Recently Kate Messner wrote a moving and thoughtful post on gender, language, and responsibility in the Kid Lit World. As you know if you read the post, I witnessed the same events that she did, and have my own complicated reactions to them, which I will try to summarize below.

This is not the equality I was looking for.

Kate recounts a moment before the panel began when a librarian approached the group of panelists. She went around the circle telling each of us in gushing detail specific things she liked about our books. I was feeling pretty good. Then she got to Nate Ball and said, “You are hot. I heard you were hot.” And we all shifted uncomfortably.

I have a two year-old daughter and people often stop to tell her how cute/pretty/beautiful/sweet she is. I have taken to replying with things like, “Yes, and she’s also very smart.” Or, “Actually, she can be quite the devil” (because she can). I do this because I don’t want her to grow up thinking that the qualities that define girlhood are prettiness and sweetness. I wish I had said something similar in this instance, some joke or quip that would let Nate know that I valued his writing and his smarts more than his looks. Something that might let this librarian know that what she had said — albeit in a moment of giddy joy — was wildly inappropriate.

It felt a bit like a world turned upside down. How many times have women in the workplace complained that men are praised for their accomplishments while women must deal with remarks on their looks? As we bemoaned this, what we were looking for was not for men to experience this same discrimination, but rather that women would be valued for their work. As I thought about this more, I imagined the situation reversed in which an older man approached a young female writer and commented on how attractive she was. We would all recognize this as harrassment, wouldn’t we? What happened to Nate was not fair, and I am truly sorry that I did not intervene.

The ocean and the atmosphere

Now in regards to the more general attitiude post-panel, I need to say that I did not feel particularly overlooked. I got to talk about lobster rolls with a lovely Texas librarian, and I missed a lot of the ooh-ing and ah-ing. I head some of it, though. Morevover, the panel was aweseome. Shirley Duke was a terrific moderator. In addition to Kate and Nate we were joined by Wendy Mass, Suzanne Selfors, and Matt Kirby. Hearing how each of them approached their writing and research was a master class in writing. I want to make it clear that for me — as it was for Kate — this was an overwhelmingly positive experience.

Kate’s post pointed to a larger problem. When librarians gush over a male speaker,

   It sends a strong message to the people who put together panels for teachers and librarians: Teachers and librarians like panels with men. Cute young men are good. Bonus points if they are also funny and charming. And while many cute, young, charming, funny men are also darn good writers, the end result of filling panels with these men is that publishers are leaving out women who might be just as talented, funny, and smart. Words matter. When we gush over writers because they are men, when we say, “He’s just adorable!” what publishers hear is “Send us your men. We will buy their books.” And publishing is a business. So that is what happens. It is happening more and more often.

This is true. There are some egregious examples: Mega-Awesome Adventures led only by men, or a BookCon Blockbuster Kids Panel that includes, you guessed it, four men.

The problem is the more subtle cases. We are swimming in a sea of bias. When someone pulls out a fish to use as an example, as Kate has done, it is easy to explain away the problem in that particular case. After all, this was a science panel that included four female authors with two men, a ratio that more closely resembles the gender distribution in kid lit. And on this panel there was no talk of how these science books were so important because of the boys who would like to read them. Rather, both Kate and Nate talked about the importance of women in STEM fields. Finally, Nate, in addition to being a terrific writer, is an engaging speaker who was supremely gracious to his fellow panelists. So how can we blame the audience for focusing on him? What’s the real problem?

Similarly, Kelly Jensen has been pointing out problems with the New York Times bestseller lists, and how it has been dominated by one white man (John Green). John Green writes terrific books and engages with his readership online. There are reasons other than his gender that he is a bestseller. So what’s the problem?

The problem is not John Green. It is not Nate Ball. Male writers are our friends and our colleagues, and I have not met one who acts superior, sexist, or entitled. The problem is the ocean. The atmosphere. The pattern of consistently favoring male writers over female ones. So yes, when you pull one instance out of the pattern — when you’re holding that flopping fish in your hand — it can seem innocuous enough, and the person doing the pointing-out can face some push-back. But we have to keep drawing attention to these issues. We have to keep pulling out the fish and saying, “Here, here, look at this!” Librarians, teachers, writers, and publishers, we all need to take a step back and examine our choices, to ask ourselves if there’s a way to balance our world. We need to admit our own biases, and delve into their roots. Most importantly, we need to speak up, whether it is to defend a colleague or to demand equal representation.

The theme of this year’s Texas Library Association Conference was Lead Out Loud. Fitting, isn’t it? So I want to thank Kate Messner, Kelly Jensen, Laurel Snyder, Anne Ursu, and all the rest of the people in this community who are raising their voices and advocating for change.

Speaking Up, Finding Fish
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14 thoughts on “Speaking Up, Finding Fish

  • April 11, 2014 at 10:48 am

    Thank you, Megan – I feel like these are all the other thoughts I was having but failed to articulate well. This is a big conversation, on so many levels, and I am so glad that are having it. It is important not just for authors but for the kids – boys AND girls – for whom we’re writing.

  • April 11, 2014 at 11:03 am

    You’re right, it’s kind of hard to make the argument you are making about exclusion of women when the panel (including the moderator) is comprised of four women and two men. But it’s not like women are underrepresented in YA and children’s lit, whether as editors, writers, or readers. Attend the SCBWI national conference and you’ll see it’s 90% women. All those YA books being bought by adults? They’re largely women. 2014 Best Fiction for YAs? Rough count — 30 men, 60+ by women. Protagonists in these books? Haven’t read them all, but I’d bet dollars to cronuts that the majority are girls, because the vast majority of readers are female. That a writer like John Green is the writer of the moment? Ten years ago it was JK Rowling, and five years ago it was Suzanne Collins, and in the middle of all that it was Stephenie Meyer. So I ask…where’s the bias?

  • April 11, 2014 at 12:36 pm

    The bias, Anonymous, is that in an industry where more books are written by women (based, perhaps, on the fact that more submissions are sent by women, but you could check on that) we are seeing the books written by men promoted more heavily and therefore, selling more and winning more awards. You are right that some groups – TLA among them – are working hard to fix this. They are leading. But in other areas, the numbers tell a different story.

    The bias is here…in HarperCollins’ recent Class Act tours, which promoted the work of 23 men. And 6 women.

    The bias is here:

    And here:

    And the greater concern over this bias against women writers is that it translates into a bias against girl readers and sends them the powerful message that writing funny books/fantasy books/popular books is an area where only boys can find success. It’s the wrong message, and we need to stop sending it. We need to keep having these conversations.

  • April 11, 2014 at 12:57 pm

    Thanks for this terrific post. I’ve often felt the same way, but have hesitated to be vocal about it. Sometimes I feel that the depth in my writing goes unnoticed because people expect a novel written by a relatively young woman to be vacuous. I think that women writers are encouraged to have a bubbly public persona, rather than an intellectual one. I feel very frustrated at times, but reading about this really helps me feel less alone. Thanks again.

  • April 11, 2014 at 1:40 pm

    Thank you for this wonderful post. I can understand all of the criticism and discomfort you and others have expressed about a female librarian telling a male book author, “You are so hot.” No one would question the inappropriateness of a man saying this to a woman author, so there should be no doubt that it was equally inappropriate when the tables are turned.

    We are all human beings and we can have opinions about the attractiveness of our colleagues. But professional, respectful people keep these opinions to themselves. Not only does it invalidate their work, but it sends the message that physical attractiveness is more important than intelligence. As a librarian, I am offended and embarrassed by my colleague who appears to have no professionalism, sense of propriety, and basic manners. She has made us all appear like foolish, silly women, and I find that very objectionable.

    Thank you so much for your thoughts.

  • April 11, 2014 at 1:40 pm

    Sure, Anonymous, women write fiction, work in publishing, show up at SCBWI conferences, etc. But who gets the marketing dollars, the big fancy panels, the column inches, the recognition? Who gets taken seriously? Considering the sheer numbers of women in the YA/kidlit fields, women should also be headlining high-profile events and sweeping awards. And yet, they don’t. Take John Green. He’s a great guy, writes great stuff, but he doesn’t sell nearly as many books as Veronica Roth, Suzanne Collins, Cassandra Clare, JK Rowling. So why does his name dominate the NYT bestseller list? Why isn’t Veronica Roth the “savior of YA” as so many articles have called JG? (Actually, I think that title should go to Laurie Halse Anderson, whose novel SPEAK brought about a resurgence of interest in YA fifteen years ago). Megan’s point is that the work of women is consistently underrated by *everyone.*

  • April 11, 2014 at 1:43 pm

    I’ll quote the writer Mike Jung: “I don’t think the % of women in kidlit is a valid measure of bias. More women doesn’t equal more privilege for women.”

  • April 11, 2014 at 5:25 pm

    Amy this is heartbreaking to hear. It’s also interesting because as I ventured out into the career world, it was made clear that as a woman I should hide any bubbliness if I wanted to be taken seriously. But, on the other hand, don’t be so serious as to be a killjoy. It seems no matter how women behave, it isn’t right.

  • April 11, 2014 at 9:27 pm

    If a male panel moderator ever said to a female author, “You’re hot,” he’d get booed out of the auditorium and never eat lunch in this town again. Why didn’t the moderator here get booed for doing the same thing, but to a guy?

  • April 12, 2014 at 2:11 pm

    This was an excellent post. I do agree and I’ve heard these sort of comments many times. I was proud to moderate a panel of science-oriented people and it felt so good to be around others so passionate about the subject of science and their writing. It was a quality panel and I loved hearing everyone tell about the value of science in their individual books.

  • April 12, 2014 at 5:58 pm

    Just to be clear, the moderator was NOT the person who made these comments. The incident happened before the panel while Shirley was doing final preparations. Shirley was absolutely professional — prepared, enthusiastic, and terrific at guiding an amazing discussion. Thank you, Shirley!

  • April 12, 2014 at 7:09 pm

    As someone in the business a long time there are many men in our business who are sexist and entitled. Stop the myths, I could tell lots of not pretty stories. The men have not shown anything that I can see to stop this behavior towards them. In fact, it is used to get ahead. The women keep enabling it. I was at a library preview and one of the editors asked if we wanted to hear how handsome the illustrator was. I really don’t care and it puts the women at a sad disadvantage that editors with this mentality (editor was no spring chicken) are making choices of who gets published. This is a profession of those behind the scenes for good reason. I have no idea who is “hot”. Really, not the same photos I’m looking at. Just big egos and the silly women who disown their power to enable it.

  • April 13, 2014 at 8:44 am

    Glad that it was not the moderator. Sorry for the misreading. But the larger point remains. Fangirl-ish “Oh, you’re hot!” responses among audiences of women tend to get laughs, instead of boos. And I am not sure why that is.

  • April 13, 2014 at 10:37 am

    While I have never seen any egregious examples of men behaving badly, Anony, I don’t doubt that they exist. I would like to think that most men aren’t capitalizing on this sexism, but I don’t know if I’ve been in the publishing world long enough to make that judgement. I think in order for the men who want to do right to stop the behavior, they have to realize it exists. I suppose that is an example of entitlement, isn’t it? They are so used to being treated this way that they don’t even see it as a problem: it’s just the way it is. Just like I, as a white woman, need to recognize when my race is giving me an advantage. Thanks for chiming in with the reality check.

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