward. I was scared initially, but I really felt great afterwards.”
“That’s what bravery offers you,” she notes.
In addition to Paul’s experiences, The Gutsy Girl outlines a variety of practical skills, such as how to change a bike tire, tie knots, recognize animal tracks, find water, and more. Each chapter also provides short profiles of female heroes and adventurers, as well as quotes on confidence, bravery, goals, and more.
“It’s all well and good to inspire kids with personal stories, I think that’s really important. I have 10 chapters of my own mishaps and misadventures, but I don’t like just using me as an example,” Paul says. “When I grew up, there were hardly any female role models, and the only one I knew was Amelia Earhart. But because she was the only one, she seemed like an exception to the rule. I didn’t think it was effective just to talk about my misadventures as lessons in bravery, so I added girl heroes and quotes from others to give it a lot of breadth so girls could see there’s a lot of role models out there.”
The social construct of a fearful, deferent female is no longer accurate, realistic, or useful to women today, Paul says. It works against them and will continue to do so against the next generation if girls are not equipped with the tools of bravery, fear-management, and self-confidence.
“Women used to be timid and deferent because it was the way we could survive and assist a country that didn’t protect us legally, culturally,” she notes. “Timidity and deference worked; it’s a way not to rile up the powers that be. That has been taught for a very long time in this country, but that is not relevant anymore. Now we are demanding a place at the table. We have a place at the table. We have laws that protect us now, and this fear paradigm is backfiring on us”